- Art Dealers are Evil…
…and probably named Victor. From the drug-smuggling Victor Maitland in Beverly Hills Cop to the murderous Victor Taft in Legal Eagles to the lecherous Art Spindle in Boogie Woogie, art dealers do not enjoy a favorable reputation on the silver screen. As the ringleaders of a world that remains largely mysterious to most, they also seem to wield great power, often commanding a crew of henchmen to do their dirty work. See Slaves of New York and Family Ties for non-evil art dealers named Victor and Victoria.
- Male Artists are Cads
The bad-boy heartbreaker art-star is a favorite archetype of film and television scriptwriters. They’re seen as self-centered and childish and, given the widespread perplexity about what artists do and why it matters, the gratuitous attention they receive from others seems all the more undeserved.
- Regular People Hate the Art World
Hollywood loves telling stories about ordinary people—the “everyman” we can all relate to. And if there’s one thing normal people don’t get, it’s the art world. Combine the two and the result is real dramatic tension. Whether it’s Mary Jenkins in 227, who briefly dabbles as a contemporary artist; the cops in Law & Order, who scour the seedy depths of New York’s art world to solve a murder; or Tom Cruise’s character in Cocktail, who destroys a cocky artist’s sculpture at his own opening, these anti-intellectual heroes ultimately expose the art world to be a total sham.
- The Art World is Fancy
You’ll be underdressed if you forget to wear your tuxedo or fur coat to that art opening you’re going to. Art is expensive, a status symbol for the rich, so those who can afford it must look the part. You can spot the art world gate-keepers (collectors and dealers) by their luxurious fox furs and diamonds, while the artists will stick to sneakers and perhaps a beret.
- Art People Talk Funny
The art world has its own language, and it’s super annoying to the casual bystander. A 2014 commercial for Old Navy jeans casts Amy Poehler as an art dealer who describes the work in her gallery as aggressive, dangerous and stupid. “And that’s why I like it,” she says. Diane Keaton’s character Mary Wilke in the 1979 film Manhattan refers to a minimalist steel sculpture at the MoMA as having a “marvelous kind of negative capability,” while dismissing everything else on display as “bullshit.” Julianne Moore plays an artist in The Big Lebowski (1988) who applies her intellectual “artspeak” vocabulary, not only to her work, but also in the bedroom, describing “coitus” as a sometimes “natural, zesty enterprise.”
- Artists are Scumbags
It’s no surprise when an artist turns out to be a murderer or a thief. As with art dealers, the “otherness” of the art world makes artists the perfect weirdo anti-heroes to root against. Sometimes they’re rugged and alluring, like Viggo Mortenson’s ex-con character in A Perfect Murder. Other times they’re just creepy, like the insane Walter Paisley in A Bucket of Blood, who kills people and turns them into sculptures, or the alcoholic serial killer / failed artist Jimmy in Art School Confidential.
- Anything Can be Art
Capitalizing on the general assumption that it requires no talent to be a contemporary artist, TV scriptwriters love the readymade. That is, the everyday object turned artwork, made famous by Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” in 1917. It turns out all you have to do to become an overnight sensation in the art world is leave your purse or a bottle of glass cleaner on a pedestal in an art gallery. Or in Homer Simpson’s case, crash a pile of junk into an art dealer’s car. Yes, indeed, the art world is for suckers who will believe anything is art as long as the right person says it is.
- Artists Have Rocky Love Lives
Creative types are passionate romantics who are full of feeling—but not a lot of sense. It’s their aura of mystery and intrigue that makes them so alluring, until their lovers figure out they are emotionally unstable wrecks. Ally Sheedy plays a photographer in High Art, who seduces an aspiring magazine editor despite being washed up and drug-addicted (it doesn’t end well). Daryl Hannah makes weird performance art in Legal Eagles and possesses a spacy mystique that Robert Redford can’t resist, until she almost ruins his career as District Attorney. And it’s anyone’s guess what Jodie Foster’s character, Anne Benton, is thinking in Catchfire when she falls in love with her kidnapper, played by Dennis Hopper, who also directed this ridiculous movie.
- Art People Hate the Country
You’ll find art people in rural areas if A) they are there against their will, B) they’re just “getting away from it all” or C) they are a reclusive outsider artist (or looking for one). In both Nine ½ Weeks and Junebug, a fancy art dealer leaves her urban environment in search of a backwoods painter, while in Beetlejuice a cosmopolitan sculptress is reluctantly transplanted to the country by her husband. The clash between city slickers and country folk is almost guaranteed entertainment.
