- 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.
Eddie Murphy plays Detroit cop Axel Foley, who sets out for Beverly Hills to investigate the murder of his best friend, Mikey. The hunt leads him to Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff), purportedly one of the top art dealers in the United States and owner of the “world famous” Hollis Benton Gallery.
We never learn who Hollis and Benton are, but the gallery that bears their names resembles a cross between a hotel lobby, a gift shop and a bar (it has a bar). Axel’s childhood friend Jenny is the gallery director and she has a sassy assistant named Serge (Bronson Pinchot). Serge, who has an exaggerated but indiscernible accent, berates his colleague for showing too much chest hair (“it’s not sexy”), and offers clients a cocktail or an espresso with a lemon twist (did I mention this gallery has a bar?).
Among the art inside the gallery are brightly colored paintings of classical, statuesque figures, surrounded by jagged zig-zags. In the center of the (carpeted!) space is a white dining room table with plaster figurative sculptures à la George Segal seated around it, and dummy heads on rotating plates in front of them. The stairs at the entrance are flanked by random ceramic pots that don’t appear to have anything to do with anything.
We soon learn that big shot art dealer Victor Maitland is evil, of course, and is responsible for Mikey’s death (as well as being a drug smuggler). He is the epitome of entitlement and corruption, and seethes contempt from his very first appearance. Sitting in his art-filled office (wearing a tie and a bathrobe at the same time), he summons a staff of half a dozen goons to do his dirty work.
The art in Beverly Hills Cop is equally unfriendly. Most of it looks like stylized mannequins, a misinterpretation of the Assemblage movement, with a dated ’80s look. All of it is portrayed as weird and alien—the bizarre fetish of a wealthy sociopath. Indeed, the abstract paintings on Maitland’s walls seem to carry the same malevolence as his cronies (one of the canvases is even shot during a gunfight).
Foley, who is Maitland’s antithesis, appears skeptical and uneasy of the art he encounters from the beginning. He only warms up to a sculpture of a woman long enough to pinch her breast. This personality clash is common in Hollywood depictions of the art world. The honest, blue-collar man becomes a fish out of water when he sets foot in the gallery (see Tom Cruise’s character in the 1988 film Cocktail, for instance), merely putting up with the artworks as long as the situation requires.
It’s an easy ploy, as contemporary art’s reputation for being opaque and difficult is partly what makes it the commodity of the elite. Claiming to understand it functions as another status symbol. If only someone would make an action film about legislators trying to defund the arts in our schools, ultimately foiled by an adjunct art teacher with a heart of gold…