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?).