Frasier: Season 1, Episode 6 – “The Crucible”

screenshot-2016-12-11-11-33-54

You may think you’re an Art World insider, but you might actually just be a sucker. Even if you’re among the over-educated elite, like psychiatrist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), you’re not immune to the rules of business. And after all, the Art World operates by these rules, too.

Having recently purchased a painting by “one of this country’s premier artists,” Martha Paxton (portrayed by actual interdisciplinary artist Rachel Rosenthal), Frasier plans a cocktail party as an excuse to meet her.

When Ms. Paxton finally arrives at the soirée, she is wearing a poncho, which she explains she never takes off at parties in order to avoid shaking hands with people. Frasier describes this as “delightfully eccentric,” but the message is clear: artists are hard for other people to relate to. In Ms. Paxton’s case, she’s intentionally aloof—when Frasier’s brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), offers his hand to her, she simply stares at it and smirks.

screenshot-2016-12-10-19-06-45

Rachel Rosenthal and David Hyde Pierce in “Frasier”

She is also bald, which further sets her apart from the other guests. Ms. Rosenthal shaved her head in real life and one can imagine this being a major reason for her being cast. After the party is over, Frasier’s friend Daphne (Jane Leeves) remarks, “I don’t think that woman bathes.” (Because artists are dirty, right, Daphne?)

Frasier clearly adores Ms. Paxton’s painting, “Elegy in Green,” and gushes his praise at her: “The way you insinuate the palette, but never lean on it, you’ve captured the zeitgeist of our generation!” He also refers to her as the “preeminent Neo-Fauvist of the 20th century,” although contemporary artists usually aren’t described in such specific art historical terms.

screenshot-2016-12-10-19-09-34

Rachel Rosenthal in “Frasier”

Frasier’s bubble of pride is quickly burst when Ms. Paxton announces she isn’t the artist who created his prized piece. “I never saw this painting before in my whole life!” she sneers. Humiliation ensues.

Determined to return the fraudulent work, Frasier heads straight to the gallery where he originally purchased it. He’s met by the gallery’s owner, Phillip Hayson (John Rubinstein), and his duo of robotic assistants, wearing all black, of course. Hayson is a real wheeler and dealer, and when Frasier brings up his complaint, Hayson attempts to distract him with white wine and brie, and by superficially agreeing with everything he says. In the end, Hayson refuses to give Frasier his money back, citing a strict “all sales final” policy. In response to Frasier’s protests, he says “Dr. Crane, if you ever find justice in this world, let me know, will ya?”

screenshot-2016-12-10-19-52-00

Kelsey Grammer and John Rubinstein in “Frasier”

screenshot-2016-12-10-19-52-47

Gregory Eugene Travis, Eugenie Bondurant and John Rubinstein in “Frasier”

Frasier’s recourse is pure revenge: he plans to throw a brick through the gallery’s window. Although his brother, Niles, talks him out of it, Niles then carries out the vandalism, himself. As viewers, we are meant to share their catharsis, as we have been trained to hate the Art World as an impenetrable and ungenerous institution.

What’s striking about this rebuke is that Frasier Crane is not the “everyman” we usually see in this position—the regular folk who wouldn’t set foot in an art gallery. He is an insider, exposing the whole thing as a sham from within. And if this is how one of the club’s own members feels, it must truly be indefensible.

screenshot-2016-12-11-11-30-47

 

Advertisements

The Next Big Thing (2001)

Chris Eigeman in "The Next Big Thing."

Chris Eigeman in “The Next Big Thing”

If you’re an honest, hard-working painter who just can’t break into the art world, it’s probably because you’re a boring person. People want their artists to suffer. The stereotype made famous by Van Gogh, and beaten to death by the media ever since, is the underlying ethos in the premise of P.J. Posner’s goofy 2001 film The Next Big Thing.

Gus Bishop (Chris Eigeman) is a struggling artist who pays the bills doing clerical work of an unspecified nature. His generically pleasant paintings would feel at home in a hospital waiting room, and like most of us who pass such artworks en route to getting our flu shots, the art world doesn’t even notice them.

