One man’s art is another man’s recyclables. When five-year-old Webster (Emmanuel Lewis) finds a sack of aluminum cans in his foster parents’ closet, he doesn’t realize it’s actually a sculpture his Uncle Phil has just created. Eager to earn enough money to buy a new skateboard, Webster dumps the artwork right into the trash compactor and trades it in for quick cash.
Ordinarily, this would have been fine with Webster’s foster-dad, George (Alex Karras), who refers to the sculpture as “garbage of the month club.” But his foster-mom, Katherine (Susan Clark), has planned an elaborate reception in their Chicago home around this single artwork. Confessing a long-time interest in art, she explains that she is now an “exhibitionist” (instead of the more appropriate term curator, said for the benefit of an inane punch line).
A well-connected socialite, Katherine has even invited New York City mayor Ed Koch. As is often the case when art is presented in TV sit-coms, the piece is first seen being unveiled melodramatically from beneath a fussy drop-cloth. And like every other found-object sculpture to ever appear on television, its revelation triggers the familiar culture clash between regular “non-art” folks—George, an ex-pro football player—and the artsy types—cosmopolitan Katherine and her sassy male secretary, Jerry (Henry Polic, II).
In the middle of the conflict is Webster’s Uncle Phil (Ben Vereen), a dancer whose first foray into the visual arts is this controversial assemblage. Not realizing that Phil is the artist behind it, George insults his work with corny jokes, ultimately admitting, “It isn’t that I don’t like it; I just don’t understand it.” Katherine further confuses everyone by describing it as “a synthesis of Post-Pop Art and Neorealism, designed to make a profound environmental statement.” She probably meant to say Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism), a 1960s European art movement in which appropriation, collage and assemblage played prominent roles. Neorealism, on the other hand, referred to a British collective of representational painters working at the beginning of World War I.
In spite of all the pretentious artspeak, Phil manages to convince George of the value in what he has done. He explains his intent was to make people realize that “if we don’t clean up our oceans, we’re going to lose part of a natural beauty that makes life worth living.” The sculpture, which he calls “Sea Harvest,” is comprised of cans that were found in the ocean. George is clearly touched by the artwork’s environmental message and seems to have a change of heart.
Clueless Webster then destroys his uncle’s work for personal gain, and George and their neighbor Bill help him create a relpica of it to cover up the gaffe. Everyone believes the fake except for Phil (because what artist wouldn’t recognize a forgery of his own work!?). But instead of being angry, he points out the paradox of Webster’s selfish actions: by recycling the cans, he carried out the intent of the artwork without even knowing it was art. Phil further distances himself from the project by saying he only got into it as a “hobby,” thus explaining the absence of ego (or wrath toward Webster).
This message that art has a sneaky power to positively change minds is counteracted a few years later in episodes of “227” (1990) and “Designing Women” (1991). In each show, respectively, a bottle of glass cleaner and a handbag are inadvertently left on pedestals in galleries and mistaken for art. In the end, the characters dismiss the artistic merit of the objects (along with that of all modern art) as nonsense. Context is important here: one assumes anything presented in an art gallery is meant to be Art. Outside of this sacred space, we take objects at their face value—that is, what we have been culturally trained to recognize them to be. Although the writers behind “Webster” seem to present modern art as having a purely didactic purpose, perhaps this is the best a TV sit-com can do to bridge the divide between the arts and a broader audience.