Perfect Strangers: Season 2, Episode 16 – “Tux for Two” (1987)


“It is much better to say nothing than risk being wrong.” This quote by artist William Powhida (from his “Some Cynical Advice to Artists”) comes to mind after viewing this episode of the popular 1980s sit-com “Perfect Strangers.” Larry (Mark Linn-Baker) and his cousin Balki (Bronson Pinchot) are attending a black tie reception at a Chicago art gallery for Larry’s favorite photographer, Roger Morgan (James Greene). Larry, an aspiring photographer, is very apprehensive about how he will be perceived by Morgan and the sophisticated gallery crowd. Balki was not even his first choice as a guest because of his tendency to make foolish remarks, but his original date canceled.

Larry tries to preempt any potential embarrassment by coaching Balki on what to say if asked what he thinks of the artwork. “When they ask what you think,” he says, “you ask what they think, and then tell them the same thing.”

“But they already know what they think,” Balki protests.

Exactly,” says Larry. “And they want to hear the same from you.”

There are a few reasons behind this line of thinking: (1) the perceived quality of an artwork is based on subjective opinion, (2) people risk disagreeing with others by stating their opinions, and (3) the art world is often seen as an elitist environment, unreceptive to outsiders and those who are not in the know. With this in mind, Powhida’s suggestion to “say nothing,” while somewhat satirical, is rooted in truth. Larry knows he and Balki are yet uninitiated into the circle they are entering, so their best strategy to win its approval is to censor themselves and avoid being exposed.


Of course, in the interest of entertaining television, Balki doesn’t follow his instructions. The two of them have already been identified as outsiders the moment they walk through the gallery doors, attracting stares for Balki’s traditional Myposian suit (Mypos is the fictional Mediterranean country from where Balki came). Within minutes, he also manages to offend the gallery owner, Margaret Milgram (Carol Bruce), and her uppity, young assistant, Dennis (Hank Stratton), with inappropriate comments about toilets and high fiber diets.


The Milgram Gallery, itself, is fancy enough for its patrons to wear tuxedos and evening gowns, and is located in a building that resembles an opera house. It is not fancy enough to frame the artwork it exhibits, however, and most of the photographs are simply tacked to the wall by their mattes. The wall text of the exhibition’s title, “Roger Morgan: America,” is large and overly stylized, and a waiter circulates around the gallery offering guests “cocktail franks” and “finger sandwiches” (Balki thinks they contain actual fingers).

Despite these conventional indicators of lower-tier establishments, the Milgram Gallery is evidently so lofty that one can be thrown out just for stating his opinion. After Larry challenges Roger Morgan on a particular technical choice in one of his photographs, Ms. Milgram calls him a “blithering fool.” And after Balki mistakes her for Dennis’ nana, she calls security.

Every dramatic story must have an antagonist and, in this case, it is once again the art dealer. Ms. Milgram isn’t a murderer or a drug dealer, like those depicted in “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Legal Eagles,” for example, but she is a selfish gate-keeper. Revealing a prudish conservatism, she lambasts Balki’s clothes, smugly placing more importance on image than a curiosity for other people’s ideas. Larry ultimately stands up to her in Balki’s defense, effectively jeopardizing his chances of exhibiting his own photographs, but exposing her as petty and rude.


And here is where the show distinguishes itself as being one of the few instances of popular media to depict an artist with genuine integrity. Before they can be removed from the gallery, Morgan pulls Larry and Balki aside to commend them for their honesty. “Usually when I ask people what they think, they turn around and say, ‘What do you think?’” Morgan even agrees with Larry’s suggestion that he should have used a wide angle lens in a photograph titled “Hitchhiker on the Road to Bitterness,” explaining that he accidentally locked the lens in the car. He then remembers Larry’s submission to a photography contest he judged and offers to help him with his career. Lastly, it turns out Morgan speaks Myposian (Balki’s native tongue). Lest there be any doubt, this man is a hero—a true everyman, capable of traversing the boundaries between the art world and the outside world. Artists at large might even enjoy a better reputation if there were more characters like him in the media…but he really needs to find a better gallery.


Legal Eagles (1986)


Artists are trouble, especially when they’re Daryl Hannah. And if you are running for District Attorney in your town, you should definitely not get involved with them, or art dealers, or collectors. Look, just steer clear of the whole art world altogether, ok?