Things change when a petty thief named Deech Scumble (Jamie Harris) breaks into Gus’s apartment and steals one of his canvases. Deech pawns it off on his landlord with a made-up back-story about the mysterious and reclusive artist, a drug addict and incest survivor named “Geoffrey Buonardi” who also served in Vietnam. The landlord then sells it to his friend’s daughter’s gallery, adding that Buonardi’s family was killed by a tornado that ripped through his trailer park, and literally overnight, the art world is buzzing with intrigue.

Deech entangles Gus in a “get rich quick” scheme to sell more of his paintings under this false identity, convincing him that he doesn’t have what it takes to make it in the art world by himself. “You’re not gay, you’re not a junkie, you don’t paint with your teeth,” Deech says. “You’re a middle-class white kid from New Brunswick, New Jersey—zero sex appeal.”

The scam works, and Deech positions himself as Buonardi’s exclusive representative, handling all of his business transactions with galleries and the press so no one ever sees him (why do people think artists have reps?). It isn’t long before an undercover cop (Mike Starr) tracks them down after being hired by an obsessed collector, but he ends up extorting a cut of the profit from them. The three form an unlikely team, and eventually Buonardi’s work is sought after by the Whitley (yes, Whitley) Museum for its upcoming Biennial.

Chris Eigeman, Jamie Harris and Mike Starr in "The Next Big Thing"

Chris Eigeman, Jamie Harris and Mike Starr in “The Next Big Thing”

We’re meant to be rooting for Gus through all of this – he just wants to make a living from his art, and it seems the only way to do that is by working the system. But there is nothing to like about him because he is so boring (as the plot requires). He is as humorless as his art, neither of which makes for compelling cinema.

Nice palette.

Nice palette.

Having once been rejected by the art world, he is a reluctant “everyman.” Looking in from the outside, he condemns it for its duplicity and pretentiousness, jealous of his own alter-ego, and uses this to justify his crime. After Buonardi’s colossal success, Gus finally gets fed up with his role in a corrupt system and exposes himself as a fraud. By doing so, he also reveals the hypocrisy of the art world that fell for his deception.

Farley Granger and Janet Zarish in "The Next Big Thing"

Farley Granger and Janet Zarish in “The Next Big Thing”

Nearly every art world character in the film is a clown, carrying on melodramatically with an air of silly entitlement. Turtleneck-wearing arts administrators throw around meaningless artspeak in a boardroom– “He’s an anti-positivist!” “He’s a trans-realist!” while catty dealers and collectors trip over themselves trying to get their piece of the glory. The exception is an art critic named Kate Crowley (Connie Britton) whom Gus falls in love with because she writes glowing reviews of his work (and she’s pretty).

Don't forget to rip off Tony Oursler for no reason.

Don’t forget to rip off Tony Oursler for no reason!

The Next Big Thing wants to operate as a cultural commentary (before deciding to become a rom-com in its last act). But it’s too unambiguous in its moral position to hold any real depth or complexity, and the corny performances make light of any serious critique it might offer. One wonders who the audience for such a film might be when all that’s left is a string of obvious gags about an easy target that’s too specialized to attract mainstream interest.

Good grief, what is Damien Loeb doing in this movie?

Good grief. What is Damian Loeb doing in this movie?

10 THINGS HOLLYWOOD TEACHES US ABOUT THE ART WORLD

  1. Art Dealers are Evil…

    left to right: Steven Berkoff in "Beverly Hills Cop" (1984), Danny Huston in "Boogie Woogie" (2009) and Terence Stamp in "Legal Eagles" (1986)

    left to right: Steven Berkoff in “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984), Danny Huston in “Boogie Woogie” (2009) and Terence Stamp in “Legal Eagles” (1986)

    …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.

  2. Male Artists are Cads

    left to right: Steve Buscemi in "Life Lessons" (1989), Jorma Taccone in "Girls" (2013) and Adam Coleman Howard in "Slaves of New York" (1989)

    left to right: Steve Buscemi in “Life Lessons” (1989), Jorma Taccone in “Girls” (2013) and Adam Coleman Howard in “Slaves of New York” (1989)

    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.

