- Art Dealers are Evil…
…and probably named Victor. From the drug-smuggling Victor Maitland in Beverly Hills Cop to the murderous Victor Taft in Legal Eagles to the lecherous Art Spindle in Boogie Woogie, art dealers do not enjoy a favorable reputation on the silver screen. As the ringleaders of a world that remains largely mysterious to most, they also seem to wield great power, often commanding a crew of henchmen to do their dirty work. See Slaves of New York and Family Ties for non-evil art dealers named Victor and Victoria.
- Male Artists are Cads
The bad-boy heartbreaker art-star is a favorite archetype of film and television scriptwriters. They’re seen as self-centered and childish and, given the widespread perplexity about what artists do and why it matters, the gratuitous attention they receive from others seems all the more undeserved.
- Regular People Hate the Art World
Hollywood loves telling stories about ordinary people—the “everyman” we can all relate to. And if there’s one thing normal people don’t get, it’s the art world. Combine the two and the result is real dramatic tension. Whether it’s Mary Jenkins in 227, who briefly dabbles as a contemporary artist; the cops in Law & Order, who scour the seedy depths of New York’s art world to solve a murder; or Tom Cruise’s character in Cocktail, who destroys a cocky artist’s sculpture at his own opening, these anti-intellectual heroes ultimately expose the art world to be a total sham.
- The Art World is Fancy
You’ll be underdressed if you forget to wear your tuxedo or fur coat to that art opening you’re going to. Art is expensive, a status symbol for the rich, so those who can afford it must look the part. You can spot the art world gate-keepers (collectors and dealers) by their luxurious fox furs and diamonds, while the artists will stick to sneakers and perhaps a beret.
- Art People Talk Funny
The art world has its own language, and it’s super annoying to the casual bystander. A 2014 commercial for Old Navy jeans casts Amy Poehler as an art dealer who describes the work in her gallery as aggressive, dangerous and stupid. “And that’s why I like it,” she says. Diane Keaton’s character Mary Wilke in the 1979 film Manhattan refers to a minimalist steel sculpture at the MoMA as having a “marvelous kind of negative capability,” while dismissing everything else on display as “bullshit.” Julianne Moore plays an artist in The Big Lebowski (1988) who applies her intellectual “artspeak” vocabulary, not only to her work, but also in the bedroom, describing “coitus” as a sometimes “natural, zesty enterprise.”
- Artists are Scumbags
It’s no surprise when an artist turns out to be a murderer or a thief. As with art dealers, the “otherness” of the art world makes artists the perfect weirdo anti-heroes to root against. Sometimes they’re rugged and alluring, like Viggo Mortenson’s ex-con character in A Perfect Murder. Other times they’re just creepy, like the insane Walter Paisley in A Bucket of Blood, who kills people and turns them into sculptures, or the alcoholic serial killer / failed artist Jimmy in Art School Confidential.
- Anything Can be Art
Capitalizing on the general assumption that it requires no talent to be a contemporary artist, TV scriptwriters love the readymade. That is, the everyday object turned artwork, made famous by Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” in 1917. It turns out all you have to do to become an overnight sensation in the art world is leave your purse or a bottle of glass cleaner on a pedestal in an art gallery. Or in Homer Simpson’s case, crash a pile of junk into an art dealer’s car. Yes, indeed, the art world is for suckers who will believe anything is art as long as the right person says it is.
- Artists Have Rocky Love Lives
Creative types are passionate romantics who are full of feeling—but not a lot of sense. It’s their aura of mystery and intrigue that makes them so alluring, until their lovers figure out they are emotionally unstable wrecks. Ally Sheedy plays a photographer in High Art, who seduces an aspiring magazine editor despite being washed up and drug-addicted (it doesn’t end well). Daryl Hannah makes weird performance art in Legal Eagles and possesses a spacy mystique that Robert Redford can’t resist, until she almost ruins his career as District Attorney. And it’s anyone’s guess what Jodie Foster’s character, Anne Benton, is thinking in Catchfire when she falls in love with her kidnapper, played by Dennis Hopper, who also directed this ridiculous movie.
