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The World is Wide Enough: The Fine Arts and Popular Culture

The fine arts have always enjoyed a special status in high society. For centuries anybody who was anybody had at least one oil painting of themselves or their families hanging in their parlor. Today many of these wonderful works have found their way out of the private homes of the wealthy and into public institutions, where they are viewed by millions of people every year. Some have even become iconic in their own right; the Mona Lisa, which once hung in the bathrooms and bedrooms of French rulers and was seen only by a select few is now everywhere, from coffee mugs to t-shirts to yes, even tennis shoes. A work created for the elite is now a pop culture touchstone.

It may be difficult to imagine Leonardo da Vinci being able to predict such a development for a painting of which he famously had a great deal of trouble letting go, but it is easy to imagine the artist being immensely pleased by it. Truly timeless art becomes a part of our shared cultural memory, yet it takes a certain appropriation by the newer generations to keep our affection for it fresh. In doing so the pendulum sometimes swings in the other direction, with the older generations developing an appreciation for the art of the young.

When Beyonce and Jay-Z filmed a 2018 music video at a nearly-deserted Louvre Museum in front of the Mona Lisa as well as nearly a dozen other masterworks, they weren’t just utilizing a grandiose set piece and a few iconic works of art; they were declaring a kind of ownership for the contents of the Louvre and were sharing this ownership with everyone who watched the video. When in 1973 singer Alice Cooper, then one of the most disreputable figures in American popular culture, joined forces with Salvador Dalí to create First Cylindric Chromo-Hologram Portrait of Alice Cooper’s Brain, fans of each artist began to pay much closer attention to the other.

It is through this exchange that many of the artists, art historians, and art aficionados of tomorrow are created. Art transcends boundaries if given the right avenue by which to do so. People who once viewed the museums and art galleries of the world through a keyhole suddenly reach up, take hold of the doorknob and give it a turn. The door opens and a much wider and much more luminous world is revealed.

The Simpsons, that great giver and receiver of popular culture, is particularly famous utilizing famous works of art in its episodes. Pieces by everyone from Raphael to Frida Kahlo to Georgia O’Keefe to Piet Mondrian have made an appearance at one time or another. Numerous contemporary artists have featured as guest stars. Characters like Homer, Marge, and even little Maggie have had the occasional brush with the art world.

On a recent episode of the ABC comedy black-ish, stars Anthony Anderson and Loretta Devine are shown bonding over their mutual love of African-American art. Artists Noah Davis, Emory Douglas, Fahamu Pecou and Kara Walker all receive a mention alongside images of their artwork. Representation matters. To see artists of color showcased on a prime-time television show, or their favorite musicians standing alone amongst some of the greatest masterpieces ever created, encourages people not used to seeing their own experiences and interests represented in museums to nurture an interest in art, and maybe even to create a little art of their own.

As new and exciting voices from all different walks of life enter the art market, it becomes more and more important to be able to identify authentic works. This protects buyer and artist alike, as it ensures that the artist has the opportunity to receive greater compensation for their works and the buyer has gotten their money’s worth. In bridging the gap between the worlds of popular culture and the fine arts television shows like black-ish and artists like Beyonce and Alice Cooper have introduced millions to the joys of fine art, and that is a cause of celebration for everyone.


Image: John Singleton Copley (American, 1738-1815) Portrait of a Man in a Blue Coat, 1770. (license)/Source: Public Domain Files

Image: Fehamu Pecou (American, b. 1975) with self portrait. (license)/Source: BurnAway

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