I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Who Says the Art World Isn’t Scary?: Roger Corman’s Classic, A Bucket of Blood.

by Caryn Coleman
July 22, 2015

If there’s a better satirical film on the art world than A Bucket of Blood (1959) then I certainly haven’t seen it (note: John Waters’ Pecker comes close). This playful jab at the beatnik artist types of the 1950s easily translates into the ridiculousness of contemporary art. Reportedly made by “King of the B-movies” Roger Corman for a mere $50k, A Bucket of Blood is a thoughtful and provoking look at the beginning of modern art as cultural phenomenon. It has a lot in common with the 1953 version of House of Wax (André De Toth) in its representation of the frustrated and revengeful artist, however, it moves beyond the artist as “individual” to cleverly mimic -- and mock -- the capriciousness of the art world as a whole. As Sarah Thornton writes in her enthnographic study Seven Days in the Art World, ‘It’s [the contemporary art world] structured around nebulous and often contradictory hierarchies of fame, credibility, imagined historical importance, institutional affiliation, education, perceived intelligence, wealth, and attributes such as the size of one’s collection.’ [1] More than fifty years after its release, the satire in A Bucket of Blood continues to be relevant, relatable, and totally hilarious.

Inside every artist is a madman!

Walter Paisley has the ability to recite word-for-word the rhetoric spouted off in the art gallery / coffee shop where he works, but has no tangible talent to become the famous artist he desires. He is an outsider amongst this approved group of artist outsiders; he’s the busboy, slow but eager, strange but sincere. He doesn’t even mean to kill his landlady’s cat, which he actually does in an attempt to save its life, but is somehow savvy enough to cover the corpse in clay to create the object d’art his own hands could never replicate. Even when he makes his second kill, a police officer charging him with drug possession in his own apartment, his honest claims of innocence somewhat justify smashing the guy's head open with a pan. Walter was only trying to make some pancakes after all.

After he debuts his second sculptural masterpiece Murdered Man, the aforementioned policeman, the accolades within the artist community solidify his newfound status and Walter’s ego takes control. He goes on to kill an annoying young woman (a self-proclaimed muse and sculptor) and then, at random, a sawmill worker. He realizes he has to kill in order to keep up appearances, retain his celebrated status, and continue artistic production.

Walter is drunk on power (and booze) and, thus, the inevitable downward spiral begins…he gets rejected by his love interest, Carla, and a horrified crowd finally discovers the bodies beneath the clay. Disillusioned and desperate, he unsuccessfully tries to kill Carla and retreats to his apartment where he covers himself in clay and hangs himself, falling victim to his own artistic practice. Walter’s ongoing pursuit fueled by artistic desire is what Deleuze would term “a process of becoming”. In Deleuze and Horror Film Anna Powells says, “Becoming is the movement of particles to form molecular assemblages in the mobilization of desire,” adding “Becomings themselves are traditionally positioned as the source of horror. For Deleuze, however, rather than the horror of an abject, polarized other, both beauty and terror are located in the transformative condition.” [2] While the Deleuzian argument is that becoming is durational and in a continual state of flux, Walter’s transformation has been completed. He has “become-art”.

Life is an obscure hobo bumming a ride on the omnibus of art - Maxwell H. Brock

A Bucket of Blood certainly pokes fun at what is considered visual art and laughs loudest at those who fall for its charms. No one in the art world escapes: artists, collectors, writers all indulge in whims of fancy and the control systems of taste. What is perhaps most interesting about the portrayal in Bucket of Blood is the juxtaposition of what was happening in the “real” and very serious art world at the time. This was the period when Abstract Expressionism, not realistic renderings, was finishing its reign with New York artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem deKooning and California artists like Clifford Still had just blasted away realism. Performances and happenings by Robert Morris, John Cage, Yves Klein and Allen Kaprow were starting to change artistic boundaries as well. Ironically, the release of Bucket of Blood sits right on the cusp of post-modernism and self-reflexivity of the 1960s and movements such as Arte Povera and Conceptualism (a new standard target for art mockery) were still on the horizon. Basically, modern art had already moved on from the Beat Generation days of Kerouac, but the world in which Corman depicts was very much fresh in the public’s memory.

A Bucket of Laughs

What makes A Bucket of Blood an enduring film is the implementation of humor amongst the fright. The seemingly mismatched yet absolutely symbiotic combination of humor and horror compliment each other when they collide (now a standard practice) in horror films. Noel Carroll, a theorist who explores emotional relationships and reactions to horror, says, “Ordinary concern for human injury is never far from our minds as we follow a horror fiction…In order to transform horror into laughter, the fearsomeness of the monster – its threat to human life – must be sublimated or hidden from our attention. Then we will laugh where we would otherwise scream.” [3]

Corman’s pointedly aimed jokes at the 1950s avant-garde art world therefore subvert the audience’s corporeal relationship to the horror shown, making us less on-edge and more able to enjoy the satire/horror experience. This horror-parody is a progressive state of being, making us laugh through and at art. It's crazy man and, like, totally far out.

[1] Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World (Great Britain: Granta Books, 2008), xii.
[2]Anna Powell, Deleuze and Horror Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 66 and 78.
[3] Noel Carroll, Beyond Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 254.

Caryn Coleman is an independent curator and writer living in Brooklyn whose curatorial practice explores the intersection of film and visual art with an obsessive focus on horror cinema’s influence on contemporary artists. This is the basis for her online writing project The Girl Who Knew Too Much and upcoming exhibition programming Contagious Allegories: horror cinema and contemporary art at the Vincent Price Art Museum in Los Angeles (2013) and The Art of Fear artist film screening at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn. She is currently the Curator for the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts ‘Art & Law’ Residency program and previously owned the gallery sixspace in Los Angeles (2002-2008) and Chicago (1998-2000). She has written for LUX, Rue Morgue, The Modernist, Art Review online, Beautiful Decay, L.A. Weekly, and art.blogging.la. Coleman received her MFA in Curating with distinction from Goldsmiths College in London.