  3. Regular People Hate the Art World

    left to right: Marla Gibbs in "227" (1990), George Dzundza and Chris North in "Law & Order - Prisoner of Love" (1990) and Tom Cruise in "Cocktail" (1988)

    left to right: Marla Gibbs in “227” (1990), George Dzundza and Chris North in “Law & Order – Prisoner of Love” (1990) and Tom Cruise in “Cocktail” (1988)

    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.

  4. The Art World is Fancy

    fancy

    left to right: Christine Belford in “Family Ties – Art Lover” (1982), Hank Stratton and Carol Bruce in “Perfect Strangers – Tux for Two” (1987) and Iris Marshall in “Color Me Blood Red” (1965)

    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.

  5. Art People Talk Funny

    left to right: Julianne Moore in "The Big Lebowski" (1998), Diane Keaton in "Manhattan" (1979) and Amy Poehler in Old Navy TV commercial (2014)

    left to right: Julianne Moore in “The Big Lebowski” (1998), Diane Keaton in “Manhattan” (1979) and Amy Poehler in Old Navy TV commercial (2014)

    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.”

  6. Artists are Scumbags

    left to right: Dick Miller in "A Bucket of Blood" (1959), Viggo Mortensen in "A Perfect Murder" (1998) and Jim Broadbent in "Art School Confidential" (2006)

    left to right: Dick Miller in “A Bucket of Blood” (1959), Viggo Mortensen in “A Perfect Murder” (1998) and Jim Broadbent in “Art School Confidential” (2006)

    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.

  7. Anything Can be Art

    left to right: Dan Castellaneta in "The Simpsons- Mom & Pop Art" (1999); Janice Kent and Jean Smart in "Designing Women" (1991) and Marla Gibbs, Toukie Smith and Luise Heath in "227" (1990)

    left to right: Dan Castellaneta in “The Simpsons- Mom & Pop Art” (1999); Janice Kent and Jean Smart in “Designing Women” (1991) and Marla Gibbs, Toukie Smith and Luise Heath in “227” (1990)

    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.

  8. Artists Have Rocky Love Lives

    left to right: Radha Mitchell and Ally Sheedy in "High Art" (1998), Daryl Hannah in "Legal Eagles" (1986) and Dennis Hopper and Jodie Foster in "Catchfire" (1990)

    left to right: Radha Mitchell and Ally Sheedy in “High Art” (1998), Daryl Hannah in “Legal Eagles” (1986) and Dennis Hopper and Jodie Foster in “Catchfire” (1990)

    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.

  9. Art People Hate the Country

    Embeth Davidtz in "Junebug" (2005), Catherine O'Hara in "Beetlejuice" (1988) and Kim Basinger in Nine ½ Weeks" (1986)

    left to right: Embeth Davidtz in “Junebug” (2005), Catherine O’Hara in “Beetlejuice” (1988) and Kim Basinger in “Nine ½ Weeks” (1986)

    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.

  10. Artists Will Do Anything for Attention

    left to right: Jaime Winstone in "Boogie Woogie" (2009), Cesar Romero in "Batman - Pop Goes the Joker" (1967) and Max Minghella in "Art School Confidential" (2006)

    left to right: Jaime Winstone in “Boogie Woogie” (2009), Cesar Romero in “Batman – Pop Goes the Joker” (1967) and Max Minghella in “Art School Confidential” (2006)

    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.

The Simpsons: Season 10, Episode 19 – “Mom and Pop Art” (1999)

Screenshot 2014-11-11 08.29.03

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.

Isabella Rossellini in "The Simpsons"

Isabella Rossellini in “The Simpsons”

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.

Jasper Johns in "The Simpsons"

Jasper Johns in “The Simpsons”

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.

*Screenshot 2014-11-10 20.45.31

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.

*Screenshot 2014-11-10 20.48.21

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.

*Screenshot 2014-11-10 21.13.47

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.”

*Screenshot 2014-11-10 21.15.09

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.

Art School Confidential (2006)

Untitled-12

“In order to be a great artist, you simply have to be a great artist,” so says Strathmore Institute alumnus, Marvin Bushmiller (Adam Scott). “There’s nothing to learn, so you’re all wasting your time.” One is likely to agree with him after watching Art School Confidential. Illustrator Daniel Clowes turned his experiences as an art student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn into a comic book, and later the screenplay on which the film is based. Directed by Terry Zwigoff, the plot delivers a checklist of art world stereotypes with a machine-like efficiency that leaves no one unscathed.