Robert Redford’s character, Tom Logan, learns this the hard way in the 1986 film directed by Ivan Reitman. It all starts when he agrees to give legal counsel to Chelsea Deardon (Daryl Hannah), the daughter of celebrated painter Sebastian Deardon, after she attempts to steal one of her father’s pieces. It’s complicated because she’s trying to recover a painting her father dedicated to her just before his murder, which Chelsea witnessed, herself, when she was eight years old.

The man responsible for his death is Victor Taft (Terrance Stamp). He is also the proprietor of an uptown art gallery on West 57th Street in New York City, just in case some readers are still not convinced that all art dealers in movies and television from the 1980s must be named Victor (or Victoria). Needless to say, he’s evil.


Victor was kind enough to rescue Chelsea from the blaze, along with the canvas her father gave her. Not as fortunate were all of his other unsold works, which were destroyed in the fire. Or were they?

Incidentally, we never actually see Deardon’s paintings, as Reitman makes the choice not to show them (at least not from the front). It’s a shrewd decision, maintaining a sense of reverence through mystery, and more filmmakers should follow this example when it’s appropriate. In “Legal Eagles,” we do get a sense of context for Deardon’s career, understanding how his work is situated in the secondary market, among other artists like Dubuffet, Calder and Picasso—he isn’t quite in their ranks, but he is collected by their collectors.


The true fate of Deardon’s oeuvre is gradually revealed by Logan and fellow defense attorney Laura Kelly (Debra Winger). As it turns out, Victor Taft was masterminding an insurance fraud scheme, heisting a number of the paintings and stowing them away. 17 years after committing his crimes, he seems to wield an awful lot of power. When Kelly and Logan accuse him of a cover-up, he threatens to singlehandedly dismantle both of their careers, suggesting they will never practice law again (isn’t this guy an art dealer?).

Chelsea, on the other hand, having been so traumatized by the violent episode she witnessed as a child, is now a performance artist. “She’s a what?” asks Logan. He later finds out exactly what that means when he gets a front row seat to one of her multimedia works. After inviting him to her spacious SoHo flat, she casually ignites paper sculptures of a house and a birthday cake and large format portraits of herself, and they combust into a small inferno. It’s like a Laurie Anderson piece with pyrotechnics, complete with spoken word elements and a synthesizer soundtrack. The imagery is all emotionally charged symbolism, harkening back to night of her eighth birthday party, and her father’s imminent death.


She puts on quite a show but, aside from this being counter-intuitive behavior for someone who almost died in a fire, her work would undoubtedly set off every smoke detector within in a 100-foot range. But Chelsea doesn’t care—she’s an artist. She is at once exotic and a mess, and full of secrets. Men with guns follow her around at night . . . and could she have even killed someone? Her own criminal record has made her a reluctant enfant terrible, but her motives are pure, despite a slew of bad choices, such as seducing her attorney.


The film’s characterization of Chelsea as an “emotionally disturbed” young woman who never fully grew up evokes a familiar bias toward artists, implying that her work is just a coping mechanism for trauma she experienced. Artists rarely appear well-adjusted in the entertainment industry, nor do they have regular, workaday lives like normal people. What’s more, as an attractive female artist, Chelsea’s character reminds us of the sexism that spans beyond the art world and into the culture at large. It isn’t clear how successful her artistic career is, but it is her looks, not her talent, that prove to be her most effective way of getting what she wants.

As is often the case in the movies, all of the non-art-world characters in “Legal Eagles” ultimately seem to return to some semblance of normalcy. The others end up either dead or, in Chelsea’s case, drifting through the rest of their damaged lives like bohemian space cadets. At least some viewers with future careers in law may possibly find inspiration to become Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts some day.


(Untitled) 2009


In the opening scene of “(Untitled),” a group of people stands before a pleasant but vague abstract painting, seemingly engaged in thoughtful contemplation. A moment later, we realize they were just waiting for the elevator.

The characters in this clever and often hilarious film directed by Joanathan Parker face issues that people in the art world genuinely grapple with—measures of success, dealing with criticism, what it means to sell out. It’s also notable for being one of the few motion pictures to portray an art dealer in a sympathetic light. The depiction of the gallery system, itself, is also handled reasonably well, aside from some problems that will be pointed out in detail later.