- Artists Will Do Anything for Attention
All artists really want is to be famous, right? That’s the popular assumption, and they’ll do anything to get there. Elaine is a video artist in Boogie Woogie who has no boundaries, documenting her personal life and ultimately a friend’s death — all for shock value. Art School Confidential’s Jerome resorts to stealing the paintings of a serial killer and passing them off as his to make up for his own boring artwork, and the Joker, from the TV series Batman, launches a campaign of vandalism and destruction all in the name of Art.
This 1999 episode of The Simpsons rehashes three of television’s favorite themes about the art world: 1) contemporary art is usually made by cobbling together a bunch of garbage, 2) the most successful artists aren’t even trying and 3) the art world has the attention span of a stoned teenager.
When Marge (Julie Kavner) chastises Homer (Dan Castellaneta) into doing something besides lounging in a hammock and drinking beer out of coconuts, he decides to build a barbecue. After failing to follow the directions correctly, he ends up with an unsightly pile of bricks, concrete and a beach umbrella. Homer hitches the mess to his bumper and tries to illegally dump it, but instead it collides with the car of an art dealer named Astrid Weller (Isabella Rossellini). After tracking him down, she praises Homer’s creativity and describes the botched barbecue assemblage as an example of “outsider art” (she uses air quotes). Astrid explains that outsider art “could be made by a mental patient, or a hillbilly or a chimpanzee” and she then curates the junk pile into a museum exhibition.
In typical Simpsons style, Homer’s art is an overnight sensation. He even finds himself surrounded by a crew of pretentious hangers-on named Gunther, Kyoto and Cecil Hampstead-on-Cecil Cecil. Homer’s friend Moe (Hank Azaria) identifies the groupies as “Euro-trash,” but tries to butter them up so he can find out where the “sea of meaningless sex” is located. Meanwhile, Jasper Johns (played by Jasper Johns) shows up at random moments, stealing light bulbs, finger foods and finally a boat. Translation: artists are thieves.
It’s no surprise that Homer’s success is difficult for Marge, who confesses that being an artist was her dream. Without even trying, she says, Homer has accomplished more in a week than she has in her whole life. “I’ve always liked your art,” he consoles. “Your paintings look like the things they look like.” To be sure, the art world’s ubiquitous sexism is not lost on the show’s writers.
But when it’s time for Homer’s solo show at the local museum, entitled, “Homer’s Odyssey,” his art is already old news. Works such as “Botched Hibachi,” “Failed Shelving Unit with Stupid Stuck Chainsaw and Applesauce” and “Attempted Birdhouse #1” fail to impress his fickle audience. Homer’s subsequent, ham handed attempt to incite live bidding on his art only fetches an offer of $2.00 for the bird in the birdhouse (if it’s still alive). “What’s going on here?” Homer pleads. “You weirdos loved this stuff.” Astrid then explains that they only love what’s new and shocking.
Determined to turn his situation around, Homer takes an inspiring trip to the Springsonian Museum, where he reacts strongly to a Turner painting of Venetian canals. Later, he gets a pep talk from his daughter Lisa (Yeardly Smith) about Christo’s innovative environmental works, although she points out that a person was killed and several others were injured by one of his giant yellow umbrellas. Not to be outdone, Homer comes up with a very foolish, very illegal plan to do something “really big and daring.” Enlisting the help of his son, Bart (Nancy Cartwright), he sets out to flood the entire town of Springfield by loosening hundreds of fire hydrants. As a result, every house is submerged in water, surely causing millions of dollars in property damage and thousands to be left homeless. Fortunately, this is a cartoon and not, say, the greater New York area circa late 2012.
Homer’s artistic adventures put him in good company with other subjects of the brush-with-the-art-world storyline. Characters such as Julia Sugarbaker in Designing Women and Mary Jenkins in 227 also enjoyed instant stardom after leaving ordinary objects in the sight of an art world gatekeeper. While these ladies ultimately go back to their “normal” lives, Homer takes his vision to the limit. What we end up with is a critique of the art world’s decadence and excess, but also a darker commentary on the artist’s ego. Homer is ultimately so eager for fame and attention that he is willing to inflict widespread devastation upon his community. And like every bad boy art star portrayed in the media, he is rewarded for his brazen behavior. The people of Springfield embrace their altered surroundings by floating through the streets in gondolas and swan-shaped paddleboats. Nevermind the inevitable drownings or costly rebuilding sure to await in the aftermath. “I have to admit,” Marge tells him, “you’ve created something people really love. You truly are an artist.”