The filmmakers apparently hold a great deal of contempt for the art world at large, offering us zero characters we can really look up to. Everyone in the story seems to have an ulterior motive. Our would-be hero, Jerome (Max Minghella), is a freshman at Strathmore, and we’re meant to sympathize with him as his is classmates dismiss his skilled, but illustrative, drawings. There seems to be no reason behind their capricious tastes for the haphazard and confounding.

Joel David Moore and Max Minghella in “Art School Confidential”

For his part, Max has some questionable motivations of his own. He wants to be “the greatest artist of the 21st century,” not because he thinks he has something to say, but so girls will like him. In an early scene, we learn that Max once dressed up as Picasso for a school project, citing the painter’s success with women as an admirable quality. During the course of the film, Max pours all his efforts into impressing Audrey (Sophia Myles), the model from his figure drawing class. This is presented as a nobler plight than those of his classmates, who are apparently just egomaniacs trying to be as weird as possible.

Most of Strathmore’s teachers are presented as apathetic failures, with the exception of Anjelica Huston, who plays a warm-hearted art history professor. The rest seem more concerned with their careers than with teaching, and one literally spells it out on the chalkboard that he doesn’t care whether or not his students even come to class. Meanwhile, Professor “Sandy” Sandiford (John Malkovich) perpetually tries in vain to revive interest in his minimalist paintings of triangles. “I was one of the first,” he reminisces.

Untitled-1

John Malkovich in "Art School" Confidential

John Malkovich in “Art School” Confidential”

Strathmore, named for the manufacturer of artists’ materials, is clearly located in New York City but, for some reason, none of the students seem to be aware of the fact that the city is full of high profile galleries. Instead, they spend most of their spare time at a coffee shop called Broadway Bob’s, the place “where everyone gets their first big break.” Broadway Bob (Steve Buscemi, who portrayed bad boy art star Gregory Stark in New York Stories) grants a solo show in his café to whomever earns the highest grade in Strathmore’s end-of-year reviews (because that’s how these things work).

Steve Buscemi and Sophia Myles in "Art School Confidential"

Steve Buscemi and Sophia Myles in “Art School Confidential”

On his way to scoring the next coveted show amidst the coffee grounds is Jonah (Matt Keeslar), a jock who paints cartoony pictures of cars, tanks and baseball players (they were actually painted by Clowes while he was a student at Pratt). Although everyone praises him for his work, Jonah turns out to be an undercover cop who doesn’t even care about being an artist. Enter his fellow law enforcement officers trying to solve a campus murder case (an oddly random subplot) who refer to the art students as “fucking freaks.” It’s the classic scenario of “regular people” who briefly encounter the art world, expose its duplicity and ultimately reject it (see Beverly Hills Cop, Law & Order, and Designing Women, among others).

Matt Keeslar in "Art School Confidential"

Matt Keeslar in “Art School Confidential”

Although the extreme stereotypes in Art School Confidential will strike a chord of truth for anyone who has ever attended an art college, such cautionary tales will hardly deter ambitious young artists from the long, hard path to glory. Endless generations have heard and ignored the warnings of poverty and failure, such as Sandy’s advice to “go to banking school or web site school—anywhere but art school” if you want to make money. Undergraduate tuition and fees at Pratt currently amount to $44,804 per year, but a fine arts degree is not intended to prepare one for the labor force. It’s an exchange of ideas and a chance to outdo the ideas of one’s peers. As with the entertainment industry, society assumes that fame is the ultimate goal of the artist, and that can only be achieved by those who get our attention, however they can, preferably before dying.

Untitled-11

Law & Order: Season 1, Episode 10 – “Prisoner of Love” (1990)

-Screenshot 2014-07-18 21.53.16

“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.

-Screenshot 2014-07-18 21.51.28

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.”

-Screenshot 2014-07-18 22.42.51

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.

-Screenshot 2014-07-18 22.46.42

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.”

Screenshot 2014-07-27 22.03.52

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.

