- 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.
The storyline of these two episodes begins with the Joker (Cesar Romero) bursting into a gallery opening for “beloved American artist” Oliver Muzzy. Barely looking at the pastoral landscape paintings (and a token Grant Wood knock-off) he declares it all “an outrage” and “an insult to art” and begins spraying everything with paint guns. Batman and Robin (Adam West and Burt Ward) attempt to apprehend him, but instead of pressing charges, Muzzy praises the Joker’s intervention, exclaiming “I have been trying to paint this modern stuff for years!” Thus the Joker creates for himself a kind of political graffiti artist persona with a superficial Abstract Expressionist aesthetic. “Holy hoaxes!” adds Robin.
The Joker, whose work is by definition a joke, has apparently fooled the entire local art scene with his stunt, and is invited to compete in the Gotham City International Art Contest. The competition, organized by wealthy young socialite Baby Jane Towser (Diana Ivarson), is like a forecasting of Bravo’s reality TV show Work of Art, though these participants are already “world famous.”
Five artists with names like Jackson Potluck and Leonardo Davinsky (painter of the famous fresco “Midnight Snack”) are given three minutes to complete a painting. Their techniques make use of the obvious Action Painter one-liners as one contestant splashes paint from buckets onto his canvas and another trains his pet monkey to throw paint balls at his.
Yet another uses his body as a human paint roller, first dipping himself in a wheelbarrow full of paint. The judges describe the results as a “fine example of Neo-realism,” making reference to the Nouveau réalisme movement, characterized by the work of Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Arman and others. In 1960 Klein staged a piece entitled “Anthropométries de l’Epoque bleue” (Anthropometries of the Blue Period), in which three nude models covered themselves in blue paint and then left their body prints on sheets of paper.
A contestant named Vincent Van Gauche, on the other hand, seems to channel Irish painter and writer Christy Brown, who suffered from cerebral palsy and painted with his left foot. While Brown used a brush, Van Gauche applies the paint directly with his feet, and the audience finds it all hilarious.
The Joker paints nothing, and only gesticulates flamboyantly with a brush in front of his easel. He titles his work “Death of a Mauve Bat” and explains that the bat is dead, and died in 1936 (“a very bad year for bats”). Fooling everyone once again, the panelists decide that the piece is symbolic of the emptiness of modern life (“What else?”) and Baby Jane declares him the winner.
After his victory, the Joker announces he is opening a new school where he will instruct his students personally on “the secrets of modern art.” He makes it clear that his school is for “millionaires only,” shifting the plot into an allegory for the high-cost MFA industry. One difference between this institution and today’s pedigree art programs is that there is no rigorous application process for those wishing to enroll, as long as they are wealthy.
The Joker later reveals his ulterior motives: he intends to hold his pupils hostage and demand a pricy ransom from their parents (is this sounding familiar?). Millionaire Bruce Wayne is a student at the school and succeeds in foiling the plan with Robin’s help, but the ever-persuasive Joker yet again manages to talk his way out of any legal consequences (“I’m an artist”).
The Joker, now a bad boy art star, relentlessly spouts clichéd artspeak tropes, such as “out with the old; in with the new” as justification for his non-stop destruction of other people’s property. He is a childish vandal and loyal to no one, destroying Baby Jane’s dining room table, for example, and then fancy-talking his way into being taken seriously as an artist.
This concept that the purveyors of modern abstract art are evil and cannot be trusted is a common theme in the entertainment industry (see Steven Berkoff’s character in Beverly Hills Cop or Terrance Stamp’s role in Legal Eagles). They are often portrayed as possessing great power, and though he is literally a clown and a con man, nearly everyone succumbs to the Joker’s charisma. So eager they are to belong to an elite class of the cultured and contemporary, it is only when he ties up his protégés at gunpoint that they even get upset.