Perhaps it boils down to the difference between a cartoon and “real” people and what we, as an audience, are willing to accept from them. Only in a fantasy, it seems, can we whole-heartedly embrace contemporary art, and only in the most absurd and ironic way.
One man’s art is another man’s recyclables. When five-year-old Webster (Emmanuel Lewis) finds a sack of aluminum cans in his foster parents’ closet, he doesn’t realize it’s actually a sculpture his Uncle Phil has just created. Eager to earn enough money to buy a new skateboard, Webster dumps the artwork right into the trash compactor and trades it in for quick cash.
Ordinarily, this would have been fine with Webster’s foster-dad, George (Alex Karras), who refers to the sculpture as “garbage of the month club.” But his foster-mom, Katherine (Susan Clark), has planned an elaborate reception in their Chicago home around this single artwork. Confessing a long-time interest in art, she explains that she is now an “exhibitionist” (instead of the more appropriate term curator, said for the benefit of an inane punch line).
A well-connected socialite, Katherine has even invited New York City mayor Ed Koch. As is often the case when art is presented in TV sit-coms, the piece is first seen being unveiled melodramatically from beneath a fussy drop-cloth. And like every other found-object sculpture to ever appear on television, its revelation triggers the familiar culture clash between regular “non-art” folks—George, an ex-pro football player—and the artsy types—cosmopolitan Katherine and her sassy male secretary, Jerry (Henry Polic, II).
In the middle of the conflict is Webster’s Uncle Phil (Ben Vereen), a dancer whose first foray into the visual arts is this controversial assemblage. Not realizing that Phil is the artist behind it, George insults his work with corny jokes, ultimately admitting, “It isn’t that I don’t like it; I just don’t understand it.” Katherine further confuses everyone by describing it as “a synthesis of Post-Pop Art and Neorealism, designed to make a profound environmental statement.” She probably meant to say Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism), a 1960s European art movement in which appropriation, collage and assemblage played prominent roles. Neorealism, on the other hand, referred to a British collective of representational painters working at the beginning of World War I.
In spite of all the pretentious artspeak, Phil manages to convince George of the value in what he has done. He explains his intent was to make people realize that “if we don’t clean up our oceans, we’re going to lose part of a natural beauty that makes life worth living.” The sculpture, which he calls “Sea Harvest,” is comprised of cans that were found in the ocean. George is clearly touched by the artwork’s environmental message and seems to have a change of heart.
Clueless Webster then destroys his uncle’s work for personal gain, and George and their neighbor Bill help him create a relpica of it to cover up the gaffe. Everyone believes the fake except for Phil (because what artist wouldn’t recognize a forgery of his own work!?). But instead of being angry, he points out the paradox of Webster’s selfish actions: by recycling the cans, he carried out the intent of the artwork without even knowing it was art. Phil further distances himself from the project by saying he only got into it as a “hobby,” thus explaining the absence of ego (or wrath toward Webster).
This message that art has a sneaky power to positively change minds is counteracted a few years later in episodes of “227” (1990) and “Designing Women” (1991). In each show, respectively, a bottle of glass cleaner and a handbag are inadvertently left on pedestals in galleries and mistaken for art. In the end, the characters dismiss the artistic merit of the objects (along with that of all modern art) as nonsense. Context is important here: one assumes anything presented in an art gallery is meant to be Art. Outside of this sacred space, we take objects at their face value—that is, what we have been culturally trained to recognize them to be. Although the writers behind “Webster” seem to present modern art as having a purely didactic purpose, perhaps this is the best a TV sit-com can do to bridge the divide between the arts and a broader audience.
Since the films of the Coen brothers are filled with wild stereotypes, it’s no surprise to find a ridiculous portrayal of an artist among them. Maude, Julianne Moore’s character in “The Big Lebowski,” is first seen instigating a home invasion and physical assault on Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), with the help of her two henchmen / studio assistants (she is reclaiming a rug The Dude took from her father which has “sentimental value” for her).
