A little before 10 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 15, the actor John Malkovich was slouched at a table in the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky, wearing tweed over a striped dress shirt. He had just polished off a plate of spätzle with peas after attending a screening of director Raúl Ruiz’s Klimt. Mr. Malkovich stars in the film, an ethereal portrait of the Austrian symbolist Art Nouveau painter Gustav Klimt’s life. (A particular favorite of Ronald Lauder, the Neue Galerie’s co-founding patron, Klimt was a notorious womanizer who reportedly fathered some 30 children before his death in 1918 at the age of 55. Take that, P. Diddy!)
On the eve of the Metropolitan Museum’s unveiling of artist Damien Hirst’s giant embalmed shark-in-a-tank a few blocks away, the Transom asked Mr. Malkovich his thoughts on the current art scene. “I suppose the art world is more corporate now, as I suppose everything else is,” the actor said in his catatonic drone. “But on the other hand, I think it probably always was. I’m not sure that when he”—Klimt—“won the Exposition in Paris, in 1900, that that would be terrifically different from, quote, winning at Cannes. They’re essentially political statements. I don’t think anyone would seriously suggest that, say, the films that win [at Cannes] are, quote, the best films—that would strike me as quite a dubious conjecture. They’re political statements. But I think art was that way for a long, long time before 2007.
“Is it worse now?” Mr. Malkovich mused, the side of his face planted cozily in the palm of his left hand. “Well, yeah, the easy answer is: Everything’s worse now. But … I’m not sure that’s true.”
In any case the thespian—currently filming Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading, a C.I.A. dramatic comedy in which he stars alongside George Clooney and Brad Pitt—probably won’t be among those who rush to the get a peek at Mr. Hirst’s spooky shark. “I don’t know so much artists living today,” he said. There was a long, dreamy pause. “I mean, I see a few things and I like certain things, but I’m too ignorant about it, really, to comment about it because it’s not really my period or what I follow. The culture goes awfully fast, doesn’t it? It’s kind of hard to keep up and I’m still trying to fill in the gaps of my ignorance from the centuries ago.”