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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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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Designing Women: Season 5, Episode 18 – “This is Art?” (1991)

Designing Women: Season 5, Episode 18 – “This is Art?” (1991)

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