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

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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Kelsey Grammer and John Rubinstein in “Frasier”

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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.

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Murder, She Wrote: Season 12, Episode 9 – “Deadly Bidding”

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Angela Lansbury in “Murder, She Wrote”

The much hated Art World is a popular setting for crime-based TV shows because it provides the opportunity to introduce unlikeable villains and high-value collateral as the target for criminal activity.

Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) is bidding at auction on an Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript for the museum where she serves as a committee member. Also at auction is a stolen painting by Edgar Degas, “The Dancing Class,” valued at $15 to $20 million. In order to transfer its ownership undetected, the scammers have had it painted over by a lesser known artist, Angus Neville (Doug Hutchison) with a schlocky abstraction entitled “Arrangement in Gray and Red,” an obvious reference to representational painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

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The stolen Degas

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The cover-up

The plan is to auction off Angus’s painting to an accomplice who’s been clued in that the masterwork is concealed underneath. We are told that Degas was the only artist to secure his canvas stretchers with tulip-wood wedges (though I found no information to corroborate this claim) and this becomes important to investigators in identifying the modified canvas as his.

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Doug Hutchison as Angus Neville

A grubby scumbag type with greasy hair, Angus wears sunglasses inside and smokes in almost every scene, even tossing a lit cigarette butt onto the gallery floor at one point. He has a side gig of producing art forgeries for the black market, but business must be slow. He doesn’t have “a pot to soak his brushes in” as his latest client puts it, a strange characterization for an artist whose work has already reached the secondary market. Based on what we’re shown of Angus, it’s hard to believe that anyone would trust him with the task of painting over a $20 million painting in such a way that it could later be removed (if that’s even possible).

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Craig Richard Nelson as Felix Wester

Moving on to our next art world stereotype, we have art dealer Felix Wester (Craig Richard Nelson), a gangly, fussy man who carries a pet Chihuahua tucked under his arm at all times. He is frequently seen bickering and rolling his eyes, and after Angus is murdered, he brags that prices for his paintings are going to go “through the roof.”

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Martin Jarvis as Giles Havelock

Then there is Giles, the auctioneer (Martin Jarvis). It turns out he is the one responsible for murdering Angus, admittedly to steal back the twice stolen Degas painting, which Angus stole from the auction house. He says it’s the only thing he could think of to keep the auction house afloat, but that doesn’t do much to win our sympathies.

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Jeff Williams as Pete

Lastly, there is Pete (Jeff Williams), the boyfriend of Jessica’s museum colleague and a stark contrast to these three obnoxious art world insiders. An aspiring photographer, Pete is timid about putting his work out there, although his girlfriend tried to show it to Felix, the catty art dealer. He’s the only likeable Art World character of the lot, and he hasn’t even been initiated into its ranks. The message is clear – one is better off staying out of it, lest he become corrupted, himself, or even… murdered!

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Beverly Hills, 90210: Season 6 (1995)

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Jennie Garth and Jason Wiles in Beverly Hills, 90210

On a show full of enfants terrible, it takes a lot for one character to sink to the bottom of the likeability scale. And when there’s an artist in the group, it’s not hard to figure out who the outcast will be… that’s right, it’s the artist.

We already know that male artists are cads, but Colin Robbins (Jason Wiles) is also a cocaine addict, who turns his girlfriend into a cocaine addict, and then gets sent to prison (but not before trying to skip town). He is also technically a prostitute because he has sex with his art dealer in exchange for her selling his paintings.

Colin's art dealer Claudia Van Eyck (Mary Crosby) tells Kelly like it is.

Colin’s art dealer, Claudia Van Eyck (Mary Crosby), tells Kelly like it is.

Colin is physically indistinguishable from the rest of his So Cal counterparts, aside from the paint smears on his clothes. You might mistake him for a JC Penney model were it not for the hippy-dippy things he says, hoping he doesn’t “forget how fresh strawberries taste” while he’s in prison, for example.

Painter or hunk? Colin Robbins (Jason Wiles)

painter / heart-throb Colin Robbins (Jason Wiles)

From the way the other characters treat him, we are meant to believe that Colin has received substantial acclaim for his work. When his girlfriend’s roommate Clare (Kathleen Arnold) meets him, she regurgitates a quote she has memorized, for some reason, from a review of Colin’s work in Art News: “Colin Robbins’ work attains a formal depth and radiance, yet reflects the tangential nature of living in a fast, media-filled environment.”

For the most part, the paintings are comprised of circles, squares and stripes, painted in different colors and textures. An exception is the time he paints a picture of a cake with a dude in a toga for his girlfriend’s birthday (a painting that oddly ends up later in his gallery show, presumably for sale).

Happy Birthday, Kelly!

Safety Tip: Do not EVER smear toxic oil paint all over your face, or someone else's face, unless you like using turpentine as a skin cleanser!

Safety Tip: Do not EVER smear toxic oil paint all over your face, or someone else’s face, unless you like using turpentine as a skin cleanser!

