The documentary”A Brief History of John Baldessari” is a short film that tries to imitate the experience of glancing at art pieces through the use of rapid cuts. “Brief History” is not trying to replicate the experience of contemplating a piece of art, of staring at an image until its meaning becomes clear. It only imitates that first impression, when we see something and mentally note “Oh, I like this.” or “What is that?” or “Gross, that’s ugly”. The shallowness of the film is both pervasive and heavily intentional.
The narration (provided by Tom Waits) uses very simple sentence structure and John Baldessari interrupts the narration frequently, but only with brief snippets of text. We don’t get any real hints about what Baldessari’s work means or why he’s doing the things that he does. We only get a glimpse at the artist’s studio and a hurried journey through his life history. The film is all style, no substance. This seems to be a major theme of Baldessari’s work, though it’s hard to really tell since his pieces move through the film so rapidly.
What does it mean when Baldessari says that he “will not make boring art”. He means that he will not make art that fails to leave an impression. The documentary feels the same way about its contents, it whats the audience to be stimulated by the film and doesn’t really care about making that stimulation one precise thing. There’s a definite absurd humor here, but we aren’t given time to really think about the contradictions that are being expressed or why we think that these contradictions are funny. The film is pleased to merely state that it exists and that John Baldessari also exists.