- 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.
Junebug is the second feature film to be noted on this blog with an art dealer named Madeleine as a main character. And like Madeleine Gray, from (Untitled) of 2009, we like her (most of the time). We might like her more if we were seeing her in her own element—the big city art world—but the dramatic momentum of Junebug is fueled by the friction of cultural clashes. So when Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) travels to rural North Carolina with her new husband (Alessandro Nivola) to meet his family, we see her through their eyes—that is, as a weirdo.
Even weirder is the man she is really there to see: a reclusive, self-taught artist named David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor)—Madeleine owns a gallery in Chicago devoted to “outsider” artists like him. Wark’s violent, sexually charged paintings immediately recall the works of Henry Darger. In place of Darger’s scores of massacred children, Wark details sprawling scenes of Civil War era battles, slavery and rebellion, rife with severed heads, half-human snakes and huge penises ejaculating bullets. Since he says he has never personally known an African American (he uses another term), he paints the faces of white people he’s met on top of dark-skinned bodies. Wark sees himself as a collaborator with God, and says his job is “to make the invisible visible.”
Director Phil Morrison allows our eyes to linger for a long while on Wark’s paintings, which were created specifically for the film by Brooklyn artist, Ann Wood. Their presence is more than superficial, carrying thematic weight as the “outsider” motif parallels Madeleine’s situation as an oddity in her current surroundings.
For her part, Madeleine is overwhelmingly enthusiastic about Wark and his work. “I love all the dog heads and computers and all the scrotums,” she gushes. But does she really understand what he’s doing, or who he is as a complete person? Wark’s plea for her to accept Jesus Christ as her savior is simply ignored, and when he reveals his anti-semitism, it gives her pause, but she ultimately lets it slide as long as he signs her gallery contract.
Charming and worldly (she was born in Japan and raised in Africa), Madeleine is good at what she does and knows what she wants. However, with the exception of Amy Adams’ character, her in-laws treat her with stand-offish skepticism, merely tolerating her and her city-slicker ways. They’re dumbfounded when she greets them with a kiss on each cheek, and her mother-in-law immediately speculates about whether Madeleine looks like she can cook.
Nonetheless, Madeleine seems to really try to fit in (though babies cry when presented to her and group prayer makes her visibly uncomfortable). The rest of the time, her smile beams generously and her love for her husband is so palpable it keeps people up at night. We’re behind her, except when her professional ambitions eclipse her loyalty to family.
As a director, Morrison is shrewd enough to use stereotypes without making them seem one-dimensional. The art dealer is a stylish, charismatic atheist from a wealthy background who speaks with an accent, while the small town southerners are not well-traveled, but deeply religious and committed to family and tradition. We observe their faults, as well as their virtues, and weigh the simplicity of country living against the complexities of city life. We also question what it really means to be an outsider. It is all in one’s perspective: Madeleine has come from the outside to bring an artist into her world, but one who probably doesn’t even fully understand what is happening to him. One may wonder if Wark really needs people like her in his life, and where the lines are drawn between appreciation, interference and exploitation.