Film + Art

When does a film become art? And what’s the difference between film art and box office topping cinematic blockbusters? It's a tricky question that we do our best to answer in this latest feature.


There are as many different types of film out there as there are people, and the boundaries between traditional cinematic films and gallery-based film and video artworks are blurred. Film and video first became popular with artists in around 1960 and the American artist Andy Warhol was one of the first to explore the new medium, making both short, experimental films and full length feature films. Many artists have since experimented with this relatively new artistic medium. Some have even crossed the line, as Warhol did, from making art films to feature films – famous examples include Julian Schnabel, Sam Taylor Wood and Steve McQueen.

So how can we tell the difference between a movie and an artwork? Let's look at a few key themes:


Many feature films tend to follow a fairly predictable time slot of around two hours in which a storyline unfolds and is concluded, whereas with artist films anything goes.

From Psycho. 1960. USA. Directed and Produced by Alfred Hitchcock. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
© Douglas Gordon. Photography © Antonia Reeve. © Universal City Studios. From Psycho. 1960. USA. Directed and Produced by Alfred Hitchcock. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
24 Hour Pyscho (1993) - Douglas Gordon

Scottish artist Douglas Gordon created 24 Hour Psycho (1993), slowing down the famous Hitchcock film so it lasted a full 24 hours. He thereby turned the traditional, narrative role of film on its head, making it impossible to follow the storyline. On the other hand, Scottish animator Katy Dove’s moving image work is short, such as Luna (2004), which is under three minutes long. She combines hand drawn and collaged elements with ethereal soundtracks that explore repetitious voices and sounds.


Many movies we see in the cinema are made for large audiences and tend to be money generators, spending and making large profits. Artist films and videos are often (though not always) made for less, or even no money and appeal to niche audiences.

Ventriloquist Dummies Double Self-Portrait
© The Artists. Courtesy of The Artists
Ventriloquist Dummies Double Self-Portrait (2003) - Beagles and Ramsay

For example, the Scottish-based collaborative duo Beagles and Ramsay use video art to explore disguise and performance, as in Ventriloquist Dummies Double Self Portrait (2003) in which they are disguised as dummies against a simple curtain backdrop. They deliberately mimic the production of low budget movies in their work to create slapstick, tongue-in-cheek video art.


Films and videos in galleries generally lean further towards the unusual, offering a unique perspective rather than a formulaic, narrative path. Scottish artist Luke Fowler collages his own 16mm film footage with found, archival material to explore social and political subject matter in a non-linear fashion.

What You See Is Where You're At 2
© The Artist. Courtesy of The Artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow
What You See Is Where You're At (2001) - Luke Fowler

For example, What You See is Where You’re At (2001) explores the life of the controversial Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing, splicing together footage from documentaries, news and television programmes with his own film material to create a unique portrait of the man.

There's no easy answer to questions about the difference between film art and blockbuster movies. We'd love to know what you think! Why not join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter? And don't forget there's lots of opportunities to make up your own mind by going to see film art as part of GENERATION! The exhibitions shown on this page all contain examples of film-based art, including some of the examples mentioned above.

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