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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