The script is problematic as it seems to jumble up the logical course of events in an artist’s career. We know that Colin already has gallery representation and has been written about in a major publication, but then he is commissioned to paint a gaudy mural in his friend Valerie’s night club (and it looks exactly like a mural you’d expect to see in a night club). Maybe he should have his next show at the Peach Pit Diner next-door.

Hope they don't spill too much Budweiser on Colin's latest work...

Hope no one spills beer on Colin’s new work…

Colin routinely puts his artwork before the needs of his girlfriend Kelly (Jennie Garth). The assumption that artists are selfish is a familiar trope, as is the cliché that they rely on drugs as a catalyst for creativity. The sensationalized substance abuse by Basquiat, Damien Hirst and Jackson Pollock, among others, reinforces the audience’s predisposition to accept this as the norm. It is even confirmed in Colin’s mind after a collector buys two of his new canvases he painted while high. “You don’t need coke to paint,” his friend Valerie (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) tells him. “No,” he says, “I only need it to paint well.” But when he gets Kelly hooked on coke, as well, he loses our sympathy completely.

“High” art

As an artist (and a New Yorker), Colin is an outsider amongst his friends, but his most significant distinction is that he is the only truly unredeemable character in the season’s storyline. After being sentenced to two years in prison for drug possession and resisting arrest in a high-speed car chase, he then puts his friends who bailed him out in jeopardy by fleeing when he is supposed to turn himself in. It then becomes the plight of the rest of the cast to track him down and bring him to justice, even briefly uniting arch rivals Kelly and Valerie for the cause.

Indeed, Colin is no less than a villain. And, as is to be expected when villains are defeated, a great relief settles in his victims when he is apprehended by the authorities. Such was the relief when I realized I didn’t have to watch any more episodes of this show.

It could have been a brilliant career...

It could have been a brilliant career…

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

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    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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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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The Artist as Player in “Girls” & “The Golden Girls”

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“Women can be so silly. They think because you are an artist, you must also be a great lover,” says Laszlo Gregorian (Tony Jay), a fictional Hungarian artist portrayed in the TV sit-com “The Golden Girls” (1987). In fact, that’s what Blanche, Dorothy and Rose are all counting on when they begin competing for his attention. Laszlo invites the three ladies to pose nude for him in his studio in preparation for a new sculpture commissioned by a local museum. However, each of them believes she is his only muse, and conflict arises when the truth comes out.

Though no sex actually takes place between Laszlo and his subjects, the experience is clearly a very sexual one for the three friends. The women are spellbound by his worldliness and sophistication (he’s from Europe), and his adoration of their physiques appeals to their vanity and makes them feel desirable.

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He also flatters them with his words, praising Dorothy’s strength and character, Blanche’s sensuality and Rose’s softness. He even goes so far as to give each of them a key to his studio. Through Laszlo, not only do they see the chance to be immortalized in a “classic work of art,” but also the possibility of romance with a “world famous artist.”

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Laszlo is so involved with his creative process (and himself) that he is either unaware of their advances or doesn’t care. And unfortunately for them, he cannot return their affections because he is gay, a detail he fails to make clear until his sculpture is finished and he no longer needs them.

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Helping to keep the artist/heartbreaker stereotype alive today is Booth Jonathan (Jorma Taccone) from the HBO series “Girls” (2013). The creation of writer/actor/director Lena Dunham (daughter of artists Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons), he is probably based on people Ms. Dunham has actually known in the New York art world. Booth is the kind of cocky, womanizing hipster who sleeps with his dealer and hates the High Line.

His persona is nothing new, reminiscent of Adam Coleman Howard’s character in “Slaves of New York” or Steve Buscemi’s role in “New York Stories,” both from 1989.  These bad boy art stars exploit their successes to get what they want from others, usually with little consequence. Indeed, Booth’s misogynistic behavior is constantly rewarded. Even after locking the star-struck Marnie (Allison Williams) inside one of his video-sculptures against her will, she later praises him for his talent and then has creepy sex with him. “I’m a man,” he tells her, “and I know how to do things.”

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It isn’t long before Marnie believes Booth is her boyfriend, but she is actually falling in love with what he represents to her. Having been fired from her gallery job and turned down for another, she is struggling with her own identity. She wants to be a part of his artist’s aura, perhaps seeing Booth as a window back into that world, and to its higher echelons.

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Like actors, artists have public personas, and their audiences often mistake these for the genuine, private self. Just as Blanche, Dorothy and Rose have done, Marnie projects an identity that isn’t really there. When it later becomes clear that Booth was just using her, he evades any blame for his role in the situation by throwing a tantrum about how “no one even knows me” and “everyone just uses me for what I represent to them.” No doubt, there’s another admirer in line to be the next victim of his abuse.