- Art People Hate the Country
You’ll find art people in rural areas if A) they are there against their will, B) they’re just “getting away from it all” or C) they are a reclusive outsider artist (or looking for one). In both Nine ½ Weeks and Junebug, a fancy art dealer leaves her urban environment in search of a backwoods painter, while in Beetlejuice a cosmopolitan sculptress is reluctantly transplanted to the country by her husband. The clash between city slickers and country folk is almost guaranteed entertainment.
- Artists Will Do Anything for Attention
All artists really want is to be famous, right? That’s the popular assumption, and they’ll do anything to get there. Elaine is a video artist in Boogie Woogie who has no boundaries, documenting her personal life and ultimately a friend’s death — all for shock value. Art School Confidential’s Jerome resorts to stealing the paintings of a serial killer and passing them off as his to make up for his own boring artwork, and the Joker, from the TV series Batman, launches a campaign of vandalism and destruction all in the name of Art.
Junebug is the second feature film to be noted on this blog with an art dealer named Madeleine as a main character. And like Madeleine Gray, from (Untitled) of 2009, we like her (most of the time). We might like her more if we were seeing her in her own element—the big city art world—but the dramatic momentum of Junebug is fueled by the friction of cultural clashes. So when Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) travels to rural North Carolina with her new husband (Alessandro Nivola) to meet his family, we see her through their eyes—that is, as a weirdo.
Even weirder is the man she is really there to see: a reclusive, self-taught artist named David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor)—Madeleine owns a gallery in Chicago devoted to “outsider” artists like him. Wark’s violent, sexually charged paintings immediately recall the works of Henry Darger. In place of Darger’s scores of massacred children, Wark details sprawling scenes of Civil War era battles, slavery and rebellion, rife with severed heads, half-human snakes and huge penises ejaculating bullets. Since he says he has never personally known an African American (he uses another term), he paints the faces of white people he’s met on top of dark-skinned bodies. Wark sees himself as a collaborator with God, and says his job is “to make the invisible visible.”
Director Phil Morrison allows our eyes to linger for a long while on Wark’s paintings, which were created specifically for the film by Brooklyn artist, Ann Wood. Their presence is more than superficial, carrying thematic weight as the “outsider” motif parallels Madeleine’s situation as an oddity in her current surroundings.
For her part, Madeleine is overwhelmingly enthusiastic about Wark and his work. “I love all the dog heads and computers and all the scrotums,” she gushes. But does she really understand what he’s doing, or who he is as a complete person? Wark’s plea for her to accept Jesus Christ as her savior is simply ignored, and when he reveals his anti-semitism, it gives her pause, but she ultimately lets it slide as long as he signs her gallery contract.
Charming and worldly (she was born in Japan and raised in Africa), Madeleine is good at what she does and knows what she wants. However, with the exception of Amy Adams’ character, her in-laws treat her with stand-offish skepticism, merely tolerating her and her city-slicker ways. They’re dumbfounded when she greets them with a kiss on each cheek, and her mother-in-law immediately speculates about whether Madeleine looks like she can cook.
Nonetheless, Madeleine seems to really try to fit in (though babies cry when presented to her and group prayer makes her visibly uncomfortable). The rest of the time, her smile beams generously and her love for her husband is so palpable it keeps people up at night. We’re behind her, except when her professional ambitions eclipse her loyalty to family.
As a director, Morrison is shrewd enough to use stereotypes without making them seem one-dimensional. The art dealer is a stylish, charismatic atheist from a wealthy background who speaks with an accent, while the small town southerners are not well-traveled, but deeply religious and committed to family and tradition. We observe their faults, as well as their virtues, and weigh the simplicity of country living against the complexities of city life. We also question what it really means to be an outsider. It is all in one’s perspective: Madeleine has come from the outside to bring an artist into her world, but one who probably doesn’t even fully understand what is happening to him. One may wonder if Wark really needs people like her in his life, and where the lines are drawn between appreciation, interference and exploitation.
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.
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).
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.
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.’”
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.
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.
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.”
Last week’s sale of a Francis Bacon triptych at auction for $142.4 million is a troubling reminder of the role of art as status symbol. Coincidentally, two of the super-rich power-collectors in this 2009 film actually own a Bacon triptych, but it’s a painting they don’t own that the plot revolves around. Set in the contemporary London art scene, the film’s title refers to a work by Mondrian, said to be the first in the “Boogie-Woogie” series, and owned by aging collector Alfred Rhinegold (Sir Christopher Lee). He claims to have bought it from Mondrian personally for £500, and now his wife, Alfreda (Joanna Lumley), wants him to sell it. The subsequent back-and-forth volley of bids ultimately reaches $30 million, but they are all in vain.
