- 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.
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.