TUXEDOS & FUR COATS: Sartorial Status Symbols in “Family Ties” and “Color Me Blood Red”

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The art world is fancy. It’s a place where tens of thousands of dollars can change hands in a single transaction. It is only fitting, then, that the hands making these exchanges should first pass through luxurious sleeves of fox fur.

Such sleeves are on display in a 1982 episode of the television show Family Ties, in which Steven Keaton (Michael Gross) organizes an art auction fundraiser. Sponsoring the event is “one of the biggest art dealers in the Midwest,” Victoria Hurstenburg (Christine Belford). In fact, “the Hurstenburg name is virtually synonymous with fine art and culture.”

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Victoria arrives at the Keaton house wearing a full-length fur coat, a stark contrast to the casual flannels worn by Elyse and Steven. She is there to deliver some paintings for the auction (which she carries unwrapped, under her arm, like a stack of library books), but she abandons them on the kitchen counter when she notices a sculpture by Mallory’s boyfriend Nick. The piece, which prompts obvious distaste from everyone else, impresses Victoria so much that she purchases it from the auction, herself.

When she asks to see the rest of Nick’s sculptures, the show apparently has no budget to build another set for his studio, so he brings everything over to the Keaton household. Victoria arrives wearing another fur coat and a black, sequined evening dress. Using words like “primitive,” “crude” and “bordering on offensive” to describe his work, she actually intends this as praise, because art people are weird. So excited by Nick’s talent (and handsomeness), she offers to “open a few doors” for him, with the promise of causing “a real stir” in the art world.

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True to her word, Victoria curates Nick into an exhibition in town. At the opening, one of the gallery attendants wears, not only a tuxedo, but also a top hat (the height of fancy). Mallory shows up to spy on him and becomes involved in an awkward conversation with one of the guests. A total outsider, she clearly doesn’t know anything about the show she is attending, and ultimately rationalizes her presence by explaining that one of the artists used to be her camp counselor, and then she accidentally knocks over one of the sculptures.

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Earlier instances of the wardrobe cues from art world power players can found in the 1965 splatter film Color Me Blood Red.  In the opening shot, an art dealer named Farnsworth (Scott H. Hall) burns a painting from his gallery while wearing a tuxedo (he wears a tuxedo almost all the time). We eventually learn that he is destroying the evidence left behind by a homicidal painter named Adam Sorg (Gordan Oas-Heim). Though Sorg enjoyed a loyal following in the Sarasota, Florida art scene, one thing stood in his way of earning the respect of the town’s discerning art critic: his unsophisticated use of the color red. So he began murdering people and using their blood as paint.


The melodrama of the situation corresponds to the film’s cartoonish portrayal of the gallery system, and Farnsworth’s gallery actually resembles to a community theater. There is even a stage at the back of the space and, for a classy touch, a red carpet cuts through the center of the room. Folding chairs are positioned in front of the paintings so patrons can relax as they admire them (and since most of the attendees appear to be over the age of 65, the chairs are put to good use). It’s understandable, though, as anyone would tire from viewing the over-hung show while standing up (there are so many paintings, that some of them sit on the floor, leaning against the wall). As for the art, Sorg’s style is all over the place, ranging from floating monster heads to Mondrian rip-offs, giving the impression that the film’s producers scavenged the canvases from an art school dumpster.


At Sorg’s big opening, Farnsworth can be found up on the stage (in tuxedo), joined by two large houseplants and the town’s local art critic, Gregorovich (William Harris). The critic sits with  a foot-long cigarette holder and delivers live, onsite critiques of the artwork. He also wears a beret, a typical accessory of intellectual or artsy figures in cinema and television. Sorg, who is always angry and has a reputation as a bad-boy art star, shows up late, with paint on his clothes and wearing sneakers. He also carries a cigarette holder (though it is not as long as Gregorovich’s), and whispers nasty things to his admirers.


Even though these people live in Florida, the emblematic fur coat is once again paraded about by several of the gallery-goers. This gives us a visual cue to their wealth, but we can also tell that they are interested in the latest trends in contemporary art because they say things like, “It’s quite a thing to own a Sorg painting—he’s most fashionable!” One fur-clad collector, in particular, wants so badly to have one that she seems willing to pay any price. At first scoffing at Farnsworth’s $15,000 quote for a painting of a woman getting stabbed in the face, her good taste quickly wins over and… Sold!


