- 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.
“There is no art without money,” proclaims the director of the so-called Pavilion for Popular Art in this 1990 episode of Law & Order. The show’s storyline, however, seems aimed at fueling the argument against funding for the arts. It centers around the death of a controversial photographer named Victor More, who is known for his pictures of mannequins in leather bondage gear. After Mr. More is found dead with a noose around his neck (looking much like one of his own subjects), we learn that he was the casualty of a sex game gone wrong. Tracking down those responsible are Detective Mike Logan (Chris North) and Sergeant Max Greevey (George Dzundza), who soon find themselves on a whirlwind tour of the New York art world’s cantankerous, bureaucratic underbelly.
Their first stop is the Upper East Side home of Henry Rothman (Larry Keith), Commissioner of Artistic Affairs. In case some viewers might mistake his professional motivations for a love of the arts, Mr. Rothman immediately launches into a vulgar inventory of his art collection’s net worth : “See this painting? I paid $3,000 for it 20 years ago. Now it’s worth $30,000.”
Next on the list is the office of Art View Magazine, where a nasal-voiced editor wearing a bow tie dismisses Mr. More as “either a pornographer who got lucky or an opportunist who created for the market.” He then attributes More’s decidedly undeserved success to a talent for obtaining grants from the city.
This leads the detectives to Anita Swenson (Valerie Kingston), Assistant Deputy to the Commissioner of Artistic Affairs. She makes little effort to hide her contempt for her boss, Mr. Rothman, sneering, “His decisions are arbitrary and have nothing to do with art.” Ms. Swenson’s distaste for Mr. More is no less blatant. Her voice trembles bitterly as she recalls her written disapproval of a $50,000 grant he was to receive, and then implies More and Rothman were “personally” involved.
The investigation finally leads Logan and Greevey to wealthy art financier Elizabeth Hendrick (Frances Conroy), a patron of Mr. More. She is also a dominatrix and, as we later find out, the one ultimately to blame for his fatal sexual escapade. When Ms. Hendrick challenges the cops on their Puritanical reactions to the salacious nature of the case, Greevey explains their position this way: “The sleaze we deal with doesn’t usually end up hanging in a museum.”
It hardly seems coincidental that this production was released the year following the 1989 death of Robert Mapplethorpe (to whom Victor More is an obvious reference). An exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s photographs at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D. C. was also canceled that year after pressure from Republican representative Dick Armey. Museum officials claimed their actions were intended to protect congressional appropriations to the National Endowment for the Arts, but they later apologized for the move after intense public criticism.
1989 was also the year Andres Serrano’s controversial work “Piss Christ” famously triggered outrage from Republican senators Jesse Helms and Al D’Amato, as well as Pat Robertson and other leaders of the religious right. Opponents claimed Serrano’s work (which depicted a crucifix submerged in what was described as the artist’s urine) amounted to “anti-Christian bigotry.”
Sergeant Greevey seems to encapsulate this religious condemnation of the subversive. At one point, he asks his boss to remove him from the case, explaining that he’s Catholic and believes “these freaks aren’t going to the same place you and I are.” The writers of Law & Order were clearly capitalizing on a confirmed popular revulsion to art that challenges social norms. And, although BDSM has recently been elevated to the level of curious titillation by the book Fifty Shades of Grey, it has traditionally existed on the fringes of widespread sexual practice. In a similar way, artists are usually viewed as non-conformists and outliers of society. Art-related plot points make for an effective narrative recipe when combined with crime, as the mechanisms of the art world remain largely mysterious to most people.
Logan and Greevey, perpetually shocked and baffled by their suspects’ behavior, are surrogates for the viewer, embodying the popular clash between “regular folks” and “freaks.” We are meant to empathize with them, as with Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop or Robert Redford in Legal Eagles. It doesn’t help that the writers of Law & Order paint a picture of the art world as a soap opera full of bickering back-stabbers who can’t agree on the artistic merit of anything. With representatives like these, it’s understandable that viewers would be rooting to put them behind bars, where they can no longer squander our tax dollars.
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:
- 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.