-Screenshot 2014-07-27 13.41.18

 

“Nine ½ Weeks” (1986)

Kim Basinger in

Kim Basinger in “Nine ½ Weeks”

Kim Basinger gets in over her head when she becomes romantically involved with a wealthy Wall Street banker (Mickey Rourke) who pushes the limits of her sexual boundaries. When the two of them aren’t doing it in a clock tower or rolling around in food, Basinger’s character, Elizabeth, is an assistant at a trendy SoHo art gallery. In her day-to-day work life (from which she is increasingly distracted), she handles the preparations for an upcoming exhibition by an elderly painter who lives alone in the country.

Kim Basinger in

How the directors of the Spring Street Gallery found the seemingly unknown Mathew Farnsworth (Dwight Weist) isn’t clear, but they are certainly taking a risk by showing his paintings. In one scene, Elizabeth presents a somber canvas to a hard-nosed art collector, slumping in his chair, completely bored. At his side is his pouting Boxer (equally nonplussed) who skeptically tilts his canine head.

Works by George Segal in

Works by George Segal in “Nine ½ Weeks”

The gallery, itself, is believable onscreen, and even features exhibitions by actual artists George Segal and Sarah Charlesworth as the backdrops for some early scenes. Harvey, the gallery’s director (David Margulies), comes across as a warm-hearted penny pincher when he orders hot water with lemon and Sweet’N Low, warning his assistant, “Don’t let ‘em charge you for it.” He explains, “I fast to save money.” His frugality and hands-on involvement with daily gallery operations give us a sense that he is in the business for the right reasons, i.e., his love of art. Harvey’s lack of affluence contrasts with what we usually see in Hollywood’s portrayal of art dealers, who are often presented as lecherous, greedy or even murderous (see Beverly Hills Cop, Legal Eagles, or Boogie Woogie, for example). From the media’s perspective, it seems an art dealer’s poverty is in direct proportion to his benevolence.

David Margulies and the work of Sarah Charlesworth Kim in

David Margulies and the work of Sarah Charlesworth in “Nine ½ Weeks”

On the other hand, Farnsworth is a weirdo, which aligns perfectly with the typical representations of artists in film and television. Three weeks before the opening of his show, the gallery is unable to contact him and they still don’t have all of his paintings. Fortunately, Elizabeth breaks out of her sex-trance long enough to head to the country and track him down. She finds Farnsworth sitting alone outside his secluded cottage, noodling with a dead fish and turning it over in his fingers, like a baby who has never seen one before. Elizabeth asks him if he even remembers he is having a show and he replies, “I remember to eat when I’m hungry and I remember to sleep when I’m tired” (he has only two lines in the entire film).

Kim Basinger and Dwight Weist in

Kim Basinger and Dwight Weist in “Nine ½ Weeks”

When Farnsworth’s show finally opens, the “fish out of water” metaphor alluded to earlier comes full circle. While his work is well received, he has nothing to say to the hipsters with mohawks and jelly bracelets buzzing around him. A colleague of Elizabeth’s refers to him as “creepy” and speculates that he might be “sub-literate or preverbal” because of the way he stares at them. As the gallery pulses with downtown decadence (Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones even has a cameo), Farnsworth appears exasperated and beleaguered. The camera then cuts to yet another fish being sliced up and doled out onto hungry party-goers’ plates (Get it?). Elizabeth looks on at his discomfort, sobbing, as if to say, “I’m a fish out of water, too, and I need to end my kinky dom/sub relationship as soon as possible!”

Ron Wood in

Ron Wood in “Nine ½ Weeks”

Dwight Weist, David Margulies and Karen Young in

Dwight Weist, David Margulies and Karen Young in “Nine ½ Weeks”

We often think of artists purely as city dwellers, their lives intertwined by necessity with the culture of metropolitan centers. It’s true that in cities, an artist is more likely to find a wider audience, but some decide they are better off without any outside interference. Lee Bontecou famously withdrew from the art world, retreating for decades to rural Pennsylvania in order to work without external pressures. She eventually reemerged into the public eye as the focus of several major shows and retrospectives, and her obscurity certainly amplified our curiosity about her.

