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

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

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

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

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

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

Radha Mitchell and Ally Sheedy in “High Art”

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

Léa Seydoux in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

Léa Seydoux in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

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

Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell in "High Art"

Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell in “High Art”

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

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

Adèle Exarchopoulos in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

Adèle Exarchopoulos in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

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

Adèle Exarchopoulos in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

Adèle Exarchopoulos in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

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

Radha Mitchell in "High Art"

Radha Mitchell in “High Art”

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

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Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director living in Schenectady with his wife, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), who is a painter. Though Caden has enjoyed some acclaim for his work, Adele has no respect for him as an artist and even fantasizes about his dying, freeing her to start over. Having sewn the seeds of doubt in Caden’s mind, Adele goes to Berlin, taking their daughter, Olive, with her. When they leave, Caden gradually starts to die.

They never return, and though she is absent for the remaining three quarters of the film, Adele and her creative success loom over Caden like something he once read about in a book, but never really knew. His health deteriorating (he suffers from pustules, malfunctioning pupils and seizures), he sees an Elle magazine exposé in the doctor’s office waiting room about Adele’s thriving career. “When I look I see. When I see, I paint. It’s that simple,” she says, and, “I’m at a point in my life where I only want to be around joyous, healthy people.” He tries in vain to reach her on the phone, but she can’t hear him and hangs up, saying, “I have to go, I’m sorry. There’s a party—I’m famous!”

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“It’s good to be Adele. Six months ago, Adele Lack was an under-appreciated housewife in Eastern New York. Stuck in a dead-end marriage to a slovenly, ugly-face loser, Adele Lack had big dreams for her and her then four-year-old daughter, Olive. That’s when her paintings got small.”

Adele’s paintings are minuscule portraits, created for the film by Russian-born artist Alex Kanevsky. They are so small that one must wear magnifying glasses to view them, and she ships them in miniature crates that look as if they were made for a dollhouse. It’s a visual joke that counters the heroic, macho scale adopted by many New York painters, and their size can be seen as both a metaphor and a marketing gimmick.

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After Caden receives a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” he goes about staging an impossibly ambitious, autobiographical play. The production, which remains in the works for decades, involves a life-size replica of Manhattan and, quite literally, a cast of thousands. Through his epic undertaking, Caden attempts to achieve artistic truth and relevance, the kind of glory he imagines his wife has left him behind for, all the while facing the inevitability of his own death. (His last name, Cotard, is a reference to Cotard’s syndrome, a rare neuropsychiatric disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that he or she is dead or does not exist.)

For her part, Adele is not only selfish, but downright cruel. She has kidnapped their daughter and the only direct communication she has attempted with Caden in the past twenty years is an impersonal fax instructing him not to read Olive’s diary. She’s also insufferably pretentious. For instance, the biographical wall text at her Met Museum retrospective reads, “The only art I ever saw was the smear of coal dust on my father’s shirts, but that was enough to stimulate my fascination with the idea of markings on fabric, traces of the real world left to linger as memory.” Spare me!

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Caden does, in fact, read Olive’s diary, which magically continues to write itself over time. Through it, he pieces together a picture of his family’s new life, while yet another magazine article proclaims Olive the “first child in human history with a full body tattoo.” As the line between Caden’s play and his real life slowly fades, he performs the role of Adele’s housekeeper, named Ellen. He scrubs her toilet when she isn’t home and receives patronizing notes from her, addressing him as Ellen (“Good for you with your grant!”). Neither Olive nor Adele seems aware of Caden’s recent achievement and recognition, but it clearly wouldn’t matter to them if they were.

The portrayal of Berlin as an artistic haven connects to an attitude that was popular around the time the film was produced. The “party” in New York was over, so to speak, and priced-out artists were moving to Berlin to make their work. Now the party in Berlin is over, and the new party is in Detroit or something. While Adele and Olive have moved on to greener pastures, Caden’s fixation on New York seems simultaneously quaint and solipsistic—he wallows in it.

As Adele has risen to celebrity status, Caden has been demoted to an outside observer. His experience of her is mediated through her press coverage, her Berlin gallerist who refuses to give out “personal informations” and finally, his daughter, who now speaks only German and lies dying in a hospital from infected tattoos.