- There is something inherently romantic and mysterious about what artists do, which makes them alluring.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“It is much better to say nothing than risk being wrong.” This quote by artist William Powhida (from his “Some Cynical Advice to Artists”) comes to mind after viewing this episode of the popular 1980s sit-com “Perfect Strangers.” Larry (Mark Linn-Baker) and his cousin Balki (Bronson Pinchot) are attending a black tie reception at a Chicago art gallery for Larry’s favorite photographer, Roger Morgan (James Greene). Larry, an aspiring photographer, is very apprehensive about how he will be perceived by Morgan and the sophisticated gallery crowd. Balki was not even his first choice as a guest because of his tendency to make foolish remarks, but his original date canceled.
Larry tries to preempt any potential embarrassment by coaching Balki on what to say if asked what he thinks of the artwork. “When they ask what you think,” he says, “you ask what they think, and then tell them the same thing.”
“But they already know what they think,” Balki protests.
Exactly,” says Larry. “And they want to hear the same from you.”
There are a few reasons behind this line of thinking: (1) the perceived quality of an artwork is based on subjective opinion, (2) people risk disagreeing with others by stating their opinions, and (3) the art world is often seen as an elitist environment, unreceptive to outsiders and those who are not in the know. With this in mind, Powhida’s suggestion to “say nothing,” while somewhat satirical, is rooted in truth. Larry knows he and Balki are yet uninitiated into the circle they are entering, so their best strategy to win its approval is to censor themselves and avoid being exposed.
Of course, in the interest of entertaining television, Balki doesn’t follow his instructions. The two of them have already been identified as outsiders the moment they walk through the gallery doors, attracting stares for Balki’s traditional Myposian suit (Mypos is the fictional Mediterranean country from where Balki came). Within minutes, he also manages to offend the gallery owner, Margaret Milgram (Carol Bruce), and her uppity, young assistant, Dennis (Hank Stratton), with inappropriate comments about toilets and high fiber diets.
The Milgram Gallery, itself, is fancy enough for its patrons to wear tuxedos and evening gowns, and is located in a building that resembles an opera house. It is not fancy enough to frame the artwork it exhibits, however, and most of the photographs are simply tacked to the wall by their mattes. The wall text of the exhibition’s title, “Roger Morgan: America,” is large and overly stylized, and a waiter circulates around the gallery offering guests “cocktail franks” and “finger sandwiches” (Balki thinks they contain actual fingers).
Despite these conventional indicators of lower-tier establishments, the Milgram Gallery is evidently so lofty that one can be thrown out just for stating his opinion. After Larry challenges Roger Morgan on a particular technical choice in one of his photographs, Ms. Milgram calls him a “blithering fool.” And after Balki mistakes her for Dennis’ nana, she calls security.
Every dramatic story must have an antagonist and, in this case, it is once again the art dealer. Ms. Milgram isn’t a murderer or a drug dealer, like those depicted in “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Legal Eagles,” for example, but she is a selfish gate-keeper. Revealing a prudish conservatism, she lambasts Balki’s clothes, smugly placing more importance on image than a curiosity for other people’s ideas. Larry ultimately stands up to her in Balki’s defense, effectively jeopardizing his chances of exhibiting his own photographs, but exposing her as petty and rude.
And here is where the show distinguishes itself as being one of the few instances of popular media to depict an artist with genuine integrity. Before they can be removed from the gallery, Morgan pulls Larry and Balki aside to commend them for their honesty. “Usually when I ask people what they think, they turn around and say, ‘What do you think?’” Morgan even agrees with Larry’s suggestion that he should have used a wide angle lens in a photograph titled “Hitchhiker on the Road to Bitterness,” explaining that he accidentally locked the lens in the car. He then remembers Larry’s submission to a photography contest he judged and offers to help him with his career. Lastly, it turns out Morgan speaks Myposian (Balki’s native tongue). Lest there be any doubt, this man is a hero—a true everyman, capable of traversing the boundaries between the art world and the outside world. Artists at large might even enjoy a better reputation if there were more characters like him in the media…but he really needs to find a better gallery.