Real life artist David Hammons appropriated the fur coat as a means of social commentary in 2007. Hammons, himself, contacted an elite gallery on New York’s Upper East Side, L&M Arts, proposing to put on an exhibition. It was an unusual gesture, given his resistance to the commercial gallery system, but he kept the actual concept a secret until the installation. The show, on which Hammons collaborated with his wife Chie, was comprised of six lavishly expensive, full-length fur coats on antique dress forms. The backs of the coats had been burned with a blowtorch or streaked with brightly colored paint. The implication was surely not a celebration of these symbols of decadence. Instead, Hammons shone a harsh light on the glaring divide between wealthy patrons who flaunt tactless displays of affluence, and the strife of the powerless (both in and out of the art world). And despite the gross exaggerations of art world dynamics by the entertainment industry, those clichés come from somewhere, after all.


Slaves of New York (1989)


Slaves of New York is the movie people watch right before voting to eliminate the arts from public schools. Nearly every art world figure is depicted as a narcissistic, jealous, backstabbing weasel (imagine if Melrose Place were about a bunch of artists living in New York). In fact, the plot seems to have been fashioned after a soap opera, and involves so many love triangles that it’s difficult to keep them straight.

The sole redeemable personality in the film is a hat maker named Eleanor (Bernadette Peters). She is the ego to the id of her art world counterparts, patiently absorbing constant mistreatment by her “famous” painter boyfriend, Stash (Adam Coleman Howard). A bit of an ingénue, she is the only character who doesn’t use others to get ahead, but she eventually gets her big break from a fashion designer played by Steve Buscemi.

Everyone else in Eleanor’s social circle is absolutely tactless. When she goes to a party, for instance, one of the hosts (a sculptor) asks her to ask Stash to ask his gallery to look at his work. It takes him less than a minute after meeting her to ask this, and he does so more than once. Another artist named Marley introduces himself to Eleanor (while she is at work) by taking off his shoes and asking her to check him for athlete’s foot. He then pesters her to pose nude for one of his paintings.

Later, during a meeting with his dealer, Marley brings in some new pieces with names like “Ode to Hero of the Future, No. 5.” He then delivers a monologue about heroism in the times of antiquity, and how there were real guys back then, like him. His dealer, Ginger (Mary Beth Hurt), can be identified by her asymmetrical haircut and chunky designer glasses. Establishing her position of power in the relationship, Ginger picks up the “weakest” of the works Marley has brought to her, and throws it on the floor. “Actually,” she adds, “it’s no good at all.”


Ginger then instructs him not to forget about his meeting with a big collector, and reminds him that he likes artists with big appetites. The collector, Chuck Day Dolger (John Harkins), is a wealthy, round man who invites artists to his home for brunch, pressuring them to eat copious amounts of food. His exaggerated hospitality is a means for him to perpetuate the “starving artist” myth and establish his importance as the provider. He even teases Marley about the possibility of buying one of his paintings, and then haggles about the prices, scrutinizing his slide sheets over biscuit-filled plates.


Marley is, himself, a total narcissist who won’t stop talking about his plans to build a chapel in Rome, dedicated to “Christ as a woman.” When his friend Sherman is trying to show him a new painting during a studio visit (at which caviar is eaten), Marley changes the subject and announces that he “might be in the Biennale.” Sherman becomes so jealous, that he threatens to quit painting and then throws himself down on a broken recliner that collapses (there are three scenes in the film in which chairs break when people sit in them). Marley is also sleeping with Sherman’s girlfriend, but then dumps her, after which she asks him to show her slides to his gallery. Practically the only time everyone seems to be getting along is when they play softball together, and even Stash’s art dealer, Victor, is on the team (all art dealers in movies from the ‘80s were named Victor).


