TV Party was the name of a public-access television show based in New York City, which ran from 1978 to 1982. The program was co-hosted by writer Glenn O’Brien and musician Chris Stein. Episodes included features with influential figures of the late 1970s visual, performing and literary arts movements, such as Mick Jones, David Byrne, Debbie Harry, James Chance, Klaus Nomi, Robert Mapplethorpe, George Clinton and Jean-Michel Basquiat. For a suburban kid growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s, TV Party was one of my primary sources of punk rock and counter cultural education.
Television programming has an extensive history of presenting artists and their work to a broad audience. TV’s remote viewing capabilities and its generally diverse viewership is beneficial as a platform for promoting artistic ideas. Not all TV programming is educational, but generally episodes of shows featuring cameos of art and artists inform the public about aesthetic and conceptual art forms, which in turn has underlying pedagogical benefits.
In this post, I have selected several examples of episodes from TV shows that contain references to visual art themes, artworks and artists. This does not include programs already dedicated to art and art education, such as Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting or its predecessor You Are an Artist hosted by Jon Gnagy. Both of these shows are mentioned in a prior post I wrote, called “Artist see, artist do,” which is about the mass media appeal for artistic instruction.
Sesame Street’s Don’t Eat the Pictures
On November 16, 1983 PBS aired a one hour television special featuring the cast members of its children’s educational series Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This special was based upon the “lost in the museum” trope, wherein characters are mistakenly locked in an iconic museum overnight and their adventures include interacting with a variety of artworks and artifacts from the museum’s storied collection. This theme combines entertaining humor, action and suspense in order to raise awareness about the cultural role museums serve. Since life imitates art and vice versa, each Sesame Street star has a different response to the artwork they observe. Cookie Monster for example is drawn to works of art that remind him of certain foods. His excitement regarding the attractive qualities of each artwork makes him want to eat the paintings, hence the special’s title. However, he acknowledges that the best way to observe a work of art is to “eat with your eyes.”
Meanwhile, Sesame Street’s resident trashcan dwelling curmudgeon, Oscar the Grouch, is drawn to an exhibit of Greek and Roman statues that have been damaged by natural disasters. He finds beauty in the imperfect nature of each work of art, a message that reflects the mantra of many artists and art educators, which is that perfection and beauty are very subjective terms.
The special ends with main protagonist Big Bird exemplifying the process of embodied learning, wherein the act of learning is carried out by physically interacting with subject matter. In this case, Big Bird, inspired by the museum’s array of sculpture, pretends to be one of them by maintaining a perfectly static pose. As the credits roll, he mentions the importance of museums and encourages viewers to visit their local arts institutions.
The Simpsons’ “MoneyBart,” “Mom and Pop Art,” and “3 Scenes Plus a Tag from a Marriage”
References to art and artists have been made many times throughout the Simpsons’ long run. In an episode called “MoneyBart,” the street artist Banksy was commissioned by the show’s writers to create storyboards in his signature style for the iconic introduction sequence (known as the “couch gag”). The show’s animators have also rendered several Simpsons’ style reproductions of well known modern and contemporary artworks, including Elmgreen & Dragset’s Prada Marfa in the episode “Mad About the Toy” and Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the episode “Mom and Pop Art.”
In the aforementioned “Mom and Pop Art” episode, Marge explains modern and contemporary art to Homer at the fictional Springsonian Museum of Art’s exhibition Where the Elite Meet Magritte. Homer, who is somewhat of a cultural iconoclast, has found unexpected fame as a folk artist, and is embraced by the blue chip art world including wealthy collectors like Mr. Burns and real-life artists including Jasper Johns who makes an animated cameo in the episode. However, after receiving a bad review in Art in America, Homer falls upon hard times as his art is no longer considered to be en vogue. He finds the museum and the various artist concepts Marge explains to be overwhelming and falls asleep in the museum. His dreams become surreal nightmares where he is accosted by various artists and artworks.
Homer leaves the museum very discouraged and remains downtrodden until his daughter Lisa introduces him to Christo‘s interventionist artworks. This inspires Homer to embark on a new “artistic” concept, and with his son Bart’s help, he floods the town of Springfield by opening up all the fire hydrants and blocking the sewer drains. They provide the local wildlife and zoo animals with snorkels so they do not drown in the wake of the flooding. The artwork is known as the Grand Canals of Springfield and it is well revered by critics and the townsfolk alike. As the episode concludes, Jasper Johns floats through the canal on a boat and steals a painting that Marge was working on.
In “3 Scenes Plus a Tag from Marriage,” conceptual artist and educator John Baldessari makes a cameo. In true Baldessari fashion, the episode presents a paradoxical and satirical discourse on contemporary art criticism and the institutionalized art scene. The episode is a flashback to when Marge was a reporter for the Springfield Shopper and interviews Baldessari at one of his exhibitions featuring a series of large monochromatic paintings of noses. They engage in playful dialogue that pokes fun at some of the more common conceptions and misconceptions around postmodern art. Marge quips, “so you’ve moved into painting giant schnozes,” to which Baldessari replies ““Marge, the mouth has had its say. Now it’s time to find out what the nose knows.” Everything seems to be fun and games until Bart, a baby at the time of this narrative, vandalizes a giant inflatable sculpture, which results in Marge being fired from her job.
Arthur’s “Binky Barnes, Art Expert” and “George Scraps His Sculpture”
While the Simpsons are often credited with “predicting” future social, cultural and political phenomena, another popular and long running animated series called Arthur, might have foreseen that a popular abstract painting by Piet Mondrian had been hanging upside down.
In the episode “Binky Barnes, Art Expert,” Arthur and his classmates visit the Elwood City Art Museum. One of the students, a self-proclaimed “art aficionado” named Binky Barnes observes a particular abstract painting in the style of Piet Mondrian, which he emphatically claims is hanging upside down. The other students are skeptical, unsure how Binky could be so sure that the non-representational work was incorrectly oriented. Binky proves his point by showing documentary footage of the artist hanging the artwork in his studio. Lo and behold, the painting was indeed turned upside down when the museum rehung it.
Coincidentally, twenty-five years after the episode first aired, life imitates art. It was recently revealed that Mondrian’s New York City I (1941) has been consistently hung upside down, both when it was on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and its current location at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (NRW) in Germany. Just like in the fictional instance of Binky Barnes’ discovery, real-world curator Susanne Meyer-Büser’s astute eye and intuition resulted in fixing what was a longstanding error.
Arthur’s astute art references are also evident in the episode “George Scraps His Sculpture.” The episode features special guest artist Kevin Sampson (animated as an aardvark), who helps George, one of the main characters, find his own artistic voice by learning to carefully observe quotidian objects and environments. Through a lesson on materials-based explorations, Sampson shows George how he can repurpose discarded items to create expressive works of art. A previous post I wrote called “Artfully Arthur” describes this episode in more detail, as well as the overall art educational themes prevalent throughout the entire Arthur series.
Do you have any other examples or favorite art related moments from TV land? Please feel free to share in the comments below!