Alfred refuses every offer, valuing his prized possession more than the considerable financial gains at stake. Confined to a wheelchair and requiring the assistance of an oxygen tank, he seems of another era, and is treated like an unreasonable, old kook. Alfred clings to the unquantifiable “sentimental” worth of the painting, while his wife and assistant buzz around him, negotiating with potential buyers.
One of the painting’s would-be suitors is Art Spindle (Danny Huston), whom is said to be “like the biggest art dealer in London.” He seems to have an ulterior motive behind every action. Seeing that his new assistant has skinned her knee, for example, he seizes this as an opportunity to rub ointment on it (and her inner thigh). Lecherous and power-hungry, he uses a barrage of chuckles in an attempt to camouflage his tactlessness with people.
Art is vying for the Mondrian on behalf of his unhappily married clients Jean and Bob Macleston (Gillian Anderson and). The Macelstons already own a formidable collection of works by artists such as Warhol, Judd, Beuys, Flavin and Brancusi (fussily pronounced by Bob as brɨŋˈkuʃ—the original Romanian enunciation). They also have two French Poodles, Picasso and Matisse, that get taken on walks by an aspiring curator named Dewey (Alan Cumming).
Dewey is the film’s most tragic character and, in a surprising move by the scriptwriters, he struggles much more than the artists in his circle. In a particularly cringe-worthy moment, Dewey notices his exhibition proposal in the wastebasket just minutes after handing it to Art Spindle. He is then abandoned by his best friend and artist colleague, Elaine (Jaime Winstone), who stops working with him when she finds a better offer. “This is the art world—this is how it works,” she insists.
Elaine is a video artist whose work is a documentation of: A) her mistreatment of her friends and their subsequent reactions, and B) her sexual encounters with her girlfriend or other people, including her dealer (Heather Graham). She is clearly trying as hard as possible to be an enfant terrible and she is constantly rewarded for it, but her final attention-getting stunt crosses every line imaginable.
The other artist in the story is Jo Richards (Jack Huston), who makes sculptures and installations. He does bicep curls while writing his artist statement and snorts a line of coke before studio visits. Jo makes contraptions he says are designed to examine “our observation of what’s around us.” But their actual purpose seems to be creating opportunities for him to feel up women from behind, while showing them how the devices work. This appears to work out well for him, and Jean Macleston falls for it majorly.
Given that the London art scene is such an apparent den of iniquity, it is not surprising when Jean and Bob file for divorce. A sagacious friend advises Jean to wise up on her end of the deal because “art is exceeding property prices two to one.” Cut to Bob’s lawyer reading him the list of what Jean wants: the Smith in the garden, the Hockney in the hallway, the Mapplethorpe photographs on the landing and the Bacon in the living room, to name a few. Jean hates the Brancusi, but wants it anyway because “it’s worth a fortune.”
For spite, Bob decides to preemptively sell all of the art so that Jean will only get the money in the settlement. The money, as Bob puts it, “doesn’t mean a goddamn thing.” If only that were true.
The art world is fancy. It’s a place where tens of thousands of dollars can change hands in a single transaction. It is only fitting, then, that the hands making these exchanges should first pass through luxurious sleeves of fox fur.
Such sleeves are on display in a 1982 episode of the television show Family Ties, in which Steven Keaton (Michael Gross) organizes an art auction fundraiser. Sponsoring the event is “one of the biggest art dealers in the Midwest,” Victoria Hurstenburg (Christine Belford). In fact, “the Hurstenburg name is virtually synonymous with fine art and culture.”
Victoria arrives at the Keaton house wearing a full-length fur coat, a stark contrast to the casual flannels worn by Elyse and Steven. She is there to deliver some paintings for the auction (which she carries unwrapped, under her arm, like a stack of library books), but she abandons them on the kitchen counter when she notices a sculpture by Mallory’s boyfriend Nick. The piece, which prompts obvious distaste from everyone else, impresses Victoria so much that she purchases it from the auction, herself.
