- 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.
Since the films of the Coen brothers are filled with wild stereotypes, it’s no surprise to find a ridiculous portrayal of an artist among them. Maude, Julianne Moore’s character in “The Big Lebowski,” is first seen instigating a home invasion and physical assault on Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), with the help of her two henchmen / studio assistants (she is reclaiming a rug The Dude took from her father which has “sentimental value” for her).
In her next scene, Maude is naked and flying through her studio while suspended from a gantry. She holds a paint brush in each hand, which she uses to splatter paint onto a canvas on the floor below. Judging from the results, which simply look like splashes of paint around a crude figure, there seems to be no reason for this elaborate, acrobatic method, aside from the shock effect of its theatricality in the film, itself.
When Maude finally speaks, she comes across like a humorless dominatrix with a British accent. She uses strictly formal English, describing sex (“coitus”) as a sometimes “natural, zesty enterprise,” for example. And since she is clearly meant to be a caricature of a feminist artist, the word “vaginal” works its way into her speech 9.4 seconds after she first opens her mouth (I timed it).
Lending insight into the diversity of her artistic practice, Maude arrives at her studio the next day with an assortment of found objects for her assemblage sculptures. In one hand, she carries a sack full of second-hand kitchen utensils, and in the other a bald-headed mannequin (a prop that can be found in almost every artist’s studio depicted onscreen since 1970).
Waiting to greet her is her friend Knox Harrington (David Thewlis), “the video artist,” who laughs constantly to himself like a jackal who’s just played a secret practical joke on everyone. And when Maude receives a phone call from “Sandro about the Biennale,” both Knox and Maude get on the line and cackle uncontrollably to one another while The Dude stands by, feeling helplessly left out. (Translation: The Dude is a regular guy and the Art World is a big joke that regular guys aren’t in on.)
Maude does soften up long enough to get The Dude into bed, but it’s only because she’s trying to conceive. “What did you think this was all about? Fun and games?” she says. But she doesn’t want a partner, nor does she want the father to be someone she has to see socially or who has “any interest in raising the child, himself.” That’s how self-sufficient Maude is.
There is a distinctly witchy quality to Maude’s persona—she wears a cape, flies through the air and often appears flanked by two silent men who do her bidding. Intelligent, wealthy and beautiful, she also seems to wield great power, a trait Hollywood normally reserves for its male protagonists. It’s a striking contrast to the vulnerable, dysfunctional portrayals of women artists in films like “Legal Eagles,” “High Art” and “Catchfire.” As with most depictions of artists in the media (male or female), we rarely see one who is just a typical person whose occupation happens to be art-making. It doesn’t make for entertaining storytelling. Instead, we get either a pathetic mess, or in Maude’s case, someone so poised it verges on the supernatural.