Fran Lebowitz, the New York author known for her searing commentaries on city living, has always had a way with words, especially when it comes to the art world. Fittingly, her mordantly funny voice animates Pretend It’s a City, a new Netflix series in which she stars. Made in collaboration with filmmaker Martin Scorsese, the project offers a nostalgic look at pre-pandemic New York.
The seven-part series is Scorsese’s second joint venture with the writer, following his 2010 documentary on the writer, Public Speaking. His latest project features footage of Lebowitz doing private interviews, public talks at old school New York venues, and walks through the city. All the while, she narrates episodes from her life while also offering wry musings on New York’s ongoing transformation. “Judging is my profession,” she explains early on.
Filmed before the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, the series acts as a summation of topics Lebowitz has covered throughout her writing career. There are segments on transportation, books, money, and, naturally, art, which is itself given a good deal of screentime. At various points, Lebowitz walks through the Queens Museum’s famed New York City panorama—a 9,335-square-foot architectural model of the city’s skyline across the five boroughs.
Who better to talk about the city’s art world than Lebowitz? Her ties to the New York scene run deep. She got her start at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine in the early 1970s, later publishing her sharp commentary on urban life in the tomes Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981). In addition to the Pop artist, photographers Peter Hujar and Robert Mapplethorpe counted among her close friends. She’s an authority on the city’s ever-morphing art community, and in Pretend It’s a City, she’s here to show it.
An entire episode titled “Cultural Affairs” is given over to Lebowitz’s frustrations over the arts. The episode opens with a reference to the 2018 Supreme Court decision on Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which sided with a Christian baker for refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple in the name of artistic expression. “I have news for you Mr. Baker,” Lebowitz says. “If you can eat it, it’s not art.”
Later, Scorsese asks Lebowitz which art form she thinks is the most wanting. Her response: “Which has the most opportunity for chicanery? I would say the visual arts.”
From there, Scorsese cuts to the dramatic 2015 sale of Pablo Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) at Christie’s New York. Archival footage shows the house’s veteran auctioneer Jussi Pylkannen calling out the hammer price of $160 million, which at the time marked a world auction record. What fascinates Lebowitz is the fanfare surrounding that sale. When the painting was trotted out, there was little reaction, but as soon as the canvas sold, the crowd clapped profusely. “We live in a world where they applaud the price, not the Picasso,” Lebowitz says.
Her sentiment is hardly new—it’s part of a broader lamentation voiced by many that high-value art auctions have become a linchpin in New York’s cultural scene. The silence Lebowitz is referring to is, indeed, a purposeful feature of the auction theatre. Meant to create and break tension, the pause when a lot is displayed before bidding begins is done so in a liminal space—a reminder that the marketplace is not a museum. Lebowitz describes the spectacle of it all as offering a sentiment similar to: “Aren’t you good at buying?”
The auction digression speaks to the series’ sense that New York is now run largely by the ultra-wealthy—and that the elites’ indulgence in the arts is particularly gaudy. “Now people talk about money all the time,” Lebowitz says. “They think it’s a riveting topic, which it is not.”
Lighter musings about art abound, too. For Lebowitz, smoking real cigarettes is important—as opposed to e-cigarrettes—arguing that the act of consuming them has long contributed to the artistic process. She recalls when New York law changed in 2003 under former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who banned smoking indoors. What Picasso would have missed, had he been forced to get up and go outside to smoke? “Hanging around is very important,” she says. “Do you know what artists sitting around talking and smoking and drinking is? It’s called the history of art.”
Picasso comes up again in Lebowitz’s remarks. In an old interview clip, she’s shown arguing with Spike Lee about whether or not Michael Jordan is as large a cultural figure as the painter.
Elsewhere, the writer flashes ties to art world elites. She shows off a pair of vintage gold Alexander Calder cufflinks, loaned to her by the artist’s grandson Sandy Rower. (Although the value is not mentioned, a similar pair of gold plated brass Calder cufflinks sold at Sotheby’s in 2010 sold for $31,250.) Explaining that Calder was a prolific jewelry maker, she recalls the impactful Met exhibition “Calder Jewelry” staged in 2008. She reminisces about the show at one of the city’s key institutions in the way only a longtime New Yorker could.
She also finds a lot to be angry about—in particular the subway and its use as a venue for public art projects. She recounts how her station once closed for five months. As it was about to temporarily shutter, she discovered what the months-long renovation would entail. “And at the bottom of this list—I am not making this up…. The last sentence was: ‘art installation,’” she says. When it reopened, she found out that in-lieu of needed improvements to the stations functionality, William Wegman’s deadpan mosaic murals of dogs posed as humans, commissioned by the MTA Arts & Design program—”which I’m guessing I paying for,” she quips—had been installed.
“Do you think this is essential to the lifeblood of New York, that we have these dogs in the subway station?” she asks Scorsese.
“Maybe they’re thinking it’s for the spirit,” he responds.
She counters: “No one in the subway system has any spirit left—they’ve beaten it out of us.”