The fate of Farnsworth’s career remains a cliffhanger, however. Since he doesn’t appear in the film’s (probably terrible) sequel, Another Nine ½ Weeks (1997), we’ll never know if he learned to swim in the cutthroat New York art world, or if it just chewed him up and spat him out.

Image

“Beetlejuice” (1988)

Image

Rurbanism is a silly buzzword for what one might call the “urban-rural confluence.” In other words, it’s what happens when city dwellers leave their metropolitan environments for the country and bring their cultural interests with them.

In Tim Burton’s 1988 film “Beetlejuice,” Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones) relocates his eccentric family from New York City to a country house in the fictional town of Winter River, Connecticut, following a nervous breakdown. His artist wife, Delia (Catherine O’Hara), is initially unhappy with the decision. “Charles, I will not stop living and breathing art just because you need to relax!” she protests. But when they discover that the house is haunted, Delia can’t get enough of the supernatural antics (translation: artists are weird and they like weird things).

The ghosts haunting them, the recently deceased Adam and Barbara Maitland (played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin before he was scary in real life), are the polar opposites of the Deetzes. Mild mannered and humble, all they want is for the intruding urbanites to leave them in peace. Meanwhile, Delia has already begun redecorating the house to remove any trace of their rustic sensibilities as Charles plots ways to profit from the paranormal spectacle (translation: city slickers are greedy and they only care about money).

Helping Delia to transform her drab surroundings is a catty interior designer named Otho (Glenn Shadix). The smirking Otho, who struts about in black suits and kimonos, is here to make sure you know that anyone interested in contemporary aesthetics is an asshole. “You’re lucky the yuppies are buying condos,” he tells Charles, “so you can afford what I’m going to have to do to this place.” What he does involves a lot of faux granite finish, glass block windows and comical yellow slabs that jut out of the house’s façade.


Image

For her part, Delia seems even more high-strung and fragile out of her comfort zone than her nerve-wracked hubby. While the movers are handling her sculptures, which look like props from a dinosaur’s Halloween party, she barks at them to be careful. From the looks on their faces, it’s clear the men do not recognize the value of her work, and when Delia accidentally gets pinned underneath one of her own pieces, she totally deserves it.


Image

After they modernize the place, they Deetzes host a dinner party for their nasty city friends, one of whom writes for Art in America. The group hurls insults at one another across the dining room table, but their bickering is ultimately interrupted when they are supernaturally possessed by Adam and Barbara. Spoiling their cool aloofness, the ghosts manipulate them like puppets, forcing them to do the calypso and lip-sync to Harry Belafonte.

 

Image

The Deetzes and their paranormal cohabitants eventually find a way to coexist, largely facilitated by their daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder), who can liaise with the dead because she’s goth. Delia even channels spectral inspiration into her sculpture and lands the cover of Art in America.

Image

While Winter River, Connecticut, doesn’t actually exist, rurbanism is a very real phenomenon in towns like Hudson, New York. The upstate community, with a population of roughly 6,700 people, has seen a recent influx of New York City galleries opening secondary spaces on its main drag, Warren Street. A couple of blocks away is the future site of the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI), a museum space for “long-durational works.” No doubt, if the Deetzes were around, they would be trolling Hudson’s real estate market for haunted houses.

Untitled-3

Webster: Season 2, Episode 20 – “What is Art?” (1985)

Image 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.

Image

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).

Image

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.

Image

“Blue Is the Warmest Color” (2013) & “High Art” (1998)

Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

If you are questioning your sexual identity and need someone to work it out with, an artist is really the way to go. But remember, if and when everything falls apart, it’s your own fault because you’re the one who was so confused in the first place, so do not blame the artist.