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His exclusion from their lives underscores the pain of creative (and sexual) invisibility and the professional (and personal) jealousies that go along with it. Adele’s success seems more desirable to Caden than his own because he is no longer a part of it. Her life in Berlin is full of glamour and sexual freedom (Olive has become a lesbian and her nanny/tattoo artist is her lover). Free from Caden and his suffering, they live the ultimate artistic existence, and are celebrated for it. In their wake, he ultimately becomes his work—an actor in his play—which mirrors his own life and means nothing.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Since the films of the Coen brothers are filled with wild stereotypes, it’s no surprise to find a ridiculous portrayal of an artist among them. Maude, Julianne Moore’s character in “The Big Lebowski,” is first seen instigating a home invasion and physical assault on Jeff  “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), with the help of her two henchmen / studio assistants (she is reclaiming a rug The Dude took from her father which has “sentimental value” for her).

In her next scene, Maude is naked and flying through her studio while suspended from a gantry. She holds a paint brush in each hand, which she uses to splatter paint onto a canvas on the floor below. Judging from the results, which simply look like splashes of paint around a crude figure, there seems to be no reason for this elaborate, acrobatic method, aside from the shock effect of its theatricality in the film, itself.

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When Maude finally speaks, she comes across like a humorless dominatrix with a British accent. She uses strictly formal English, describing sex (“coitus”) as a sometimes “natural, zesty enterprise,” for example. And since she is clearly meant to be a caricature of a feminist artist, the word “vaginal” works its way into her speech 9.4 seconds after she first opens her mouth (I timed it).

Lending insight into the diversity of her artistic practice, Maude arrives at her studio the next day with an assortment of found objects for her assemblage sculptures. In one hand, she carries a sack full of second-hand kitchen utensils, and in the other a bald-headed mannequin (a prop that can be found in almost every artist’s studio depicted onscreen since 1970).

Waiting to greet her is her friend Knox Harrington (David Thewlis), “the video artist,” who laughs constantly to himself like a jackal who’s just played a secret practical joke on everyone. And when Maude receives a phone call from “Sandro about the Biennale,” both Knox and Maude get on the line and cackle uncontrollably to one another while The Dude stands by, feeling helplessly left out. (Translation: The Dude is a regular guy and the Art World is a big joke that regular guys aren’t in on.)

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Maude does soften up long enough to get The Dude into bed, but it’s only because she’s trying to conceive. “What did you think this was all about? Fun and games?” she says. But she doesn’t want a partner, nor does she want the father to be someone she has to see socially or who has “any interest in raising the child, himself.” That’s how self-sufficient Maude is.

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There is a distinctly witchy quality to Maude’s persona—she wears a cape, flies through the air and often appears flanked by two silent men who do her bidding. Intelligent, wealthy and beautiful, she also seems to wield great power, a trait Hollywood normally reserves for its male protagonists. It’s a striking contrast to the vulnerable, dysfunctional portrayals of women artists in films like “Legal Eagles,” “High Art” and “Catchfire.” As with most depictions of artists in the media (male or female), we rarely see one who is just a typical person whose occupation happens to be art-making. It doesn’t make for entertaining storytelling. Instead, we get either a pathetic mess, or in Maude’s case, someone so poised it verges on the supernatural.

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.

Legal Eagles (1986)

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Artists are trouble, especially when they’re Daryl Hannah. And if you are running for District Attorney in your town, you should definitely not get involved with them, or art dealers, or collectors. Look, just steer clear of the whole art world altogether, ok?

Robert Redford’s character, Tom Logan, learns this the hard way in the 1986 film directed by Ivan Reitman. It all starts when he agrees to give legal counsel to Chelsea Deardon (Daryl Hannah), the daughter of celebrated painter Sebastian Deardon, after she attempts to steal one of her father’s pieces. It’s complicated because she’s trying to recover a painting her father dedicated to her just before his murder, which Chelsea witnessed, herself, when she was eight years old.