When she asks to see the rest of Nick’s sculptures, the show apparently has no budget to build another set for his studio, so he brings everything over to the Keaton household. Victoria arrives wearing another fur coat and a black, sequined evening dress. Using words like “primitive,” “crude” and “bordering on offensive” to describe his work, she actually intends this as praise, because art people are weird. So excited by Nick’s talent (and handsomeness), she offers to “open a few doors” for him, with the promise of causing “a real stir” in the art world.
True to her word, Victoria curates Nick into an exhibition in town. At the opening, one of the gallery attendants wears, not only a tuxedo, but also a top hat (the height of fancy). Mallory shows up to spy on him and becomes involved in an awkward conversation with one of the guests. A total outsider, she clearly doesn’t know anything about the show she is attending, and ultimately rationalizes her presence by explaining that one of the artists used to be her camp counselor, and then she accidentally knocks over one of the sculptures.
Earlier instances of the wardrobe cues from art world power players can found in the 1965 splatter film Color Me Blood Red. In the opening shot, an art dealer named Farnsworth (Scott H. Hall) burns a painting from his gallery while wearing a tuxedo (he wears a tuxedo almost all the time). We eventually learn that he is destroying the evidence left behind by a homicidal painter named Adam Sorg (Gordan Oas-Heim). Though Sorg enjoyed a loyal following in the Sarasota, Florida art scene, one thing stood in his way of earning the respect of the town’s discerning art critic: his unsophisticated use of the color red. So he began murdering people and using their blood as paint.
The melodrama of the situation corresponds to the film’s cartoonish portrayal of the gallery system, and Farnsworth’s gallery actually resembles to a community theater. There is even a stage at the back of the space and, for a classy touch, a red carpet cuts through the center of the room. Folding chairs are positioned in front of the paintings so patrons can relax as they admire them (and since most of the attendees appear to be over the age of 65, the chairs are put to good use). It’s understandable, though, as anyone would tire from viewing the over-hung show while standing up (there are so many paintings, that some of them sit on the floor, leaning against the wall). As for the art, Sorg’s style is all over the place, ranging from floating monster heads to Mondrian rip-offs, giving the impression that the film’s producers scavenged the canvases from an art school dumpster.
At Sorg’s big opening, Farnsworth can be found up on the stage (in tuxedo), joined by two large houseplants and the town’s local art critic, Gregorovich (William Harris). The critic sits with a foot-long cigarette holder and delivers live, onsite critiques of the artwork. He also wears a beret, a typical accessory of intellectual or artsy figures in cinema and television. Sorg, who is always angry and has a reputation as a bad-boy art star, shows up late, with paint on his clothes and wearing sneakers. He also carries a cigarette holder (though it is not as long as Gregorovich’s), and whispers nasty things to his admirers.
Even though these people live in Florida, the emblematic fur coat is once again paraded about by several of the gallery-goers. This gives us a visual cue to their wealth, but we can also tell that they are interested in the latest trends in contemporary art because they say things like, “It’s quite a thing to own a Sorg painting—he’s most fashionable!” One fur-clad collector, in particular, wants so badly to have one that she seems willing to pay any price. At first scoffing at Farnsworth’s $15,000 quote for a painting of a woman getting stabbed in the face, her good taste quickly wins over and… Sold!
Real life artist David Hammons appropriated the fur coat as a means of social commentary in 2007. Hammons, himself, contacted an elite gallery on New York’s Upper East Side, L&M Arts, proposing to put on an exhibition. It was an unusual gesture, given his resistance to the commercial gallery system, but he kept the actual concept a secret until the installation. The show, on which Hammons collaborated with his wife Chie, was comprised of six lavishly expensive, full-length fur coats on antique dress forms. The backs of the coats had been burned with a blowtorch or streaked with brightly colored paint. The implication was surely not a celebration of these symbols of decadence. Instead, Hammons shone a harsh light on the glaring divide between wealthy patrons who flaunt tactless displays of affluence, and the strife of the powerless (both in and out of the art world). And despite the gross exaggerations of art world dynamics by the entertainment industry, those clichés come from somewhere, after all.
Julia’s friend Rosalind owns a gallery called Gallery Poussette, which is “very respected for its contemporary art” and definitely “not located in a mall.” When the cast attends an art opening there, they are confounded by such works of art … Continue reading