The animated Netflix comedy BoJack Horseman is about an anthropomorphic horse who was once the star of a ’90s family sitcom. He is in love with Diane, a human woman and the ghost writer of his memoir. His rival for her affections is Diane’s boyfriend, an upright labrador named Mr. Peanutbutter. In one episode of the second season, Mr. Peanutbutter takes Diane out for her birthday, and she asks him, “You weren’t too bored by ‘Women on the Wall: An Exploration of Gender in Text and Media: Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer in conversation with Helen Molesworth’?” One of the strangest things about this piece of dialogue is that it is so eerily plausible—The Hammer museum very likely should organize this exact talk in Los Angeles if they don’t have plans to already.
Pop culture has long held a remote fascination with the art world, but after decades of artists making blatant use of pop culture in their work, pop culture now seems to have turned the tables. In a year when MoMA was accused of selling out because of its dismal Björk show, and when Jerry Saltz penned an essay entirely devoted to celebrities who make art, the division between the art world and the pop-cultural world is hazier than ever.
In some cases, this proved disastrous. Crackle’s soap opera The Art of More, about rivaling auction houses, deserved the ridicule it received. (“There is far too much television getting made right now,” was the conclusion put forth by the Guardian’s review of the show.) At a fundraiser for the Museum of Modern Art, one character says, “The editors of Artforum and October are here.” This is arguably the worst reference of all time to October, the scholarly journal that is best known for publishing theory-heavy essays by pedigreed art historians—not exactly the kind of crowd to show up for the open bar at a MoMA party. Then there was Ovation’s reality show about art advisors, Art Breakers, which includes embarrassing lines from its stars like, “We travel the globe in search of the chicest galleries and hottest artists.”
Outside television, in an unforgettably weird article, The New York Times covered Pete Wentz, of Fall Out Boy fame, visiting a Peter Saul show at Mary Boone and performing some amateur art criticism. (“Who wouldn’t want a couple of pink dogs?” he said of one canvas.) Also in print was Selfish, the Kim Kardashian book of Instagram selfies, which seemed like a project by the Internet-satirizing collective DIS, but, in fact, wasn’t. (“Bikini selfies are my fave,” Kardashian remarks in one caption.) Meanwhile, Kardashian’s husband, Kanye West, had a limited-run show at LACMA with the video artist Steve McQueen, and, also in the music industry, Dr. Dre’s new album, Compton, name-checked Picasso.
Certain art-world references were more seamlessly integrated for the sake of realism. In the film Tangerine, a transgender prostitute runs around Los Angeles looking for the person who cuckolded her and, in the process, chats with a friend in front of the gallery Regen Projects. Likewise, in USA’s paranoid-thriller TV series Mr. Robot, the main character can often be seen near Reena Spaulings Fine Art on the Lower East Side—he lives a few blocks away.
And sometimes, these shows and films accomplished more than random namedropping, coming across like inside jokes for art lovers. Ex Machina featured an extended monologue in which Oscar Isaac’s character spouts Greenbergian art theory, sans any mention of Clement Greenberg, about a Jackson Pollock painting. The second season of Amazon’s Transparent included a lesbian ultra-feminist who owns a print of Catherine Opie’s photograph Self-Portrait/Nursing (2004), in which the artist can be seen breastfeeding. The horror film It Follows borrowed its dreamy, unsettling look from Gregory Crewdson’s photography.
And, in probably the greatest art world crossover into pop culture in 2015, Fox’s sprawling, ’80s-style nighttime soap Empire—about the Lyons, a power-hungry family in the music industry—featured an art collection that wasn’t half bad. The art on view by Kehinde Wiley, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and many other black artists rarely ever gets mentioned as the show’s characters strut around, spewing catty insults at each other, but the Lyon Family Collection feels like a character unto itself. According to Empire’s showrunner, Lee Daniels, the show “infuse[s] the art with the message”—that they live a world where their careers bleed into every aspect of their lives, making the art an important part of the show’s operatic landscape. Maybe the Wiley paintings are more than just multimillion-dollar accessories after all. As Daniels told The New Yorker earlier this year when asked about why the show includes so much art, “We choose pieces that match the taste of the Lyons and the world they live in—sometimes it’s over the top, but most times it’s classy and my definition of ghetto fabulous.”