227: Season 5, Episode 20: “You Gotta Have Art” (1990)

If contemporary art would just go away, we could all get back to living our normal lives. That’s the prevailing message in this episode of “227,” a situation comedy from the ‘80s and ‘90s, set in Washington, D.C.

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Mary (Marla Gibbs) agrees to help her friend Eva (Toukie Smith) set up for a reception at the art gallery where she works after their regular assistant dies. When they arrive at “Gallery Moderne,” after laughing at the artwork, Mary notices an abstract painting hanging crooked on the wall. She assumes it’s a mistake and tries to straighten it, but she is interrupted when the gallery director, Ms. Richard (Luise Heath), rushes in to stop her. Returning the painting to its correct position, she explains, crazy-eyed, “The lines of passionate resistance must rush towards the impertinence of time at this precise angle.”

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Ms. Richard, whose bodily movements resemble those of a ballet dancer, speaks with an affectation that sounds like a cross between a Boston dialect and an English accent. When Mary compliments her and attempts to shake her hand, Ms. Richard ignores her, rolls her eyes and offers, “We think that this is the perfect environment to create a synergistic rapport between aahrt and the aficionado.”

During the opening, “world famous” art critic Barclay Hayward arrives wearing a monocle and tuxedo. Using a slightly more convincing English accent, he systematically undermines everything in the exhibition with the manner of witty one-liners used by the judges from “American Idol.” The gallery patrons applaud as he jeers, “They should take down the painting and hang the artist,” for example.

He cuts down everything in his path, until he sees a bottle of glass cleaner and a paper towel Mary accidentally left on a pedestal while cleaning up. Mistaking this for a sculpture, he pronounces that it “captures the frustration of the modern housewife,” dropping to his knees in admiration. At first incredulous, Ms. Richard quickly follows suit, pretending it’s her favorite piece (because contemporary art is so crazy that none of us really knows what it is until we are told by someone else). This “ordinary object left on a pedestal and mistaken for art” theme must be a favorite among television scriptwriters, as it showed up a year later on an episode of “Designing Women.”

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Mary tries to deflect this misplaced attention by directing Mr. Hayward to a realistic still life that Eva has painted, but he dismisses it outright. It is decided hastily that Margaret/Marge/Mary (they can’t remember her name) should be given a show immediately because it “will put Washington, D.C. on the map.”

The misunderstanding causes friction between Mary and Eva, but also evokes the long-debated clash of craft vs. concept. It’s a popular dramatic device in Hollywood’s depiction of the art world: the casual viewer can find an easy satisfaction in a well-executed representational painting, while conceptual (and even abstract) art is kept at arm’s length. This prejudice stems from the notion that we should be able to immediately recognize what an artwork is, rather than accepting that something is art because its maker says it is.

The day after the opening, a local arts publication compares Mary to Andy Warhol (though Duchamp is the more obvious reference) and hails her as the “Diva of the Dustpan.” Demonstrating how effortless art can be, Mary throws together some impromptu readymade sculptures at the dinner table with a ketchup bottle and some cornbread. Her family reacts with skepticism, but her subsequent solo exhibition at Gallery Moderne is such a success that she is invited to appear on “The Joan Rivers Show” (naturally).

For Mary’s media blitz, she is joined by Mr. Hayward, and presents a series of new sculptures consisting of a shoe horn, a carton of eggs and some boxes of band-aids. Joan Rivers, who confesses her lack of expertise, asks them why any average housewife couldn’t just pull together a bunch of groceries and be an artist, too. Outraged, Mr. Hayward replies, “I will be the one to decide whether it’s good or bad,” suggesting that it is the critic who defines an artist’s work, not the artist. He then applies clichéd, superfluous artspeak to each of Mary’s pieces (sometimes in rhyme), and proclaims that all of them represent a “subconscious hatred of men.”

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Mary gets fed up with the lines she’s being fed by Hayward, and tells him off once and for all on live TV. The wool pulled from her eyes, she realizes how foolish she was to have followed this false prophet, and it’s a triumph for regular, honest people everywhere.

