Explaining James Franco Explaining Shia LaBeouf: Why None of This Is Art

An expert on performance art weighs in on the weighty matter

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Shia LaBeouf attends the 'Nymphomaniac Volume I (long version)' premiere during 64th Berlinale International Film Festival at Berlinale Palast on Feb. 9, 2014 in Berlin

Even James Franco isn’t quite sure what’s up with Shia LaBeouf.

In a new op-ed piece for the New York Times, Franco draws on his own experience as an actor and fan of performance art to analyze LaBeouf’s “recent erratic behavior.” And though he endorses performance art as an outlet for frustrated celebs, he’s not certain that what’s going on is in fact a work of art or, if it is indeed art, that it’s being done all that well.

In case you missed it: LaBeouf’s controversies were set off in December, when he apologized for not crediting the inspiration for his short film; later, it was discovered that his apology was also lifted from another source — and that it wasn’t the first time he had apologized for plagiarism with another act of plagiarism, something he’s been doing for about a year now. In the last two months, he’s said on Twitter that the plagiarism and subsequent apologies were an act of performance art, and, after wearing a paper bag with the words “I am not famous anymore” over his head to the premiere of his movie Nymphomaniac: Volume 1, LaBeouf launched a gallery project that involved participants sitting across from him as he wore that paper bag and apologized for stuff. (Jerry O’Connell subsequently plagiarized that in a spoof exhibition.)

In the op-ed, Franco mentions his own decision to appear on General Hospital as “an effort to jar expectations of what a film actor does.” LaBeouf’s project, Franco writes, might be a similar effort to exert control over the distance between his private self and his persona by messing with the “feedback loop” of negative publicity:

Participating in this call and response is a kind of critique, a way to show up the media by allowing their oversize responses to essentially trivial actions to reveal the emptiness of their raison d’être. Believe me, this game of peek-a-boo can be very addictive.

He concludes by warning his fellow artist that it’s also important to be careful that you don’t use up the public’s goodwill. Franco implies that being “erratic” rather than clear in your intentions can make people stop thinking about what you have to say — and start speculating as to whether you’re just having a nervous breakdown.

(MOREShia LaBeouf Isn’t a Very Good Plagiarist, Says the Plagiarist He’s Been Plagiarizing)

But Franco’s not the only one who’s unclear about LaBeouf’s intentions: “I don’t understand what Shia LaBeouf is doing,” says Jennifer Doyle, a professor of contemporary art and performance at the University of California, Riverside. And for his part, Franco’s not much better.

“If Shia LaBeouf and James Franco get a bit of an eyeroll from the performance art community,” says Doyle, “it’s because they’re not doing anything new.”

Doyle points to Dave Chappelle as a counterpoint: when he walked away from his TV show, she says, he didn’t say it was a performance — but in rethinking his “performance practice,” he truly alienated the mainstream media. If Franco and LaBeouf did the same, Doyle says, they might damage their careers but it would be more compelling as art; instead, both are so focused on the meaning and implications of celebrity that their work exists inside a media bubble. (Franco, she acknowledges, has at least educated himself about the history and theory of performance.) In her view, rather than bringing avant-garde art practices to the mainstream, they’re merely imposing mainstream celebrity on the contemporary art world.

In short: While experimenting with performance art might be a nice way for them to deal with their own feelings about celebrity while entertaining their fans, it’s not yet worth examining as art for art’s sake.

And if all they’re doing is talking about what it’s like to be famous, Doyle has lots of other places to look for that. As she puts it, “I don’t think they’ve said anything about celebrity that’s more interesting that anything Britney Spears has said about celebrity.”