The man responsible for his death is Victor Taft (Terrance Stamp). He is also the proprietor of an uptown art gallery on West 57th Street in New York City, just in case some readers are still not convinced that all art dealers in movies and television from the 1980s must be named Victor (or Victoria). Needless to say, he’s evil.

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Victor was kind enough to rescue Chelsea from the blaze, along with the canvas her father gave her. Not as fortunate were all of his other unsold works, which were destroyed in the fire. Or were they?

Incidentally, we never actually see Deardon’s paintings, as Reitman makes the choice not to show them (at least not from the front). It’s a shrewd decision, maintaining a sense of reverence through mystery, and more filmmakers should follow this example when it’s appropriate. In “Legal Eagles,” we do get a sense of context for Deardon’s career, understanding how his work is situated in the secondary market, among other artists like Dubuffet, Calder and Picasso—he isn’t quite in their ranks, but he is collected by their collectors.

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The true fate of Deardon’s oeuvre is gradually revealed by Logan and fellow defense attorney Laura Kelly (Debra Winger). As it turns out, Victor Taft was masterminding an insurance fraud scheme, heisting a number of the paintings and stowing them away. 17 years after committing his crimes, he seems to wield an awful lot of power. When Kelly and Logan accuse him of a cover-up, he threatens to singlehandedly dismantle both of their careers, suggesting they will never practice law again (isn’t this guy an art dealer?).

Chelsea, on the other hand, having been so traumatized by the violent episode she witnessed as a child, is now a performance artist. “She’s a what?” asks Logan. He later finds out exactly what that means when he gets a front row seat to one of her multimedia works. After inviting him to her spacious SoHo flat, she casually ignites paper sculptures of a house and a birthday cake and large format portraits of herself, and they combust into a small inferno. It’s like a Laurie Anderson piece with pyrotechnics, complete with spoken word elements and a synthesizer soundtrack. The imagery is all emotionally charged symbolism, harkening back to night of her eighth birthday party, and her father’s imminent death.

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She puts on quite a show but, aside from this being counter-intuitive behavior for someone who almost died in a fire, her work would undoubtedly set off every smoke detector within in a 100-foot range. But Chelsea doesn’t care—she’s an artist. She is at once exotic and a mess, and full of secrets. Men with guns follow her around at night . . . and could she have even killed someone? Her own criminal record has made her a reluctant enfant terrible, but her motives are pure, despite a slew of bad choices, such as seducing her attorney.

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The film’s characterization of Chelsea as an “emotionally disturbed” young woman who never fully grew up evokes a familiar bias toward artists, implying that her work is just a coping mechanism for trauma she experienced. Artists rarely appear well-adjusted in the entertainment industry, nor do they have regular, workaday lives like normal people. What’s more, as an attractive female artist, Chelsea’s character reminds us of the sexism that spans beyond the art world and into the culture at large. It isn’t clear how successful her artistic career is, but it is her looks, not her talent, that prove to be her most effective way of getting what she wants.

As is often the case in the movies, all of the non-art-world characters in “Legal Eagles” ultimately seem to return to some semblance of normalcy. The others end up either dead or, in Chelsea’s case, drifting through the rest of their damaged lives like bohemian space cadets. At least some viewers with future careers in law may possibly find inspiration to become Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts some day.

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(Untitled) 2009

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In the opening scene of “(Untitled),” a group of people stands before a pleasant but vague abstract painting, seemingly engaged in thoughtful contemplation. A moment later, we realize they were just waiting for the elevator.

The characters in this clever and often hilarious film directed by Joanathan Parker face issues that people in the art world genuinely grapple with—measures of success, dealing with criticism, what it means to sell out. It’s also notable for being one of the few motion pictures to portray an art dealer in a sympathetic light. The depiction of the gallery system, itself, is also handled reasonably well, aside from some problems that will be pointed out in detail later.

At the center of the story are two brothers: Josh (Eion Bailey), a successful painter of corporate lobby art, and Adrian (Adam Goldberg), who composes intellectual avant-garde music nobody likes. Adrian is holding out for notoriety that might never arrive, while Josh appears content with a particular kind of fiscal success, though he is not taken seriously by those whose respect he really desires.