Even Eva feels vindicated, realizing that conceptual art is a sham and no longer poses a threat to her career as a representational painter. In a final symbolic act, however, Mary’s husband Lester (Hal Williams) throws Eva’s latest gaudy canvas out the front door when he finds it hanging in their bedroom. The moment recalls the closing shot in the 1982 film “Poltergeist,” as the protagonists, having escaped being terrorized by ghosts from their television set, shove the TV in their makeshift hotel room out onto the veranda. Liberated from the cause of their problems, things can now finally get back to normal.

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Boogie Woogie (2009)

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Last week’s sale of a Francis Bacon triptych at auction for $142.4 million is a troubling reminder of the role of art as status symbol. Coincidentally, two of the super-rich power-collectors in this 2009 film actually own a Bacon triptych, but it’s a painting they don’t own that the plot revolves around. Set in the contemporary London art scene, the film’s title refers to a work by Mondrian, said to be the first in the “Boogie-Woogie” series, and owned by aging collector Alfred Rhinegold (Sir Christopher Lee). He claims to have bought it from Mondrian personally for £500, and now his wife, Alfreda (Joanna Lumley), wants him to sell it. The subsequent back-and-forth volley of bids ultimately reaches $30 million, but they are all in vain.

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Alfred refuses every offer, valuing his prized possession more than the considerable financial gains at stake. Confined to a wheelchair and requiring the assistance of an oxygen tank, he seems of another era, and is treated like an unreasonable, old kook. Alfred clings to the unquantifiable “sentimental” worth of the painting, while his wife and assistant buzz around him, negotiating with potential buyers.

One of the painting’s would-be suitors is Art Spindle (Danny Huston), whom is said to be “like the biggest art dealer in London.” He seems to have an ulterior motive behind every action. Seeing that his new assistant has skinned her knee, for example, he seizes this as an opportunity to rub ointment on it (and her inner thigh). Lecherous and power-hungry, he uses a barrage of chuckles in an attempt to camouflage his tactlessness with people.

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Art is vying for the Mondrian on behalf of his unhappily married clients Jean and Bob Macleston (Gillian Anderson and Stellan Skarsgård). The Macelstons already own a formidable collection of works by artists such as Warhol, Judd, Beuys, Flavin and Brancusi (fussily pronounced by Bob as brɨŋˈkuʃ—the original Romanian enunciation). They also have two French Poodles, Picasso and Matisse, that get taken on walks by an aspiring curator named Dewey (Alan Cumming).

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Dewey is the film’s most tragic character and, in a surprising move by the scriptwriters, he struggles much more than the artists in his circle. In a particularly cringe-worthy moment, Dewey notices his exhibition proposal in the wastebasket just minutes after handing it to Art Spindle. He is then abandoned by his best friend and artist colleague, Elaine (Jaime Winstone), who stops working with him when she finds a better offer. “This is the art world—this is how it works,” she insists.

Elaine is a video artist whose work is a documentation of: A) her mistreatment of her friends and their subsequent reactions, and B) her sexual encounters with her girlfriend or other people, including her dealer (Heather Graham). She is clearly trying as hard as possible to be an enfant terrible and she is constantly rewarded for it, but her final attention-getting stunt crosses every line imaginable.

The other artist in the story is Jo Richards (Jack Huston), who makes sculptures and installations. He does bicep curls while writing his artist statement and snorts a line of coke before studio visits. Jo makes contraptions he says are designed to examine “our observation of what’s around us.” But their actual purpose seems to be creating opportunities for him to feel up women from behind, while showing them how the devices work. This appears to work out well for him, and Jean Macleston falls for it majorly.

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Given that the London art scene is such an apparent den of iniquity, it is not surprising when Jean and Bob file for divorce. A sagacious friend advises Jean to wise up on her end of the deal because “art is exceeding property prices two to one.” Cut to Bob’s lawyer reading him the list of what Jean wants: the Smith in the garden, the Hockney in the hallway, the Mapplethorpe photographs on the landing and the Bacon in the living room, to name a few. Jean hates the Brancusi, but wants it anyway because “it’s worth a fortune.”

For spite, Bob decides to preemptively sell all of the art so that Jean will only get the money in the settlement. The money, as Bob puts it, “doesn’t mean a goddamn thing.” If only that were true.