“Pecker” is basically an inside job. Director John Waters is an exhibiting artist, himself, and is currently represented by Marianne Boesky Gallery (he showed with American Fine Arts at the time of production). Waters gets a lot right in this decidedly autobiographical film, operating within two territories he is very comfortable in: his hometown of Baltimore and the New York City art world. Striking a satisfying equilibrium between the two conflicting cultural spaces, he makes fair game of the foolishness to be found in each.
The story revolves around an aspiring Baltimore-based photographer of indeterminate age named Pecker (Edward Furlong), who experiences the world almost entirely through the lens of his camera. A gift from his mother (procured from the thrift store she runs), the camera is simple and uncomplicated, just like Pecker’s relationship with his environment. He seems devoid of cynicism, and his nonstop photo-documentation of the people in his life is almost always met with benevolence.
Things change when he is discovered by a New York art dealer named Rorey (Lili Taylor), who happens upon his exhibition of photographs at the sandwich shop where he works. Rorey becomes instantly infatuated (with Pecker and his art) giving him his first sale (a close-up photograph of a stripper’s vagina) and offering him a show at her Chelsea gallery.
Pecker’s big opening is the very next scene. The space appears to be on West 22nd Street, and Waters tips his hat to a few actual galleries in the neighborhood as the windows of Cheim & Read, D’Amelio Terras, 303 Gallery and Matthew Marks flash on the screen. Cindy Sherman even makes a cameo as herself.
Pecker’s family and friends (portrayed as unsophisticated, but good-hearted folks) take the bus up from Baltimore to support him. They are obvious outsiders among these big city art snobs, and the culture clash is best summed up by Pecker’s girlfriend Shelley (Christina Ricci), who sneers, “These people don’t go to laundromats. They go to drycleaners.” While Pecker’s dad marvels at the $1,300 price tag for each photograph, his mom swipes a plate of hors d’oeuvres (uncommon at most blue chip art openings) and delivers it to some homeless people outside. She then invites them to the after party. His older sister (Martha Plimpton), who works in a gay strip club, calls everyone “Mary” in a try-hard effort to appear savvy. And his “Memama” (Jean Schertler) totes around a ventriloquist doll of the Virgin Mary that she believes is alive.
The show, itself, is an instant success. His new audience fetishizes the poverty and otherness they see in Pecker’s images, ironically objectifying the subjects as if they were fictional characters. He lands a glowing review in the New York Times and a curator from the Whitney calls him a “humane Diane Arbus.”
While his art career takes off, Pecker’s newfound fame drags his family life downhill. Unwanted press exposure begins with the Times calling his loved ones “culturally challenged,” while Memama shows up on the cover of Artforum. Other unintended consequences include his sister being hastily diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder by a Child Protection Services agent and the shuttering of a local gentleman’s club (The Pelt Room) for its promotion of pubic hair. Even his home is burglarized by one of his unwilling subjects, and a cop investigating the crime remarks, “What they call art up in New York, young man, looks like just plain misery to me.”
In one of the film’s few false notes, Rorey sends Pecker a gift in honor of his success—a brand new Nikon camera to replace his trusted, early model Canonet. It’s an unusual gesture, as most self-aware dealers would avoid meddling in an artist’s process this way. And since Pecker’s acclaim grew out of a bare-bones approach to photography, why would she want to change it?
Rorey’s tone-deafness continues as she suggests including a shot of Pecker’s sister sobbing in a special edition for Parkett Magazine. And for his upcoming show at the Whitney, tentatively titled “A Peek at Pecker,” she offers a poster depicting his girlfriend Shelley yelling at him. Shelley really does get upset when she spies Rorey and Pecker kissing, prompting her to scream, “I hate modern photography!”
To even the score, Pecker’s brilliant (really) plan is to cancel his show at the Whitney, and hold an exhibition in a Baltimore bar. This time, the subjects aren’t his friends and family—once gawked at like exotic birds by the art world elite. When the critics, collectors and curators from New York arrive, they see themselves in black and white, magnified to grotesque proportions. What’s beautiful about this table-turning stunt is that each camp seems to realize how they are viewed by the other. It all culminates in a dance party (the ultimate leveling force) and a toast is made to “the end of irony.” Isn’t that what we’re all waiting for?