Sunday, June 10, 2018

Portia de Rossi and General Public

If you've been watching season five of Arrested Development, you may be wondering about Portia de Rossi. Despite her character being central to the plot of the season's arc (Lindsay Bluth is running for public office), she appears in only a handful of episodes, and almost always via an obvious green screen. Or under a blanket, even.

When series four debuted on Netflix in 2013, it was met with much criticism over the excessive use of green screen, and the fact that the characters were rarely all seen together, depriving audiences of the chemistry of their interplay. The writers and producers had tried to turn the limitations of the production from a liability into an advantage. The cast - all with increased profiles since the original three seasons - had conflicting schedules and so the season was written as a series of episodes (of varying lengths) each focusing on a single character. The confused timelines would eventually resolve themselves, and reward binge watchers. A joke would be set up early in the season, and pay off many episodes later (such as Tobias' license plate heralding his "new start" being revealed to read "ANUSTART").

The experiment was generally considered a failure and a few weeks prior to the release of season five, creator Mitch Hurowitz remixed the season as a kind of mea culpa. The episodes were recut in a more chronological order, and efforts were made to feature as much of the cast as possible in each episode. The remixed series was then presented as canon, and Netflix has made the originals more difficult to find on the site (under the "Trailers and More" section).

So why revert back to green screen for de Rossi's character?

The actress recently announced that she was retiring from acting in order to pursue "a business venture". It turns out that that business venture is the publication of artists' editions.

de Rossi, reportedly an art lover and collector, announced that she wishes to “cut out the middleman, democratize art, and empower the artist.” Her new company, General Public, aims to use the new technology of 3D printing to offer "paintings" that capture the texture and brushwork of the original, in unlimited editions. The Synograph™, a state-of-the-art scanner and printer, will be used to create works that will be priced between five hundred and five-thousand dollars.

The "democratization" (a key phrase in the early days of artists' multiples and editions) seems to be the elimination of the gallery. The gallerist - someone who develops long-term relationships with an artist and nurtures and supports their practice - is viewed as the "middleman" to be "cut out". The romanticization of the artist often results in the gallerist portrayed as the exploitative capitalist, despite having to pay rent, renovations, salaries, printing and mailing costs, food and alcohol at the opening, and countless other expenses associated with operating a commercial gallery.

de Rossi's "empowerment" of the artist would, presumably, lie in the royalty rate. Gallerists typically take 50% of the sales price, which is on the lower side of fair given their costs (and the fact that unlike the artists they represent they rarely qualify for grants, can't accept teaching positions, or jobs on installation crews, etc. etc.).

General Public takes 95%. The artist gets a royalty of just five per cent. Less if the work is sold through wholesalers. At an average price of a thousand dollars, artists will earn fifty dollars, at most, for each 'unit' sold. Unless very, very lucky, it seems unlikely that artists will earn enough to pay back the return shipping costs of sending their painting to General Public to be scanned.

I'm sure de Rossi (and her wife, Ellen DeGeneres) have access to some very wealthy friends, and maybe some of them will be introduced to contemporary art this way. But I suspect they are less a client base than a funding model.

I'm reminded of Neil Young's Pono Player, the already-abandoned high-definition alternative to the iPod/iPhone. The company failed to find a consumer base to fleece, but met their kickstarter goal in an afternoon. All on the back of having a superstar musician involved.

Whether a TV star has much pull as a musical icon, and whether there is an audience for high-resolution reproductions of paintings remains to be seen, but I'm guessing that if Jeffrey Tambor's scandals don't prevent Arrested Development from returning for a sixth season, de Rossi will be more available than ever to participate.

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