Stash is the story’s most successful artist character, and throws the most temper tantrums. His paintings consist mostly of borrowed imagery from the classic cartoon Popeye, and women in evening gowns can be seen leaning against them at his gallery reception. Collector Chuck Dolger demonstrates what a high roller he is by showing up to the opening in a limo, drinking champagne in the backseat with two female companions. And some of the guests wear leather jackets that get tagged by dudes with big markers (because that happens?).


Batman: Season 2, Episodes 91 & 92: “Pop Goes the Joker” & “Flop Goes the Joker” (1967)


The  storyline of these two episodes begins with the Joker (Cesar Romero) bursting into a gallery opening for “beloved American artist” Oliver Muzzy. Barely looking at the pastoral landscape paintings (and a token Grant Wood knock-off) he declares it all “an outrage” and “an insult to art” and begins spraying everything with paint guns. Batman and Robin (Adam West and Burt Ward) attempt to apprehend him, but instead of pressing charges, Muzzy praises the Joker’s intervention, exclaiming “I have been trying to paint this modern stuff for years!” Thus the Joker creates for himself a kind of political graffiti artist persona with a superficial Abstract Expressionist aesthetic. “Holy hoaxes!” adds Robin.


The Joker, whose work is by definition a joke, has apparently fooled the entire local art scene with his stunt, and is invited to compete in the Gotham City International Art Contest. The competition, organized by wealthy young socialite Baby Jane Towser (Diana Ivarson), is like a forecasting of Bravo’s reality TV show Work of Art, though these participants are already “world famous.”

Five artists with names like Jackson Potluck and Leonardo Davinsky (painter of the famous fresco “Midnight Snack”) are given three minutes to complete a painting. Their techniques make use of the obvious Action Painter one-liners as one contestant splashes paint from buckets onto his canvas and another trains his pet monkey to throw paint balls at his.


Yet another uses his body as a human paint roller, first dipping himself in a wheelbarrow full of paint. The judges describe the results as a “fine example of Neo-realism,” making reference to the Nouveau réalisme movement, characterized by the work of Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Arman and others. In 1960 Klein staged a piece entitled “Anthropométries de l’Epoque bleue” (Anthropometries of the Blue Period), in which three nude models covered themselves in blue paint and then left their body prints on sheets of paper.

A contestant named Vincent Van Gauche, on the other hand, seems to channel Irish painter and writer Christy Brown, who suffered from cerebral palsy and painted with his left foot. While Brown used a brush, Van Gauche applies the paint directly with his feet, and the audience finds it all hilarious.


The Joker paints nothing, and only gesticulates flamboyantly with a brush in front of his easel. He titles his work “Death of a Mauve Bat” and explains that the bat is dead, and died in 1936 (“a very bad year for bats”). Fooling everyone once again, the panelists decide that the piece is symbolic of the emptiness of modern life (“What else?”) and Baby Jane declares him the winner.

After his victory, the Joker announces he is opening a new school where he will instruct his students personally on “the secrets of modern art.” He makes it clear that his school is for “millionaires only,” shifting the plot into an allegory for the high-cost MFA industry. One difference between this institution and today’s pedigree art programs is that there is no rigorous application process for those wishing to enroll, as long as they are wealthy.


The Joker later reveals his ulterior motives:  he intends to hold his pupils hostage and demand a pricy ransom from their parents (is this sounding familiar?). Millionaire Bruce Wayne is a student at the school and succeeds in foiling the plan with Robin’s help, but the ever-persuasive Joker yet again manages to talk his way out of any legal consequences (“I’m an artist”).

The Joker, now a bad boy art star, relentlessly spouts clichéd artspeak tropes, such as “out with the old; in with the new” as justification for his non-stop destruction of other people’s property. He is a childish vandal and loyal to no one, destroying Baby Jane’s dining room table, for example, and then fancy-talking his way into being taken seriously as an artist.

This concept that the purveyors of modern abstract art are evil and cannot be trusted is a common theme in the entertainment industry (see Steven Berkoff’s character in Beverly Hills Cop or Terrance Stamp’s role in Legal Eagles). They are often portrayed as possessing great power, and though he is literally a clown and a con man, nearly everyone succumbs to the Joker’s charisma. So eager they are to belong to an elite class of the cultured and contemporary, it is only when he ties up his protégés at gunpoint that they even get upset.