Designing Women: Season 5, Episode 18 – “This is Art?” (1991)

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Julia’s friend Rosalind owns a gallery called Gallery Poussette, which is “very respected for its contemporary art” and definitely “not located in a mall.” When the cast attends an art opening there, they are confounded by such works of art as a pile of dirt and miscellaneous objects on the floor and a payphone that looks functional, but is actually “an exhibit.”

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A patron of the gallery then attempts to engage Suzanne in conversation, but since she has accidentally glued her lips together, she cannot speak. The man mistakes her silence for the reaction of an “anti-interpretationist,” attributing his own remarks to Susan Sontag, and later commenting on how intelligent Suzanne is, even though she has said nothing.

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Finally, when Julia leaves her purse on a pedestal, it’s mistaken for a sculpture by a man in a turtle-neck sweater and ponytail and a woman wearing a hat the size of a tire. Rosalind, who clearly has only contempt for her clients, sells them the purse for $5,000, and they are delighted to hear it is the most expensive thing in the gallery.

The collectors apparently possess enormous influence as Julia begins receiving phone calls at home the next day from anxious art journalists. Why they wouldn’t contact the gallery, instead, is not clear, but Julia wants no part in what she sees as a prank gone too far and refuses to speak with them.

When Rosalind learns Julia has a stash of old paintings from art school in the attic, she encourages her to bring them to the gallery and “throw them up on the walls” to see what happens, without even seeing them first. Unfortunately, Julia’s oil on canvas renderings of fruit bowls can only be appreciated in an ironic way by her new collectors, who refer to the work as “hotel motif.” But since they trust Rosalind’s curatorial abilities so completely, they decide to buy one without hesitation.

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So what have we learned, aside from art collectors being a bunch of entitled, narcissistic followers who see only what they want to see, and art dealers being con artists only out to make money? The moral of the story seems to be that there are two art worlds: one that’s nostalgic and pure, and a shifty, modern one that’s nothing more than a sham.

Conspicuously absent from the plot are the contemporary artists, themselves, whose work is mocked and manipulated, without even the chance to defend it. But this leaves the conundrum of whom the real artists were – Julia, who long ago made what she believed to be art, or the artists in Rosalind’s gallery, whose work was decidedly “contemporary” but tainted by its context in a corrupt market. The show clearly sides with Julia, who ultimately dismisses contemporary art altogether after she’s left feeling “nonplussed” by her recent experience. Too bad.

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