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The person he wants to impress most is his art dealer, Madeleine Gray (Marley Shelton). She runs an “important gallery” in New York City that appears to be next door to Bortolami on West 20th Street. We like Madeleine. She clearly loves art and is intellectually curious. She’s also chic and beautiful, and wears extremely noisy clothes made out of vinyl, pompoms and other materials that might potentially disrupt a chamber music performance (and they do).

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When it comes to Madeleine’s tastes, the weirder the better. Unfortunately, Josh’s art isn’t weird—it’s generic and “peppy,” which is why Madeleine’s other clientele (consisting of hospitals, hotels and restaurants) seek it out in large quantities for their walls. She keeps Josh’s art tucked away in the back room, closing the blinds when presenting it to clients as though she were conducting a drug deal. One buyer tactlessly refers to the paintings as “merchandise” and Madeleine visibly dies a little inside. But since she is a shrewd businesswoman, she has kept the cash flow moving with Josh’s work so she can exhibit the more challenging (but commercially unviable) art she really cares about. This all goes fine until Josh presses her to give him a show of his own, and she tells him, “A gallery has a front room and a back room. Never confuse the two.”

This may make for good drama, but it isn’t how it actually works. The kind of blue chip Chelsea establishment that Madeleine’s gallery is supposed to be handles artists whose work fetches high prices and carries some level of critical acclaim. In their back rooms, one would find more works by their roster of artists, not a completely different, secret program of lower caliber work that is somehow more popular. Associations are everything in this market, and a high profile gallery would never affiliate itself with hotel lobby art unless it were in an ironic way. Collectors want to feel they are getting a piece of something important (often viewing it as an investment) and many will pay big money for it.

A case in point is Porter Canby (Zak Orth), “a guy who did something with a computer and now he’s rich.” He is an avid collector whose motivations are diversifying his investment portfolio and getting a personality in the process. Porter is a poseur, and will buy anything that gives him the illusion of having interesting taste. His clothes become progressively trendy throughout the film in the most painfully try-hard way, and his apartment is so packed full of art that he never even sees most of it.

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Currently at the top of Porter’s must have list is Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones), a flighty British sculptor who wears pajamas in public and makes art out of taxidermied animals. An egomaniac, his character was clearly inspired by Damien Hirst (though his work more closely resembles that of L.A. based artist Carlee Fernandez). Barko is in such demand that Madeleine has to compete with another dealer to represent him.

On the opposite end of the personality spectrum is outsider wannabe Monroe (Ptolemy Slocum). As Madeleine’s newest discovery, he says he doesn’t consider himself as an artist, but it’s just a charade and he’s totally working the system. Monroe personifies what people hate most about contemporary art, raising the persistent question of whether there will ever be a favorable depiction of a conceptual artist in film or TV. “I like to make things and show them to people,” Monroe stammers. “It’s like I want to say…‘Hello.’”

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Some of Monroe’s works include a single pushpin carefully placed into the wall, a rubber doorstop and a wadded up piece of paper. “Many people find his work baffling, but that’s how you know that he’s working on the edge,” says Madeleine’s assistant. Another piece features a single light bulb going on and off in the gallery, a reference to the work of artist Martin Creed. In 2001, Creed won the Turner Prize for the controversial “Work No. 227: the lights going on and off,” consisting of an empty room in which the lights went on and off.

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In case you didn’t recognize these things as art, there are helpful labels next to them on the gallery walls, and Madeleine applies red dots to them when a sale is made. However, art world sticklers will be quick to point out that such labels are rare in upscale gallery spaces such as this. More likely, there would be a checklist at the front desk (probably two versions: one with the prices and one without) and the dots would be applied to that.

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It’s a forgivable offense. The film is insightful enough that it’s worth overlooking this and the aforementioned back room scenario the way we accept the factual errors in science fiction movies. Aside from spinning art world clichés in a way that’s actually funny, the filmmakers have also managed to ask some of the questions artists really think about: “What is the difference between art and entertainment?” Porter Canby asks, to which Madeleine replies, “Entertainment never posed a problem it couldn’t solve.”

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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