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But is it art school?

A room full of students draw some conclusions about 'Art School Confidential'

''What is art?" asks a professor at the fictitious Strathmore Institute in the new movie ''Art School Confidential." A slide projector clicks. ''Is this art?" Click. ''Or this?" Click. ''Or this?" The answer isn't on the slides.

At a screening of the film in an Allston apartment, a room full of students start quietly laughing. The question is a standard one in the art world, and this audience should know -- they're all attending art schools.

The movie brings director Terry Zwigoff and screenwriter and graphic artist Daniel Clowes together again, this time to try and fully examine the inner and outer lives of aspiring artists. Their previous effort, the dark comedy ''Ghost World," had a sequence in an art class, and it involved tampons in teacups and doll parts thrown into toilets. Now such scenes have been given their own feature film, which is based on one of Clowes's shorter works.

If critics have been split over the merits of ''Art School Confidential," which opened Friday, it's the sharp satire and hyperbolic characters that stand out.

Acting on the time-honored principle of ''it takes one to know one," we asked eight art students, with concentrations including illustration, architecture, and graphic design, to screen the film and offer up their own critiques. Sometimes they didn't get the picture, while at other times, the film -- to use art school vernacular -- really spoke to them.

In an early scene, when ''Art School Confidential" protagonist Jerome (left) arrives at Strathmore, he's immediately surrounded by a motley crew including pierced Goths and earthy vegans.

''That is what it's like to go to the Museum School," said Ashley Nightingale, a post-baccalaureate student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Later in the film, Jerome's roommate tells him of the unfortunate fate met by an artist working on a performance piece involving jumper cables. The scene causes the collection of students to begin discussing their own run-ins with more out-there performers.

''I saw some guy attached to a pay phone somehow heckling people to throw mud at him," said Jane Michael Stallings, a senior bachelor of fine arts student at the SMFA.

Humorously presented or not, the film's archetypes weren't always received as warmly. When Jerome pays a visit to Jimmy, a way-past-his-prime Strathmore grad, he finds him drunk and living in a sleazy apartment near campus.

''It's an unfortunate continuation of the stereotype of the starving artist," said Alexia Mellor, also an SMFA post-baccalaureate student. ''When society takes that attitude toward art, it's detrimental to society. That stereotype is not accurate," she added.

One of the centerpieces of art-school life is ''the critique," when students are asked to judge one another's work. The students watching felt that the critiquing scenes in the movie -- during which some mediocre students are lauded and others burst into tears -- didn't portray the artistic process fairly.

Jess Lazarus, a junior at the Massachusetts College of Art, said she thought that the scenes would have been better if they'd leaned more toward realism. ''I don't feel like they really discussed the work," she said.

''The dynamic is much different," said Museum School junior and bachelor of fine arts candidate Whitney Weiss, who went on to explain about true life critiques. ''It's more about character and past work and nuances."

MassArt junior Joanna Derzius described the students' feedback for one another in the movie simply: ''They were really mean."

Unlike its portrayal in the film, critiquing is an experience most of the students said they find helpful -- more of a safety net rather than a firing squad. The film's satire aside, one participant in the screening group felt if there's an observation to be made, it's that real-life students are too gentle.

''For the most part, we're supportive of each other," said Kirsten Dolan, another MassArt junior. She also explained that beginners in particular are kinder to their peers. ''No one says anything bad because they'd be afraid to stifle creativity."

The central relationship in ''Art School Confidential" is between Jerome and a beautiful nude model named Audrey. He first encounters her when she models for his class and is immediately smitten, something the group found more than improbable.

''Especially going into a figure drawing session, it's a professional setting," Mellor explained. ''Not a nudie show."

The other circumstance that usually prevents artists from being attracted to their subjects is slightly more visually based.

Lazarus said many of her friends are ''frequently bitching" about the nude models being older folks with sagging parts and sour attitudes. Certainly not the blond bombshell featured in the film.

The students nodded in agreement with some of the intricacies of art-school life as portrayed in the film, particularly when Jerome's pal Bardo cites the refreshments as reason to go to a fellow student's opening.

''Everyone goes to the openings for the free food," Mellor said with a laugh.

The late nights depicted, usually ending with students getting kicked out of workspaces by campus security, were also familiar to the viewers, especially Stallings. She admitted printing photos in total darkness so security wouldn't notice she was still in the building.

Alex Matheus, a junior at MassArt and the group's only male, said he thought the film rendered Jerome's character -- as an artist and young man -- honestly.

''I can relate to him on so many levels," he said, citing Jerome's girl trouble as one striking similarity.

The treatment Jerome receives from his family, uneasy about the stability of his future, was another moment in the movie the students understood. Weiss said her family obsesses over what she's going to do to support herself after graduation; she came to the conclusion, half-jokingly, that the naysayers were resentful of her freedom.

''They're scared of it," Mellor added.

''Not me," said Derzius, a graphic designer who points out she chose her major for its practicality.

Prudence, however, isn't usually a characteristic associated with choosing a career in the art field.

As Professor Sandiford (played with self-absorbed charm by John Malkovich) points out, ''If you want to make money, you should drop out right now and go to banking school or to website school . . . anywhere but art school. Remember, only one out of a hundred of you will ever make a living as an artist."

It was one of the lines that resonated with everyone in the room.

Bobby Hankinson can be reached at

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