In her next scene, Maude is naked and flying through her studio while suspended from a gantry. She holds a paint brush in each hand, which she uses to splatter paint onto a canvas on the floor below. Judging from the results, which simply look like splashes of paint around a crude figure, there seems to be no reason for this elaborate, acrobatic method, aside from the shock effect of its theatricality in the film, itself.
When Maude finally speaks, she comes across like a humorless dominatrix with a British accent. She uses strictly formal English, describing sex (“coitus”) as a sometimes “natural, zesty enterprise,” for example. And since she is clearly meant to be a caricature of a feminist artist, the word “vaginal” works its way into her speech 9.4 seconds after she first opens her mouth (I timed it).
Lending insight into the diversity of her artistic practice, Maude arrives at her studio the next day with an assortment of found objects for her assemblage sculptures. In one hand, she carries a sack full of second-hand kitchen utensils, and in the other a bald-headed mannequin (a prop that can be found in almost every artist’s studio depicted onscreen since 1970).
Waiting to greet her is her friend Knox Harrington (David Thewlis), “the video artist,” who laughs constantly to himself like a jackal who’s just played a secret practical joke on everyone. And when Maude receives a phone call from “Sandro about the Biennale,” both Knox and Maude get on the line and cackle uncontrollably to one another while The Dude stands by, feeling helplessly left out. (Translation: The Dude is a regular guy and the Art World is a big joke that regular guys aren’t in on.)
Maude does soften up long enough to get The Dude into bed, but it’s only because she’s trying to conceive. “What did you think this was all about? Fun and games?” she says. But she doesn’t want a partner, nor does she want the father to be someone she has to see socially or who has “any interest in raising the child, himself.” That’s how self-sufficient Maude is.
There is a distinctly witchy quality to Maude’s persona—she wears a cape, flies through the air and often appears flanked by two silent men who do her bidding. Intelligent, wealthy and beautiful, she also seems to wield great power, a trait Hollywood normally reserves for its male protagonists. It’s a striking contrast to the vulnerable, dysfunctional portrayals of women artists in films like “Legal Eagles,” “High Art” and “Catchfire.” As with most depictions of artists in the media (male or female), we rarely see one who is just a typical person whose occupation happens to be art-making. It doesn’t make for entertaining storytelling. Instead, we get either a pathetic mess, or in Maude’s case, someone so poised it verges on the supernatural.
“Women can be so silly. They think because you are an artist, you must also be a great lover,” says Laszlo Gregorian (Tony Jay), a fictional Hungarian artist portrayed in the TV sit-com “The Golden Girls” (1987). In fact, that’s what Blanche, Dorothy and Rose are all counting on when they begin competing for his attention. Laszlo invites the three ladies to pose nude for him in his studio in preparation for a new sculpture commissioned by a local museum. However, each of them believes she is his only muse, and conflict arises when the truth comes out.
Though no sex actually takes place between Laszlo and his subjects, the experience is clearly a very sexual one for the three friends. The women are spellbound by his worldliness and sophistication (he’s from Europe), and his adoration of their physiques appeals to their vanity and makes them feel desirable.
He also flatters them with his words, praising Dorothy’s strength and character, Blanche’s sensuality and Rose’s softness. He even goes so far as to give each of them a key to his studio. Through Laszlo, not only do they see the chance to be immortalized in a “classic work of art,” but also the possibility of romance with a “world famous artist.”
Laszlo is so involved with his creative process (and himself) that he is either unaware of their advances or doesn’t care. And unfortunately for them, he cannot return their affections because he is gay, a detail he fails to make clear until his sculpture is finished and he no longer needs them.
Helping to keep the artist/heartbreaker stereotype alive today is Booth Jonathan (Jorma Taccone) from the HBO series “Girls” (2013). The creation of writer/actor/director Lena Dunham (daughter of artists Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons), he is probably based on people Ms. Dunham has actually known in the New York art world. Booth is the kind of cocky, womanizing hipster who sleeps with his dealer and hates the High Line.
His persona is nothing new, reminiscent of Adam Coleman Howard’s character in “Slaves of New York” or Steve Buscemi’s role in “New York Stories,” both from 1989. These bad boy art stars exploit their successes to get what they want from others, usually with little consequence. Indeed, Booth’s misogynistic behavior is constantly rewarded. Even after locking the star-struck Marnie (Allison Williams) inside one of his video-sculptures against her will, she later praises him for his talent and then has creepy sex with him. “I’m a man,” he tells her, “and I know how to do things.”