In the end, it seems there is always an ulterior motive beneath the artist’s apparent allure. Transparency is not one of the traits we desire in them — as with art, itself, we prefer our artists to be mysterious and unobtainable. Otherwise, we get bored and lose interest. So perhaps the asshole behavior we scorn is not only perpetuated by the media’s typecasting, but celebrated. Luckily for us, there will always be another asshole willing to oblige.

Perfect Strangers: Season 2, Episode 16 – “Tux for Two” (1987)

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

227: Season 5, Episode 20: “You Gotta Have Art” (1990)

If contemporary art would just go away, we could all get back to living our normal lives. That’s the prevailing message in this episode of “227,” a situation comedy from the ‘80s and ‘90s, set in Washington, D.C.

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Mary (Marla Gibbs) agrees to help her friend Eva (Toukie Smith) set up for a reception at the art gallery where she works after their regular assistant dies. When they arrive at “Gallery Moderne,” after laughing at the artwork, Mary notices an abstract painting hanging crooked on the wall. She assumes it’s a mistake and tries to straighten it, but she is interrupted when the gallery director, Ms. Richard (Luise Heath), rushes in to stop her. Returning the painting to its correct position, she explains, crazy-eyed, “The lines of passionate resistance must rush towards the impertinence of time at this precise angle.”

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Ms. Richard, whose bodily movements resemble those of a ballet dancer, speaks with an affectation that sounds like a cross between a Boston dialect and an English accent. When Mary compliments her and attempts to shake her hand, Ms. Richard ignores her, rolls her eyes and offers, “We think that this is the perfect environment to create a synergistic rapport between aahrt and the aficionado.”

During the opening, “world famous” art critic Barclay Hayward arrives wearing a monocle and tuxedo. Using a slightly more convincing English accent, he systematically undermines everything in the exhibition with the manner of witty one-liners used by the judges from “American Idol.” The gallery patrons applaud as he jeers, “They should take down the painting and hang the artist,” for example.

He cuts down everything in his path, until he sees a bottle of glass cleaner and a paper towel Mary accidentally left on a pedestal while cleaning up. Mistaking this for a sculpture, he pronounces that it “captures the frustration of the modern housewife,” dropping to his knees in admiration. At first incredulous, Ms. Richard quickly follows suit, pretending it’s her favorite piece (because contemporary art is so crazy that none of us really knows what it is until we are told by someone else). This “ordinary object left on a pedestal and mistaken for art” theme must be a favorite among television scriptwriters, as it showed up a year later on an episode of “Designing Women.”

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Mary tries to deflect this misplaced attention by directing Mr. Hayward to a realistic still life that Eva has painted, but he dismisses it outright. It is decided hastily that Margaret/Marge/Mary (they can’t remember her name) should be given a show immediately because it “will put Washington, D.C. on the map.”

The misunderstanding causes friction between Mary and Eva, but also evokes the long-debated clash of craft vs. concept. It’s a popular dramatic device in Hollywood’s depiction of the art world: the casual viewer can find an easy satisfaction in a well-executed representational painting, while conceptual (and even abstract) art is kept at arm’s length. This prejudice stems from the notion that we should be able to immediately recognize what an artwork is, rather than accepting that something is art because its maker says it is.

The day after the opening, a local arts publication compares Mary to Andy Warhol (though Duchamp is the more obvious reference) and hails her as the “Diva of the Dustpan.” Demonstrating how effortless art can be, Mary throws together some impromptu readymade sculptures at the dinner table with a ketchup bottle and some cornbread. Her family reacts with skepticism, but her subsequent solo exhibition at Gallery Moderne is such a success that she is invited to appear on “The Joan Rivers Show” (naturally).

For Mary’s media blitz, she is joined by Mr. Hayward, and presents a series of new sculptures consisting of a shoe horn, a carton of eggs and some boxes of band-aids. Joan Rivers, who confesses her lack of expertise, asks them why any average housewife couldn’t just pull together a bunch of groceries and be an artist, too. Outraged, Mr. Hayward replies, “I will be the one to decide whether it’s good or bad,” suggesting that it is the critic who defines an artist’s work, not the artist. He then applies clichéd, superfluous artspeak to each of Mary’s pieces (sometimes in rhyme), and proclaims that all of them represent a “subconscious hatred of men.”

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Mary gets fed up with the lines she’s being fed by Hayward, and tells him off once and for all on live TV. The wool pulled from her eyes, she realizes how foolish she was to have followed this false prophet, and it’s a triumph for regular, honest people everywhere.

Even Eva feels vindicated, realizing that conceptual art is a sham and no longer poses a threat to her career as a representational painter. In a final symbolic act, however, Mary’s husband Lester (Hal Williams) throws Eva’s latest gaudy canvas out the front door when he finds it hanging in their bedroom. The moment recalls the closing shot in the 1982 film “Poltergeist,” as the protagonists, having escaped being terrorized by ghosts from their television set, shove the TV in their makeshift hotel room out onto the veranda. Liberated from the cause of their problems, things can now finally get back to normal.

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