The Artist as Player in “Girls” & “The GoldenĀ Girls”

5.5 / Slapstick and the Sublime

The Artist as Player in “Girls” & “The GoldenĀ Girls”

By Jim Gaylord July 9, 2014

“Women can be so silly. They think because you are an artist, you must also be a great lover,” says Laszlo Gregorian (Tony Jay), a fictional Hungarian artist portrayed in the TV sitcom The Golden Girls (1987). In fact, that’s what Blanche, Dorothy, and Rose are all counting on when they begin competing for his attention. Laszlo invites the three ladies to pose nude for him in his studio in preparation for a new sculpture commissioned by a local museum. However, each of them believes she is his only muse, and conflict arises when the truth comes out.

Though no sex actually takes place between Laszlo and his subjects, the experience is clearly a very sexual one for the three friends. The women are spellbound by Laszlo’s worldliness and sophistication (he’s from Europe), and his adoration of their physiques appeals to their vanity and makes them feel desirable. He also flatters them with his words, praising Dorothy’s strength and character, Blanche’s sensuality, and Rose’s softness. He even goes so far as to give each of them a key to his studio. Through Laszlo, they see not only the chance to be immortalized in a “classic work of art,” but also the possibility of romance with a “world famous” artist.

Laszlo is so involved with his creative process (and himself) that he is either unaware of their advances or doesn’t care. And unfortunately for “the girls,” he cannot return their affections because he is gay, a detail he fails to make clear until his sculpture is finished and he no longer needs them.

Helping to keep the artist/heartbreaker stereotype alive today is the character of Booth Jonathan (Jorma Taccone) from the HBO series Girls (2013). The creation of writer/actor/director Lena Dunham (daughter of artists Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons), it’s fair to assume—given the show’s exaggerated yet realistic tone—that he is based on people Ms. Dunham has actually known in the New York art world. Booth is the kind of cocky, womanizing hipster who sleeps with his dealer and hates the High Line.

His persona is nothing new, bringing to mind Adam Coleman Howard’s “Stash” in Slaves of New York or Steve Buscemi’s role as Gregory Stark in New York Stories, both coincidentally from 1989. These bad-boy art stars exploit their successes to get what they want from others, usually with little consequence. Indeed, in Girls, Booth’s allure is often proportional to his misogynistic behavior. Even after locking the starstruck Marnie (Allison Williams) inside one of his video sculptures against her will, she later praises him for his talent and then has creepy sex with him. “I’m a man,” he tells her, “and I know how to do things.”

It isn’t long before Marnie believes Booth is her boyfriend, but she is actually falling in love with what he represents to her. Having been fired from her gallery job and turned down for another, she is struggling with her own identity. Booth’s “aura” as an artist is clearly attractive to Marnie; perhaps she sees him as a window back into that world, and a way to enter its higher echelons.

Like actors, artists have public personas, which their audiences can mistake for the genuine, private self. Many have intentionally exaggerated their eccentricities to attract attention, such as the outwardly flamboyant Salvador Dalí. In the case of Girls, the Booth who Marnie sees (as opposed to whom we see) is largely a projection from her own imagination. When it later becomes clear that he was just using her, Booth evades any responsibility by throwing a tantrum about how “no one even knows me” and “everyone just uses me for what I represent to them.” These protests elicit little sympathy since, no doubt, there’s likely another admirer willing to be the next victim of his abuse in line behind Marnie.

Hollywood’s version of reality is a world of extremes; the middle ground doesn’t make for interesting storytelling. We rarely see an artist character living an average, workaday life, or coming home to a drama-free family or relationship. The fictional artist is usually either dirt poor or obscenely successful, and almost always neurotic. Another running thread in popular representations of the artist is their ever-fleeting connection with others. “Regular” people (i.e., outside the art world) become involved with artists seemingly on a whim, and the association usually falls apart due to the artist’s lack of life stability, an overblown ego, or the unbearable peculiarities of their personality. 

We rarely see an artist character living an average, workaday life, or coming home to a drama-free family or relationship.

This “us versus them” narrative underscores the disconnection from the “elitist” art world viewers may already experience. Similarly, when artists (or others involved in the arts, such as dealers and collectors) are portrayed as decadent, strange, or even criminal, the audience finds an easy antagonist to root against. On the other hand, when these characters are also portrayed as sexually attractive, their desirability makes them into villains we love to hate. 

To be sure, this animosity is not Hollywood’s fault alone. Art has long been a convenient scapegoat on the popular stage, held up as an inside joke intended for a chosen few, its worth constantly questioned. At the same time, we prefer our artists to be mysterious and unobtainable; transparency is not one of the traits we want from them. If all the cards are on the table, there is no cult of personality to hold our interest. 

So perhaps the asshole behavior we scorn in successful artists and other celebrities is not only perpetuated by lazy typecasting, but is sought out and celebrated by us as a culture that romanticizes creative outliers. Julian Schnabel’s relationship troubles have become inextricable from discussion of his career, while Pablo Picasso, who is as influential as ever, captured many of his romantic exploits as muses for his paintings. As he once warned his mistress Françoise Gilot (who was 21 at the time and 40 years his junior), “For me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.” Although Gilot was well aware of Picasso’s reputation as a womanizer, she was nonetheless drawn to him and described their relationship as a “catastrophe I didn’t want to avoid.”

Success is a prerequisite to the privilege of being a cad.

It is important to point out that the callous behavior of a playboy such as Booth, or even Picasso, would not likely be tolerated from an unknown artist. Success is a prerequisite to the privilege of being a cad. When we want something from someone else—whether money, sex, or social clout—the person in possession of those things is in the position of power. With an awareness of this position comes a sense of entitlement and, as a result, kindness toward others becomes optional. The figure of the artist-as-heartbreaker reminds us that we will gladly endure (at least temporarily) the mistreatment we’ve got coming when we mistake what we want for what we think we need.

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