“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.