- 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.
“In order to be a great artist, you simply have to be a great artist,” so says Strathmore Institute alumnus, Marvin Bushmiller (Adam Scott). “There’s nothing to learn, so you’re all wasting your time.” One is likely to agree with him after watching Art School Confidential. Illustrator Daniel Clowes turned his experiences as an art student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn into a comic book, and later the screenplay on which the film is based. Directed by Terry Zwigoff, the plot delivers a checklist of art world stereotypes with a machine-like efficiency that leaves no one unscathed.
The filmmakers apparently hold a great deal of contempt for the art world at large, offering us zero characters we can really look up to. Everyone in the story seems to have an ulterior motive. Our would-be hero, Jerome (Max Minghella), is a freshman at Strathmore, and we’re meant to sympathize with him as his is classmates dismiss his skilled, but illustrative, drawings. There seems to be no reason behind their capricious tastes for the haphazard and confounding.
For his part, Max has some questionable motivations of his own. He wants to be “the greatest artist of the 21st century,” not because he thinks he has something to say, but so girls will like him. In an early scene, we learn that Max once dressed up as Picasso for a school project, citing the painter’s success with women as an admirable quality. During the course of the film, Max pours all his efforts into impressing Audrey (Sophia Myles), the model from his figure drawing class. This is presented as a nobler plight than those of his classmates, who are apparently just egomaniacs trying to be as weird as possible.
Most of Strathmore’s teachers are presented as apathetic failures, with the exception of Anjelica Huston, who plays a warm-hearted art history professor. The rest seem more concerned with their careers than with teaching, and one literally spells it out on the chalkboard that he doesn’t care whether or not his students even come to class. Meanwhile, Professor “Sandy” Sandiford (John Malkovich) perpetually tries in vain to revive interest in his minimalist paintings of triangles. “I was one of the first,” he reminisces.
Strathmore, named for the manufacturer of artists’ materials, is clearly located in New York City but, for some reason, none of the students seem to be aware of the fact that the city is full of high profile galleries. Instead, they spend most of their spare time at a coffee shop called Broadway Bob’s, the place “where everyone gets their first big break.” Broadway Bob (Steve Buscemi, who portrayed bad boy art star Gregory Stark in New York Stories) grants a solo show in his café to whomever earns the highest grade in Strathmore’s end-of-year reviews (because that’s how these things work).
On his way to scoring the next coveted show amidst the coffee grounds is Jonah (Matt Keeslar), a jock who paints cartoony pictures of cars, tanks and baseball players (they were actually painted by Clowes while he was a student at Pratt). Although everyone praises him for his work, Jonah turns out to be an undercover cop who doesn’t even care about being an artist. Enter his fellow law enforcement officers trying to solve a campus murder case (an oddly random subplot) who refer to the art students as “fucking freaks.” It’s the classic scenario of “regular people” who briefly encounter the art world, expose its duplicity and ultimately reject it (see Beverly Hills Cop, Law & Order, and Designing Women, among others).
Although the extreme stereotypes in Art School Confidential will strike a chord of truth for anyone who has ever attended an art college, such cautionary tales will hardly deter ambitious young artists from the long, hard path to glory. Endless generations have heard and ignored the warnings of poverty and failure, such as Sandy’s advice to “go to banking school or web site school—anywhere but art school” if you want to make money. Undergraduate tuition and fees at Pratt currently amount to $44,804 per year, but a fine arts degree is not intended to prepare one for the labor force. It’s an exchange of ideas and a chance to outdo the ideas of one’s peers. As with the entertainment industry, society assumes that fame is the ultimate goal of the artist, and that can only be achieved by those who get our attention, however they can, preferably before dying.
Slaves of New York is the movie people watch right before voting to eliminate the arts from public schools. Nearly every art world figure is depicted as a narcissistic, jealous, backstabbing weasel (imagine if Melrose Place were about a bunch of artists living in New York). In fact, the plot seems to have been fashioned after a soap opera, and involves so many love triangles that it’s difficult to keep them straight.
The sole redeemable personality in the film is a hat maker named Eleanor (Bernadette Peters). She is the ego to the id of her art world counterparts, patiently absorbing constant mistreatment by her “famous” painter boyfriend, Stash (Adam Coleman Howard). A bit of an ingénue, she is the only character who doesn’t use others to get ahead, but she eventually gets her big break from a fashion designer played by Steve Buscemi.
Everyone else in Eleanor’s social circle is absolutely tactless. When she goes to a party, for instance, one of the hosts (a sculptor) asks her to ask Stash to ask his gallery to look at his work. It takes him less than a minute after meeting her to ask this, and he does so more than once. Another artist named Marley introduces himself to Eleanor (while she is at work) by taking off his shoes and asking her to check him for athlete’s foot. He then pesters her to pose nude for one of his paintings.
Later, during a meeting with his dealer, Marley brings in some new pieces with names like “Ode to Hero of the Future, No. 5.” He then delivers a monologue about heroism in the times of antiquity, and how there were real guys back then, like him. His dealer, Ginger (Mary Beth Hurt), can be identified by her asymmetrical haircut and chunky designer glasses. Establishing her position of power in the relationship, Ginger picks up the “weakest” of the works Marley has brought to her, and throws it on the floor. “Actually,” she adds, “it’s no good at all.”
Ginger then instructs him not to forget about his meeting with a big collector, and reminds him that he likes artists with big appetites. The collector, Chuck Day Dolger (John Harkins), is a wealthy, round man who invites artists to his home for brunch, pressuring them to eat copious amounts of food. His exaggerated hospitality is a means for him to perpetuate the “starving artist” myth and establish his importance as the provider. He even teases Marley about the possibility of buying one of his paintings, and then haggles about the prices, scrutinizing his slide sheets over biscuit-filled plates.
Marley is, himself, a total narcissist who won’t stop talking about his plans to build a chapel in Rome, dedicated to “Christ as a woman.” When his friend Sherman is trying to show him a new painting during a studio visit (at which caviar is eaten), Marley changes the subject and announces that he “might be in the Biennale.” Sherman becomes so jealous, that he threatens to quit painting and then throws himself down on a broken recliner that collapses (there are three scenes in the film in which chairs break when people sit in them). Marley is also sleeping with Sherman’s girlfriend, but then dumps her, after which she asks him to show her slides to his gallery. Practically the only time everyone seems to be getting along is when they play softball together, and even Stash’s art dealer, Victor, is on the team (all art dealers in movies from the ‘80s were named Victor).
Stash is the story’s most successful artist character, and throws the most temper tantrums. His paintings consist mostly of borrowed imagery from the classic cartoon Popeye, and women in evening gowns can be seen leaning against them at his gallery reception. Collector Chuck Dolger demonstrates what a high roller he is by showing up to the opening in a limo, drinking champagne in the backseat with two female companions. And some of the guests wear leather jackets that get tagged by dudes with big markers (because that happens?).