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TV’s ‘Mod Squad’

Last week my research proved what I had long suspected; artists in America are not exactly highly regarded (see pathetic poll results from my last article).

Well, I’ve gotten over my great shock and am conjuring up ways to salvage our reputation – and while we’re at it, dwell on why and if, art is even relevant today.

All that will come later. Today I present my own, homemade theory to explain the apathy for arts by a large number of Americans. Is it because Western artists often identify with the left and thereby alienate many conservatives? True, but another force bears some responsibility for the big yawn over much modern art. That is the powerful effect of television and movies on the public perception of artists.

I call this my “Mod Squad” theory, referring back to a 1968 series. If you grew up watching crime shows as I did, there are always the generic character types: the iniquitous butler, the sexy woman villain, the brilliant, fabulously rich, bad guy (where does he get all that money?) and the female cop with an attitude.

And what are the stereotypes of artists, art collectors and gallery owners in the average TV drama? I’m so glad you asked. The oldest TV crime series I could find which featured an artist, was Perry Mason’s 1964 “The Case of the Scandalous Sculptor.” What other kind could there be? Well, you get my drift.

In the majority of crime dramas over five decades, artists are cast as killers, deranged criminals and generally amoral – and those are some of their better qualities. In fact, I could barely find any type of positive portrayal of an artist in a TV drama, barring PBS specials or biographies of actual artists.

To prove this, I’ve compiled a brief plot list from generations of American television and movies. See if you notice a theme:

  • “Matlock”: Believe it or not, the blind sculptor shows up in quite a few mysteries, but don’t pity him – he’s a murdering beast! In this case, Arthur Hampton kills the person who caused his blindness and frames his fiancé, all in broad daylight. Well, at least artists are clever.

  • “Perry Mason”: Artist fakes his own suicide so that his paintings will increase in value.

  • ‘Columbo’
  • “Columbo”: Artist kills his ex-wife and agent. Another episode features murderous art critics.
  • “Hawaii 5-O”: Has a murdering art appraiser, art scammers and (bonus) a moronic art reporter.
  • “Harry-O”: An arthritic painter frames his brother for murder.
  • “Magnum P.I.”: Swindling art collector, kidnappers and so forth.
  • “Murder She Wrote”: Art robbery and killers in “Paint me a Murder.”
  • “The Rockford Files”: Artist commits insurance fraud and kidnapping.
  • “CSI”: Artist becomes a suspect of several murders because he poses his models as corpses.
  • “CSI,” again: Performing arts venue also may host backroom S&M and murder.
  • “Monk”: Artist kills his wife and an innocent clerk who gets in the way.

But not all artists in film and television are murderers, of course. Some are murder victims or commit fraud or blackmail or just have a nasty attitude. Artists at the very best are portrayed as somewhat lacking in mental health. Rarely do we see them doing something sensible like raising families, mowing the lawn or having coherent conversations. I think I’ve made my case.

This is not a new phenomenon. A negative attitude is evident back to the earliest Greek writings, with Plutarch stating, “We admire the work of art but despise the maker of it,” and Lucien lecturing to painters, “No sensible observer will be found to wish himself like you.”

Since then the fortunes and regard for the arts has ebbed and flowed with differing cultures and times.

Although most surveys indicate a majority of Americans actually love art, many are more reserved in their estimation of the artists themselves.

According to surveys, women, African Americans and the highly educated are more likely to support the arts officially (say as in the National Endowment for the Arts). However, research shows that the wealthy, who are more likely to buy art and attend art events are (surprise!) not entirely supportive of vast amounts of public art funding.

As many readers will guess, Evangelicals and conservatives of all sorts are less enthusiastic of the NEA, regardless of their social class. Some of this is due to a few poor choices by U.S. arts agencies, who unnecessarily antagonized conservatives and religious groups in recent blow-ups.

Contemporary artists are contending with both a millennium or two of bad PR and the onslaught of entertainment, which portrays them as contemptible.

The point is, it’s all a product of Hollywood, so don’t believe it for a minute. Artists come in every variation of personality and belief system, just like anyone else. Take me for instance: conservative, religious, pro-life … and an artist. It happens.

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