“There is no art without money,” proclaims the director of the so-called Pavilion for Popular Art in this 1990 episode of Law & Order. The show’s storyline, however, seems aimed at fueling the argument against funding for the arts. It centers around the death of a controversial photographer named Victor More, who is known for his pictures of mannequins in leather bondage gear. After Mr. More is found dead with a noose around his neck (looking much like one of his own subjects), we learn that he was the casualty of a sex game gone wrong. Tracking down those responsible are Detective Mike Logan (Chris North) and Sergeant Max Greevey (George Dzundza), who soon find themselves on a whirlwind tour of the New York art world’s cantankerous, bureaucratic underbelly.
Their first stop is the Upper East Side home of Henry Rothman (Larry Keith), Commissioner of Artistic Affairs. In case some viewers might mistake his professional motivations for a love of the arts, Mr. Rothman immediately launches into a vulgar inventory of his art collection’s net worth : “See this painting? I paid $3,000 for it 20 years ago. Now it’s worth $30,000.”
Next on the list is the office of Art View Magazine, where a nasal-voiced editor wearing a bow tie dismisses Mr. More as “either a pornographer who got lucky or an opportunist who created for the market.” He then attributes More’s decidedly undeserved success to a talent for obtaining grants from the city.
This leads the detectives to Anita Swenson (Valerie Kingston), Assistant Deputy to the Commissioner of Artistic Affairs. She makes little effort to hide her contempt for her boss, Mr. Rothman, sneering, “His decisions are arbitrary and have nothing to do with art.” Ms. Swenson’s distaste for Mr. More is no less blatant. Her voice trembles bitterly as she recalls her written disapproval of a $50,000 grant he was to receive, and then implies More and Rothman were “personally” involved.
The investigation finally leads Logan and Greevey to wealthy art financier Elizabeth Hendrick (Frances Conroy), a patron of Mr. More. She is also a dominatrix and, as we later find out, the one ultimately to blame for his fatal sexual escapade. When Ms. Hendrick challenges the cops on their Puritanical reactions to the salacious nature of the case, Greevey explains their position this way: “The sleaze we deal with doesn’t usually end up hanging in a museum.”
It hardly seems coincidental that this production was released the year following the 1989 death of Robert Mapplethorpe (to whom Victor More is an obvious reference). An exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s photographs at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D. C. was also canceled that year after pressure from Republican representative Dick Armey. Museum officials claimed their actions were intended to protect congressional appropriations to the National Endowment for the Arts, but they later apologized for the move after intense public criticism.
1989 was also the year Andres Serrano’s controversial work “Piss Christ” famously triggered outrage from Republican senators Jesse Helms and Al D’Amato, as well as Pat Robertson and other leaders of the religious right. Opponents claimed Serrano’s work (which depicted a crucifix submerged in what was described as the artist’s urine) amounted to “anti-Christian bigotry.”
Sergeant Greevey seems to encapsulate this religious condemnation of the subversive. At one point, he asks his boss to remove him from the case, explaining that he’s Catholic and believes “these freaks aren’t going to the same place you and I are.” The writers of Law & Order were clearly capitalizing on a confirmed popular revulsion to art that challenges social norms. And, although BDSM has recently been elevated to the level of curious titillation by the book Fifty Shades of Grey, it has traditionally existed on the fringes of widespread sexual practice. In a similar way, artists are usually viewed as non-conformists and outliers of society. Art-related plot points make for an effective narrative recipe when combined with crime, as the mechanisms of the art world remain largely mysterious to most people.
Logan and Greevey, perpetually shocked and baffled by their suspects’ behavior, are surrogates for the viewer, embodying the popular clash between “regular folks” and “freaks.” We are meant to empathize with them, as with Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop or Robert Redford in Legal Eagles. It doesn’t help that the writers of Law & Order paint a picture of the art world as a soap opera full of bickering back-stabbers who can’t agree on the artistic merit of anything. With representatives like these, it’s understandable that viewers would be rooting to put them behind bars, where they can no longer squander our tax dollars.