It isn’t long before Marnie believes Booth is her boyfriend, but she is actually falling in love with what he represents to her. Having been fired from her gallery job and turned down for another, she is struggling with her own identity. She wants to be a part of his artist’s aura, perhaps seeing Booth as a window back into that world, and to its higher echelons.
Like actors, artists have public personas, and their audiences often mistake these for the genuine, private self. Just as Blanche, Dorothy and Rose have done, Marnie projects an identity that isn’t really there. When it later becomes clear that Booth was just using her, he evades any blame for his role in the situation by throwing a tantrum about how “no one even knows me” and “everyone just uses me for what I represent to them.” No doubt, there’s another admirer in line to be the next victim of his abuse.
In the end, it seems there is always an ulterior motive beneath the artist’s apparent allure. Transparency is not one of the traits we desire in them — as with art, itself, we prefer our artists to be mysterious and unobtainable. Otherwise, we get bored and lose interest. So perhaps the asshole behavior we scorn is not only perpetuated by the media’s typecasting, but celebrated. Luckily for us, there will always be another asshole willing to oblige.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Art is vying for the Mondrian on behalf of his unhappily married clients Jean and Bob Macleston (Gillian Anderson and). 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).
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.
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.
Anyone who has ever flipped through a book about late 20th century art will be familiar with Jenny Holzer’s text based work using LED screens and projectors. It is only those who haven’t who might actually believe Jodie Foster’s character in Catchfire, Anne Benton, as the person behind that work. Many of Holzer’s pieces are used throughout the film (she is even listed in the credits), but their meaning and cultural relevance is totally disregarded by director Dennis Hopper. He isn’t concerned with the obvious themes of power and feminism one might expect from a movie that is essentially about Jenny Holzer being kidnapped. Instead, Catchfire is a celebration of how romantic and sexy Stockholm Syndrome can be if you just give in to your captor and go with it!
The plot begins with Anne Benton/Jenny Holzer witnessing a mob assassination, and then going into hiding to avoid being targeted, herself. After eluding both the mobsters and police, she changes her name and moves to a new city, taking a job at an advertising agency. Now is the time for her conceptual artist survival skills to kick in, so she pulls out her famous line “Protect me from what I want” and slaps it on a lipstick ad campaign as the tagline. Well done!
Hopper not only directs, but also plays Anne/Jenny’s kidnapper, Milo. Though initially planning to kill her, he quickly becomes infatuated with her and her work, even purchasing a piece from her gallery. Realizing that he has fallen in love, he abducts her and forces her into a sexual relationship. Resisting this idea for two or three days, she then discovers that she loves him, too, even though they sometimes fight about what art really is: “Art is Charlie Parker and Hieronymus Bach, or whatever his name is,” Milo says.
All of this is presented as perfectly natural, although the heavy-handed acting and implausibility of the plot often make the film seem like a comedy. At any moment, the viewer might expect Anne to finally reveal her behavior as either an escape plan, or an elaborate performance art piece about male oppression of women. This never happens, and a final shot during the end credits shows Hopper ridiculously serenading Jodie Foster with a saxophone on a boat, a scene I am almost positive he did not intend to be seen by the general public.
In fact, Hopper was so unhappy with his work on Catchfire that he disowned it, even crediting himself as Alan Smithee (the pseudonym of choice for disgraced filmmakers). Vestron Pictures later re-cut and released it against his wishes, under the title Backtrack (both titles are just as arbitrary) keeping Hopper’s name, which prompted a lawsuit.
Everyone involved in the film must have really, really liked Dennis Hopper (or they didn’t read the whole script) as the cast includes quite a few well-known actors, and Dick Clark was the producer. Vincent Price, Charlie Sheen, John Turturro and Dean Stockwell all have major roles. Bob Dylan even makes an appearance as an artist who carves abstract wooden relief-paintings with a chainsaw (they are actually the work of artist Charles Arnoldi). And Catherine Keener has a cameo in a scene shot in Taos, New Mexico, which means it’s time to pull out the Georgia O’Keeffe book—“She’s the one who paints those flowers that look like genitalia, right?”