Pecker (1998)

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“Pecker” is basically an inside job. Director John Waters is an exhibiting artist, himself, and is currently represented by Marianne Boesky Gallery (he showed with American Fine Arts at the time of production). Waters gets a lot right in this decidedly autobiographical film, operating within two territories he is very comfortable in: his hometown of Baltimore and the New York City art world. Striking a satisfying equilibrium between the two conflicting cultural spaces, he makes fair game of the foolishness to be found in each.

The story revolves around an aspiring Baltimore-based photographer of indeterminate age named Pecker (Edward Furlong), who experiences the world almost entirely through the lens of his camera. A gift from his mother (procured from the thrift store she runs), the camera is simple and uncomplicated, just like Pecker’s relationship with his environment. He seems devoid of cynicism, and his nonstop photo-documentation of the people in his life is almost always met with benevolence.

Things change when he is discovered by a New York art dealer named Rorey (Lili Taylor), who happens upon his exhibition of photographs at the sandwich shop where he works. Rorey becomes instantly infatuated (with Pecker and his art) giving him his first sale (a close-up photograph of a stripper’s vagina) and offering him a show at her Chelsea gallery.

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Pecker’s big opening is the very next scene. The space appears to be on West 22nd Street, and Waters tips his hat to a few actual galleries in the neighborhood as the windows of Cheim & Read, D’Amelio Terras, 303 Gallery and Matthew Marks flash on the screen. Cindy Sherman even makes a cameo as herself.

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Pecker’s family and friends (portrayed as unsophisticated, but good-hearted folks) take the bus up from Baltimore to support him. They are obvious outsiders among these big city art snobs, and the culture clash is best summed up by Pecker’s girlfriend Shelley (Christina Ricci), who sneers, “These people don’t go to laundromats. They go to drycleaners.” While Pecker’s dad marvels at the $1,300 price tag for each photograph, his mom swipes a plate of hors d’oeuvres (uncommon at most blue chip art openings) and delivers it to some homeless people outside. She then invites them to the after party. His older sister (Martha Plimpton), who works in a gay strip club, calls everyone “Mary” in a try-hard effort to appear savvy. And his “Memama” (Jean Schertler) totes around a ventriloquist doll of the Virgin Mary that she believes is alive.

The show, itself, is an instant success. His new audience fetishizes the poverty and otherness they see in Pecker’s images, ironically objectifying the subjects as if they were fictional characters. He lands a glowing review in the New York Times and a curator from the Whitney calls him a “humane Diane Arbus.”

While his art career takes off, Pecker’s newfound fame drags his family life downhill. Unwanted press exposure begins with the Times calling his loved ones “culturally challenged,” while Memama shows up on the cover of Artforum. Other unintended consequences include his sister being hastily diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder by a Child Protection Services agent and the shuttering of a local gentleman’s club (The Pelt Room) for its promotion of pubic hair. Even his home is burglarized by one of his unwilling subjects, and a cop investigating the crime remarks, “What they call art up in New York, young man, looks like just plain misery to me.”

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In one of the film’s few false notes, Rorey sends Pecker a gift in honor of his success—a brand new Nikon camera to replace his trusted, early model Canonet. It’s an unusual gesture, as most self-aware dealers would avoid meddling in an artist’s process this way. And since Pecker’s acclaim grew out of a bare-bones approach to photography, why would she want to change it?

Rorey’s tone-deafness continues as she suggests including a shot of Pecker’s sister sobbing in a special edition for Parkett Magazine. And for his upcoming show at the Whitney, tentatively titled “A Peek at Pecker,” she offers a poster depicting his girlfriend Shelley yelling at him. Shelley really does get upset when she spies Rorey and Pecker kissing, prompting her to scream, “I hate modern photography!”

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To even the score, Pecker’s brilliant (really) plan is to cancel his show at the Whitney, and hold an exhibition in a Baltimore bar. This time, the subjects aren’t his friends and family—once gawked at like exotic birds by the art world elite. When the critics, collectors and curators from New York arrive, they see themselves in black and white, magnified to grotesque proportions. What’s beautiful about this table-turning stunt is that each camp seems to realize how they are viewed by the other. It all culminates in a dance party (the ultimate leveling force) and a toast is made to “the end of irony.” Isn’t that what we’re all waiting for?

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