Being a Queer WOC in the Art World, as Seen on TV

Contrary to popular belief, the life of an art critic isn’t very sexy. I’m either behind a screen typing away or wandering through art galleries, trying to think about that stuff on the wall that might be art. That being said, if I see a more emotionally dynamic version of my world reflected back through a television show, I’ll drop everything to watch it. An art world filled with romance, queerness, and high stakes situations, you say? I’m already hooked, but not for just the obvious reasons.

I’ll watch for the guilty pleasure of deciding if well-written TV can make the problematic elements of the art world, such as its classism, racism, and elitism, actually feel emotionally gripping rather than headache-inducing. Also, given my profession, I’m dying to make a meta-critique of the ways my kind are represented on the silver screen.

That’s how I fell into brief obsessions with two shows that portray very different views of the art world. Showtime’s The L-Word: Generation Q (the sequel series to the soapy The L-Word of the aughts), revolves around the dramatic lives of lesbians in Los Angeles, including hotshot curator Bette Porter (Jennifer Beals). The show offers a representation of the commercial, high-powered art world and its ability to stifle artists of color. Netflix’s Gentified follows three Mexican-American cousins trying to save their grandpa’s taco shop. In this show, viewers get a glimpse of emerging artists of color who haven’t yet broken into the commercial art world and face a different set of challenges.

These two shows explore relationships between artists and commercial gallerists, and as an art critic, I’m keen on standing to the side and critiquing how that is portrayed. On the one hand, in real life, I’m mostly critiquing artworks, but in this situation I am critiquing television shows’ portrayals of the art world. Is it about accuracy, or more about a reflection of the cultural zeitgeist?
In “Luck Be a Lady,” the third episode of Gen Q’s second season, Porter, a Black biracial curator, takes her then-new girlfriend, Iranian-American Golnar “Gigi” Ghorbani (Sepideh Moafi), to a gallery. As a queer, Jewish, Turkish-American writer, I felt excited to see an openly queer character of SWANA/MENA descent on television; sometimes in media, even if the plotlines aren’t gripping, just having representation can feel meaningful.

Jennifer Beals as Bette (left) and Sepideh Moafi as Gigi (right) in The L Word: Generation Q (Episode: “Luck be a Lady”) (photo courtesy Liz Morris/SHOWTIME)

In this episode, Gigi and Bette wander the low-lit, outdoor gallery space in LA, when Gigi pops the question that any non-art person would ask. Because she is normal and not a neurotic art person like yours truly. 

“I’m gonna sound really ignorant,” she asks shyly, “but … how do you know if it’s any good?” 

It’s an adorable question that, honestly, I love to get when I am at a gallery with someone who is curious, cute, and not an artist. Because come on — the art world is a pretentious-ass place filled with people like me who spend their days obsessively thinking and writing. Sadly, only terrible shows like Immersive Van Gogh will reach as many people as a television show with art in it. 

Instead of indulging Gigi’s flirtation, Bette coldly responds to her as a professor would to an annoying student. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work out between them.) Then Bette’s eye quickly lands on a seemingly hidden artwork by Black artist Pipa Pascal, whose work was the catalyst for Bette’s entry into curation. She quickly becomes consumed, as if she’s found the one who got away. In this fictional world, Pipa fell into obscurity after calling out the art world’s racism. Despite Bette’s callousness, I realized that her desire to find meaningful art amongst all the garbage captures one of the few joys of this bizarre profession.

I was also taken by the accuracy of the depiction of the art world’s racism, which the original series fails to delve into almost entirely. Bette’s racist boss Isaac Zakarian (Griffin Dunne) exploits her to diversify the roster at his blue chip gallery.

On screen, Bette is exploited by Zakarian, but in turn, she exploits the artists of color she seeks to represent to get ahead in her career. She brings in Kismet Russell, a fictional, up-and-coming Black artist, promising that she can help bring him the success he deserves. But when Zakarian (a caricature of generic art dealer-types) joins the conversation, he undermines this artist, comparing him to Kerry James Marshall, an actual Black artist who he wanted to sign but felt “wasn’t ready.” It is sort of confusing to see the fictional and the real mix, but the gallerist’s racism, as in real life, infantilizes and belittles people of color, while simultaneously pitting artists of color against one another.

