“Beetlejuice” (1988)

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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.


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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.


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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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