There are myriad reasons why people become artists—creative drive, fame/notoriety, money. Actually, that’s about it. But one reason not discussed all that often is simple boredom. The non-creative life can be a real drag, working a regular job, marrying a regular spouse in order to birth regular kids. Artistic endeavors, especially in this modern western culture, are just as much a product of the artist’s malaise/ennui/boredom as it is the demand of the public for such distractions from their own malaise/ennui/boredom.
Criminal endeavors often have this impetus as well. Those who have not are bored with the pedestrian lifestyle not-having tends to dictate, so they set about having in a way that’s not legally sanctioned, i.e. regular. Talk to any bank robber or car thief or second-story guy and chances are he/she will tell you that a large part of the appeal of a life of crime is the thrill of it all. Kicks, man. Kicks!
Danny Ocean, as portrayed by George Clooney in the second film version of Ocean’s Eleven, and his merry band are thieves, no question. And they are bored: when Danny visits Rusty Ryan, his second-in-command, Rusty’s teaching J.V. celebrities how to play poker. “God, I’m bored,” says Rusty. “You look bored,” Danny says. But are they artists?
When Reuben Tishkoff, one of the eponymous eleven, patiently relates to Danny and Rusty the three most “successful” robberies in the history of Las Vegas, the failed attempts he’s describing are all spur-of-the-moment grab-and-run jobs. They are all doomed to fail because there is simply no artistry involved. Danny’s plan involves eleven different guys, each applying a different, specialized skill, all pretty much at the same time. There is a massive amount of prep time involved, and though the actual robbery itself takes maybe a half an hour to commit, it is this preparation combined with eleven lifetimes of commitment to a craft that manifests itself in $160 million. If that isn’t creativity in action, then I don’t know what is.
This notion of criminal-as-artist is further underscored by the character of Terry Benedict, the ill-fated owner of the three casinos Danny and co. rob, brilliantly played by Andy Garcia. Benedict is the pure-bred businessman: every move on his part is calculated to bring him maximum profit. He keeps an active hand in all the business in his casinos, even going so far as to learn several foreign languages in order to better glad-hand the high rollers from around the world. But as Matt Damon’s character, Linus, describes him, Benedict is “a machine.” Never do we see in his countenance or demeanor anything to indicate he at all enjoys his success. Even an affectionate gesture towards his live-in ladyfriend, Tess, is stunted, for “in [his] hotel, someone is always watching,” and after all, a sign of affection could be interpreted as a sign of weakness.
But of course, it all comes down to Tess. As played by Julia Roberts, Tess has a distinct eye for artistry, being curator of the art museum Benedict has opened in one of his casinos. She is also the ex-wife of Danny Ocean, having angrily left him when he was arrested for an earlier and (it is to be guessed) less artistically successful caper. When Danny comes to visit, she vehemently swears her current loyalty to Benedict, who may not be as fun or funny as Danny Ocean, but he is stable, successful. When Danny asks her if Benedict makes her laugh, she says, “He doesn’t make me cry” (which shows Tess is almost as good at misdirection as her ex).
The practical part of Tess tells her that Danny Ocean is a liar and a thief, and that Terry Benedict is an upstanding citizen who has come by his wealth legally and above-board. But the artistic side of her, the curator in her, knows that while all of that may be true, none of it will make her happy. Beaming proudly at a Picasso on display at the museum, Tess asks Benedict if he likes it. Benedict ponders for a moment and says, “I like that you like it.” Tess keeps her smile, but her face falls just a bit, and we can see that Tess can see Benedict is all wrong for her. Benedict may wear the finest clothes and eat the finest foods, but he has no taste for the truly finest things.
When Danny Ocean creates his masterpiece, its aim is not only to relieve Benedict of a large fortune, but also to prove to Tess once and for all that Benedict cares only for his wealth, his empire. Danny gets Benedict to admit that his money is more important to him than Tess is, Benedict unaware that Tess is watching this exchange via security camera. Danny uses Benedict’s own casino security system—his own machinery, if you will—to show Tess that Benedict’s money may provide her with Picassos, but Benedict himself is unable to appreciate them or her. And so though Danny may be unstable, irregular, a liar and a thief, Tess leaves Benedict for him.
Because Danny Ocean is an artist.