The Best Art Documentaries on Netflix

Design Lists Art Documentaries
The Best Art Documentaries on Netflix

Thanks to cult favorites like Making a Murderer and Chef’s Table, Netflix continues to be one of the best resources for binge-worthy documentaries. It’s also great for streaming art documentaries. With a selection of art-fueled cultural commentaries and eye-opening introductions to the leading design innovators of today, Netflix will take you on a journey through the experiences of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, as he builds of an explosive ladder into the heavens, or into the arts program at a prison in Australia. These are the best art documentaries now on Netflix.

1. The Art of Incarceration

Year: 2021
Director: Alex Siddons

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The Art of Incarceration documents an art program at Fulham Correctional Center, showcasing the art (primarily paintings) of then-incarcerated or recently released Indigenous Australian men. Directed, written and produced by Alex Siddons, the 81-minute Netflix documentary discusses disparities in the carceral system in Australia, shedding light on the material condition of Australian racial dynamics while closely examining the lives of some men that have found an emotional outlet and a deeper connection to their cultural identities through art. It’s insightful and concise, though its split focus between incarcerated individuals and judicial disparities somehow sidesteps analyzing general prison conditions. The peek into the lives of those touched by the Torch’s Statewide Indigenous Arts in Prison and Community program is nonetheless enlightening. “Uncle Jack” Charles, an Australian Indigenous elder, activist and performer, introduces the statistics that contextualize the film. These are numbers from 2017 showing that, while Australians with Indigenous ancestry account for less than 3% of the country’s population, they make up 27% of incarcerated adults and 55% of incarcerated youth. This is a documentary that will break your heart but also give moments to smile amid a lot of insight. The artwork on display is phenomenal, and as a snapshot of human beings using art to express themselves and connect to their cultures, The Art of Incarceration is a triumph. Kevin Fox, Jr.

2. Abstract: The Art of Design

Year: 2017-2019
Directors: Morgan Neville, Brian Oakes, Richard Press, Sarina Roma, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

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Abstract: The Art of Design is a Netflix original docu-series that takes a sort of “Chef’s Table”-style approach to the everyday objects and structures in our lives—from the artist’s perspective. Featuring a few of the most innovative leaders in design, including New York-based illustrator Christoph Niemann, stage designer Es Devlin and architect Bjarke Ingels, this series is a must for anyone remotely interested in the world of art, design and architecture—or simply anyone with taste. With every episode, you’ll journey into the mind of an artist and discover the true art of design and the impact it plays on every aspect of life—and some you might have taken for granted. —Brent Taalur Ramsey

3. Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

Year: 2016
Director: Kevin Macdonald

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Artists have their pick when it comes to medium—be it canvas, wood, steel and beyond—but Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s choice is a bit more explosive. Opting instead to work his pyrotechnic prowess with fantastical and skyrocketing fireworks and explosions, Guo-Qiang’s work strives for that point where beauty and chaos meet. If that’s not evident from his charred and smoky creations, this documentary will take you along as he prepares to build the “Sky Ladder”—a staggering 1,650-foot ladder created by carefully planned explosions and the artist’s most ambitious production to date. The Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang by Kevin Macdonald will introduce to Guo-Qiang and the dazzling world he lives in. —Brent Taalur Ramsey

4. This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist

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Oftentimes true crime series have such heavy, soul-crushing topics. Though fascinating, they can be difficult to watch all in one sitting. A select few true crime series can have both an enticing storyline and not be incredibly sad or traumatizing; thankfully, Netflix’s new This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist fits the bill. Similar to Sandi Tan’s documentary Shirkers about missing strips of film, or perhaps even the recent McMillions on HBO, This Is a Robbery is a lost and (sort of) found caper that’s actually quite fun to watch. Instead of the McDonald’s Monopoly game prize or a student film, the missing items here are paintings. Huge museum paintings, to be exact. This Is a Robbery explores the mystery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a gorgeous spot that’s well-known to most Boston locals but fairly off-the-map for those new to the city. Right away, the first episode does exactly what it’s meant to do: pique your interest. A museum robbery sounds like something straight out of a James Bond film, and This Is a Robbery treats the topic as such. The music growls as talking heads recreate the night of the crime from memory; the dramatization throws us into the museum to witness the paintings being torn from the walls. Was the security guard in on the job? Maybe the ghost of Isabella Stewart Gardner herself? Or perhaps a Boston mob was involved? The mystery of the museum is enough to hook one’s interest, and the mystery starts strong. —Fletcher Peters

5. Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed

Year: 2021
Director: Joshua Rofé

Watch on Netflix

Painter Bob Ross is arguably even more of a cultural icon today than he was during the 31 seasons The Joy of Painting initially aired from 1983-1994. The uniquely soothing positive presence of Ross transformed him, years after his death in 1995 from lymphoma, into a veritable saint of internet culture—which naturally also makes him the ideal candidate for a “but did you know about the dark side?” documentary. That film is Netflix’s Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed. The film, in the words of Netflix: “brings us the shockingly untold story about the prolific landscape artist and host of The Joy of Painting, Bob Ross and his legacy. …The man who famously said that there were no mistakes, rather just happy accidents has brought sheer delight to the world for decades. While his soothing voice and unmistakable image continue to evoke nostalgia, there remains a sinister tale surrounding his name and the empire that was built on it being hijacked by once trusted partners, whose slow betrayal of him continued beyond his death in 1995.” —Jim Vorel

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