At the center of the story are two brothers: Josh (Eion Bailey), a successful painter of corporate lobby art, and Adrian (Adam Goldberg), who composes intellectual avant-garde music nobody likes. Adrian is holding out for notoriety that might never arrive, while Josh appears content with a particular kind of fiscal success, though he is not taken seriously by those whose respect he really desires.


The person he wants to impress most is his art dealer, Madeleine Gray (Marley Shelton). She runs an “important gallery” in New York City that appears to be next door to Bortolami on West 20th Street. We like Madeleine. She clearly loves art and is intellectually curious. She’s also chic and beautiful, and wears extremely noisy clothes made out of vinyl, pompoms and other materials that might potentially disrupt a chamber music performance (and they do).


When it comes to Madeleine’s tastes, the weirder the better. Unfortunately, Josh’s art isn’t weird—it’s generic and “peppy,” which is why Madeleine’s other clientele (consisting of hospitals, hotels and restaurants) seek it out in large quantities for their walls. She keeps Josh’s art tucked away in the back room, closing the blinds when presenting it to clients as though she were conducting a drug deal. One buyer tactlessly refers to the paintings as “merchandise” and Madeleine visibly dies a little inside. But since she is a shrewd businesswoman, she has kept the cash flow moving with Josh’s work so she can exhibit the more challenging (but commercially unviable) art she really cares about. This all goes fine until Josh presses her to give him a show of his own, and she tells him, “A gallery has a front room and a back room. Never confuse the two.”

This may make for good drama, but it isn’t how it actually works. The kind of blue chip Chelsea establishment that Madeleine’s gallery is supposed to be handles artists whose work fetches high prices and carries some level of critical acclaim. In their back rooms, one would find more works by their roster of artists, not a completely different, secret program of lower caliber work that is somehow more popular. Associations are everything in this market, and a high profile gallery would never affiliate itself with hotel lobby art unless it were in an ironic way. Collectors want to feel they are getting a piece of something important (often viewing it as an investment) and many will pay big money for it.

A case in point is Porter Canby (Zak Orth), “a guy who did something with a computer and now he’s rich.” He is an avid collector whose motivations are diversifying his investment portfolio and getting a personality in the process. Porter is a poseur, and will buy anything that gives him the illusion of having interesting taste. His clothes become progressively trendy throughout the film in the most painfully try-hard way, and his apartment is so packed full of art that he never even sees most of it.


Currently at the top of Porter’s must have list is Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones), a flighty British sculptor who wears pajamas in public and makes art out of taxidermied animals. An egomaniac, his character was clearly inspired by Damien Hirst (though his work more closely resembles that of L.A. based artist Carlee Fernandez). Barko is in such demand that Madeleine has to compete with another dealer to represent him.

On the opposite end of the personality spectrum is outsider wannabe Monroe (Ptolemy Slocum). As Madeleine’s newest discovery, he says he doesn’t consider himself as an artist, but it’s just a charade and he’s totally working the system. Monroe personifies what people hate most about contemporary art, raising the persistent question of whether there will ever be a favorable depiction of a conceptual artist in film or TV. “I like to make things and show them to people,” Monroe stammers. “It’s like I want to say…‘Hello.’”


Some of Monroe’s works include a single pushpin carefully placed into the wall, a rubber doorstop and a wadded up piece of paper. “Many people find his work baffling, but that’s how you know that he’s working on the edge,” says Madeleine’s assistant. Another piece features a single light bulb going on and off in the gallery, a reference to the work of artist Martin Creed. In 2001, Creed won the Turner Prize for the controversial “Work No. 227: the lights going on and off,” consisting of an empty room in which the lights went on and off.


In case you didn’t recognize these things as art, there are helpful labels next to them on the gallery walls, and Madeleine applies red dots to them when a sale is made. However, art world sticklers will be quick to point out that such labels are rare in upscale gallery spaces such as this. More likely, there would be a checklist at the front desk (probably two versions: one with the prices and one without) and the dots would be applied to that.


It’s a forgivable offense. The film is insightful enough that it’s worth overlooking this and the aforementioned back room scenario the way we accept the factual errors in science fiction movies. Aside from spinning art world clichés in a way that’s actually funny, the filmmakers have also managed to ask some of the questions artists really think about: “What is the difference between art and entertainment?” Porter Canby asks, to which Madeleine replies, “Entertainment never posed a problem it couldn’t solve.”