- 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.
“There is no art without money,” proclaims the director of the so-called Pavilion for Popular Art in this 1990 episode of Law & Order. The show’s storyline, however, seems aimed at fueling the argument against funding for the arts. It centers around the death of a controversial photographer named Victor More, who is known for his pictures of mannequins in leather bondage gear. After Mr. More is found dead with a noose around his neck (looking much like one of his own subjects), we learn that he was the casualty of a sex game gone wrong. Tracking down those responsible are Detective Mike Logan (Chris North) and Sergeant Max Greevey (George Dzundza), who soon find themselves on a whirlwind tour of the New York art world’s cantankerous, bureaucratic underbelly.
Their first stop is the Upper East Side home of Henry Rothman (Larry Keith), Commissioner of Artistic Affairs. In case some viewers might mistake his professional motivations for a love of the arts, Mr. Rothman immediately launches into a vulgar inventory of his art collection’s net worth : “See this painting? I paid $3,000 for it 20 years ago. Now it’s worth $30,000.”
Next on the list is the office of Art View Magazine, where a nasal-voiced editor wearing a bow tie dismisses Mr. More as “either a pornographer who got lucky or an opportunist who created for the market.” He then attributes More’s decidedly undeserved success to a talent for obtaining grants from the city.
This leads the detectives to Anita Swenson (Valerie Kingston), Assistant Deputy to the Commissioner of Artistic Affairs. She makes little effort to hide her contempt for her boss, Mr. Rothman, sneering, “His decisions are arbitrary and have nothing to do with art.” Ms. Swenson’s distaste for Mr. More is no less blatant. Her voice trembles bitterly as she recalls her written disapproval of a $50,000 grant he was to receive, and then implies More and Rothman were “personally” involved.
The investigation finally leads Logan and Greevey to wealthy art financier Elizabeth Hendrick (Frances Conroy), a patron of Mr. More. She is also a dominatrix and, as we later find out, the one ultimately to blame for his fatal sexual escapade. When Ms. Hendrick challenges the cops on their Puritanical reactions to the salacious nature of the case, Greevey explains their position this way: “The sleaze we deal with doesn’t usually end up hanging in a museum.”
It hardly seems coincidental that this production was released the year following the 1989 death of Robert Mapplethorpe (to whom Victor More is an obvious reference). An exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s photographs at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D. C. was also canceled that year after pressure from Republican representative Dick Armey. Museum officials claimed their actions were intended to protect congressional appropriations to the National Endowment for the Arts, but they later apologized for the move after intense public criticism.
1989 was also the year Andres Serrano’s controversial work “Piss Christ” famously triggered outrage from Republican senators Jesse Helms and Al D’Amato, as well as Pat Robertson and other leaders of the religious right. Opponents claimed Serrano’s work (which depicted a crucifix submerged in what was described as the artist’s urine) amounted to “anti-Christian bigotry.”
Sergeant Greevey seems to encapsulate this religious condemnation of the subversive. At one point, he asks his boss to remove him from the case, explaining that he’s Catholic and believes “these freaks aren’t going to the same place you and I are.” The writers of Law & Order were clearly capitalizing on a confirmed popular revulsion to art that challenges social norms. And, although BDSM has recently been elevated to the level of curious titillation by the book Fifty Shades of Grey, it has traditionally existed on the fringes of widespread sexual practice. In a similar way, artists are usually viewed as non-conformists and outliers of society. Art-related plot points make for an effective narrative recipe when combined with crime, as the mechanisms of the art world remain largely mysterious to most people.
Logan and Greevey, perpetually shocked and baffled by their suspects’ behavior, are surrogates for the viewer, embodying the popular clash between “regular folks” and “freaks.” We are meant to empathize with them, as with Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop or Robert Redford in Legal Eagles. It doesn’t help that the writers of Law & Order paint a picture of the art world as a soap opera full of bickering back-stabbers who can’t agree on the artistic merit of anything. With representatives like these, it’s understandable that viewers would be rooting to put them behind bars, where they can no longer squander our tax dollars.