The Art of Fear: A Bucket of Blood

Who says the art world isn’t scary? The Art of Fear takes on Roger Corman’s classic A Bucket of Blood.

If there’s a better satirical film on the art world than A Bucket of Blood (1959) then I certainly haven’t seen it (Pecker and Untitled come close-ish). Corman’s hilarious jab at the beatnik artist types of the 1950s easily translates into the ridiculousness of today’s contemporary art world. Though made by the ‘King of B-movies’ and reportedly made for a mere $50k, A Bucket of Blood is a thoughtful and provoking look at the beginning of contemporary art as cultural phenomenon. It owes a lot to House of Wax in its relationship to revenge and the frustrating experience of creating artwork whether the artist is deformed as in House of Wax or without talent as in A Bucket of Blood. However, it quite cleverly mimics the capriciousness of the art world. 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 is still relevant and relatable.

Inside every artist is a madman!

Walter Paisley has a Rain Man-like ability to accurately recite artistic rhetoric spouted off in the coffee shop but no tangible talent to become the famous artist he desires. He is an outsider amongst this classified group of artist outsiders; he’s the busboy, slow but eager, strange but sincere. He doesn’t even intend to kill his landlady’s cat, which he actually does in an attempt to save its life, but is still savvy enough to figure out that by covering the corpse in clay he could create the life-like object d’art his hands could never produce. Even when he makes his second kill, this time a police officer charging him with drug possession in his own apartment, his true 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 his debut of Murdered Man, the accolades solidify his new standing within the artistic community and Walter’s ego starts to take over. He goes on to kill an admittedly annoying young woman (a self-proclaimed muse and sculptor) and a sawmill worker (he needed a bust). With all this intentional murdering to keep artistic production moving, he really hasn’t thought too far ahead. I mean killing people within your own social circle tends to raise a few suspicions. And indeed, café/gallery proprietor Leonard discovers the source of Walter’s newfound talent after dropping the cat onto the floor (how professional) but is either too scared or too greedy to say anything. It’s only when too many have died that he sets Walter up through the guise of hosting his solo exhibition of ‘masterpieces’.

And so the inevitable downward spiral begins…Walter is drunk on booze and power, Carla rejects his marriage proposal, and the crowd realizes there are bodies beneath the clay. After an attempt to kill Carla, he retreats to his apartment where he covers himself in clay and hangs himself, falling victim to his own artist practice. In his ongoing pursuit fueled by artistic desire, Walter is what Deleuze would term ‘a process of becoming’. In her book 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] Though Deleuze would argue 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 to be art and laughs loudest at those who fall for its charms. No one in the art world escapes: artists, collectors, writers have all drank the proverbial Kool Aid to indulge in whims of fancy and the control systems of taste. Of course what’s funniest about this portrayal is considering what was occurring in the concurrent ‘real’ and very serious art world at the time. This was the time when Abstract Expressionism, not realistic renderings, was finishing its reign with New York artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem deKooning having 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.

What makes A Bucket of Blood effective to this day is obviously its use of humour. The seemingly mismatched combination of humour and horror compliment each other when colliding in horror films. Noel Carroll, a theorist who explores emotional relationships/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 sublated or hidden from our attention. Then we will laugh where we would otherwise scream.” [3] Corman’s humorous jabs 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.

Be sure to check out previous Art of Fear entries: The Art of Fear: Picture of Dorian Gray and The Art of Fear: The Fall of the House of Usher

[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.