Just ask the protagonists in these two well-acted films about the sexual awakenings of lesbians portrayed by heterosexual actors. The storylines in “High Art” and “Blue Is the Warmest Color” both involve a confused, young woman who falls in love with an older female visual artist. And besides the fact that artists are terrific relationship material, movie directors have plenty of good reasons to cast them opposite an ingénue in the process of self-discovery. Here are a few of them:

  1. As nonconformists, artists make their own rules, giving them a reputation for being “edgy” and often unstable. An individual questioning her own identity may be drawn to this, regarding the artist as sympathetic.
  2. There is something inherently romantic and mysterious about what artists do, which makes them alluring.
  3. An artist’s lover can also become her muse, resulting in the visible byproducts of her affection in the form of paintings, photographs, etc. As viewers, this gives us a more visually interesting experience than seeing a poet reading aloud her love notes, for instance, or a singer / songwriter crooning sentimental ballads. The act of posing for a portrait also plays into one’s vanity and desire to be doted on (see “The Golden Girls”: Season 3, Episode 13). Of course, the muses in both films are traditionally attractive people, and the artwork created in their likenesses demonstrates conventional aesthetic ideals of beauty.
Radha Mitchell and Ally Sheedy in "High Art"

Radha Mitchell and Ally Sheedy in “High Art”

Despite the narrative parallels, the characters and their motivations differ significantly in each plot. First, age factors into how we see Emma (Léa Seydoux) and Lucy (Ally Sheedy) as artists and people. In “Blue,” Emma is still young, just on the verge of a promising painting career. She seems to have things figured out, and comes from a supportive family with hip, progressive parents who drink white wine. Emma knows who she is and what she wants—an attractive quality in anyone.

Léa Seydoux in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

Léa Seydoux in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

In “High Art,” photographer Lucy Berliner, who is significantly older than her new love interest, Syd (Radha Mitchell), has essentially retired as an artist. In fact, it is only when Syd presents an opportunity to be published in the prominent photography magazine she works for that Lucy considers producing work again. It isn’t the potential revival of her career that interests her, however—it is the chance to be closer to Syd. Their connection is palpable, but Syd’s intentions lie somewhere between infatuation and ambition. Bored with her boyfriend and her ineffectiveness at work, she sees Lucy as a chance to get intimately close to greatness. She’s like a teenager who wants to fall in love with a rock star, but Lucy’s stardom peaked a decade ago, and then she self-destructed.

Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell in "High Art"

Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell in “High Art”

The film’s dark view of Lucy’s life reveals a cultural bias about age. She isn’t even that old, but she’s outgrowing the rebellious scenes of youth once captured in her pictures. Like her regular lover, Greta (Patricia Clarkson), Lucy is a junkie spinning her wheels. She’s also constantly surrounded by a crew of younger hangers-on, who use her apartment as their party headquarters. In this way, she takes on a den-motherly role, though what she offers them seems less than maternal.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), on the other hand, is an outsider to her girlfriend Emma’s art world, and shows little interest in it. For this reason, their connection is perhaps simpler—uncomplicated by professional ambitions. The intensity of their attraction is demonstrated through a series of explicit sex scenes of epic running time (which you probably already know about even if you haven’t seen the film). She appears perplexed by Emma’s career, however, and her only involvement in it is being her muse. Director Abdellatif Kechiche seems to define a patriarchal dynamic between the two of them, and even instructed actress Léa Seydoux to emulate Marlon Brando and James Dean in her portrayal of the presumably masculine characteristics of an artist. Meanwhile, when Adèle isn’t posing nude for portraits, she retires to the kitchen to prepare copious amounts of spaghetti.

Adèle Exarchopoulos in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

Adèle Exarchopoulos in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

When Emma’s first big art opening comes around, it’s a few years after they’ve split up and Adèle is clearly ill at ease there. We’ve seen many depictions of gallery receptions as cliquish and exclusive, uncomfortable environments for people who don’t usually go to them. But here, the gallery becomes a metaphor for Emma, herself. Adèle finally realizes that she cannot be part of her new life, and she walks out of the gallery, and away from Emma, perhaps for good.

Adèle Exarchopoulos in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

Adèle Exarchopoulos in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

As a character, Emma’s personal stability and clarity set her apart from most portrayals of artists in the media, and perhaps this illustrates the difference between American and European attitudes toward the arts. Lucy ultimately proves less resilient—a victim of her own bad habits. And Syd, her moon-shaped baby-face looking slightly less innocent, finds her image permanently preserved in Lucy’s oeuvre. From the other side of the lens, she learns that good art doesn’t come easy.

Radha Mitchell in "High Art"

Radha Mitchell in “High Art”