Yet, as the second season goes on, Bette comes face-to-face with someone who won’t fall for her game: Pascal, who she eventually Internet-stalks and tracks down at her remote home studio in mountainous Topanga Canyon. Bette is after her, determined to bring her back into the art world and represent her — but she’s also falling in love with her, and Pippa is open to something more than just professionalism. Through this double sexual and professional dynamic, power plays out in a way that could possibly topple Bette from her position of influence.

Equally fraught power dynamics of racism and tokenism in the art world crop up in the first season of Gentefied, which follows three Mexican-American cousins in the Boyle Heights neighborhood in LA who are trying to make things work in their professional and personal lives while battling gentrification in their community and attempting to save their immigrant grandpa’s taco shop, and then saving him from being deported by ICE. 

Of the three cousins, Ana Morales (Karrie Martin) is a queer artist. While working at the taco shop by day and at a bar at night, she’s also trying to consistently make art about queer Brown love and anti-gentrification. 

She wants to live off her art and grow her Instagram following, but also has to hide her practice from her Mexican immigrant mother, who makes it clear that she doesn’t think being an artist is a viable career option. In one episode, she throws Ana’s paints in the garbage, trying to prove a point that she’s wasting her time and money. 

Karrie Martin as Anna Morales (left) and Yessika Castillo as Julissa Calderon (right) in Gentefied, in front of a mural painted by Morales (photo courtesy Kevin Estrada/NETFLIX)

The tension between Ana’s desire to make it as an artist and the values she will compromise to earn become central to her character development. She starts working with a rich, white, gay man named Tim (TJ Thyne) who postions her as his token artist of color; he identifies her immediately as someone who he can use to gentrify the neighborhood where he’s already started buying property. Ana, determined to become a successful artist, gets tricked into thinking working with Tim is the only way, perpetuating the all-too-common scarcity mentality.

At Tim’s behest, she paints a mural with two Brown, luchador-masked men kissing each other on the side of Ecuadorian immigrant Ofelia’s store. As the painting progresses, we (and Ana) come to learn that Ofelia never agreed to the mural, and Tim is deceiving her with the promise of something beautiful for the wall of her business. But instead, when Ana’s mural is unveiled, Ofelia feels offended and hurt. She immediately knows the queer content will cost her business. Then, Tim tries to pit Ana against Ofelia, claiming that Ofelia is homophobic. As a white gay man, he plays into the white savior complex, foolishly asserting that he and Ana are on the same side in “liberating queerness.” 

As in The L-Word: Gen Q, we once see people of color pit against each other. Ana feels deeply conflicted about this. While the mural does align with her own values, the placement of it hurts her community, threatens another Latinx person’s business, and makes her feel like a gentrifying traitor. 

She’s left with the question: Does “making it” as a Latinx artist mean becoming a gentrifier? Throughout the first season, Ana argues about this with her girlfriend, Yessika Castillo (Julissa Calderon), who is Afro-Latinx and tries to convince Ana not to move forward with her plans to work with Tim.

So where does this leave me as an actual, working art critic? Television is meant to reflect culture, packaged into dramas or 22-minute sitcoms. In real-life, I’m critiquing art, but in this instance I am critiquing the representation of the art world on TV rather than the art in TV shows. 

While both of these shows accurately portray the conflicts of queer BIPOC artists of color, real life isn’t a television show, and the art world has more work to do if it hopes to actually create an equitable environment free of white supremacy. As a visual art critic and reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the number of press releases I’ve received about exhibitions and events featuring artists of color in the year following the uprising after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police feels like a start. But will the cultural institutions that keep expressing their absolute, die-hard commitment to “DEI: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” come through on their promises? The critics are watching, on screen and off.

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