- 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.
Anyone who has ever flipped through a book about late 20th century art will be familiar with Jenny Holzer’s text based work using LED screens and projectors. It is only those who haven’t who might actually believe Jodie Foster’s character in Catchfire, Anne Benton, as the person behind that work. Many of Holzer’s pieces are used throughout the film (she is even listed in the credits), but their meaning and cultural relevance is totally disregarded by director Dennis Hopper. He isn’t concerned with the obvious themes of power and feminism one might expect from a movie that is essentially about Jenny Holzer being kidnapped. Instead, Catchfire is a celebration of how romantic and sexy Stockholm Syndrome can be if you just give in to your captor and go with it!
The plot begins with Anne Benton/Jenny Holzer witnessing a mob assassination, and then going into hiding to avoid being targeted, herself. After eluding both the mobsters and police, she changes her name and moves to a new city, taking a job at an advertising agency. Now is the time for her conceptual artist survival skills to kick in, so she pulls out her famous line “Protect me from what I want” and slaps it on a lipstick ad campaign as the tagline. Well done!
Hopper not only directs, but also plays Anne/Jenny’s kidnapper, Milo. Though initially planning to kill her, he quickly becomes infatuated with her and her work, even purchasing a piece from her gallery. Realizing that he has fallen in love, he abducts her and forces her into a sexual relationship. Resisting this idea for two or three days, she then discovers that she loves him, too, even though they sometimes fight about what art really is: “Art is Charlie Parker and Hieronymus Bach, or whatever his name is,” Milo says.
All of this is presented as perfectly natural, although the heavy-handed acting and implausibility of the plot often make the film seem like a comedy. At any moment, the viewer might expect Anne to finally reveal her behavior as either an escape plan, or an elaborate performance art piece about male oppression of women. This never happens, and a final shot during the end credits shows Hopper ridiculously serenading Jodie Foster with a saxophone on a boat, a scene I am almost positive he did not intend to be seen by the general public.
In fact, Hopper was so unhappy with his work on Catchfire that he disowned it, even crediting himself as Alan Smithee (the pseudonym of choice for disgraced filmmakers). Vestron Pictures later re-cut and released it against his wishes, under the title Backtrack (both titles are just as arbitrary) keeping Hopper’s name, which prompted a lawsuit.
Everyone involved in the film must have really, really liked Dennis Hopper (or they didn’t read the whole script) as the cast includes quite a few well-known actors, and Dick Clark was the producer. Vincent Price, Charlie Sheen, John Turturro and Dean Stockwell all have major roles. Bob Dylan even makes an appearance as an artist who carves abstract wooden relief-paintings with a chainsaw (they are actually the work of artist Charles Arnoldi). And Catherine Keener has a cameo in a scene shot in Taos, New Mexico, which means it’s time to pull out the Georgia O’Keeffe book—“She’s the one who paints those flowers that look like genitalia, right?”