The Art in the Background: What We Can Learn from Art in Television

You know the saying: a picture is worth a thousand words. And since TV shows can’t always develop their characters neatly over the course of a 10-episode series, many directors use to teach us more about characters.

As a viewer, you can really judge characters only by how they react to events or interact with other characters. Having a glimpse into something as personal as the art that inspires them allows the audience to form a deeper connection with them.

A licensed copy of a Mark Rothko painting hangs in Bert Cooper’s office — Photography by Eric Laignel

A licensed copy of a Mark Rothko painting hangs in Bert Cooper’s office — Photography by Eric Laignel

Art As Power

In Showtime’s Billions, we see art used to express the ruthless power and exorbitant wealth of hedge-fund mogul Bobby Axelrod. High-profile pieces like Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Nile are naturally worthy of such a one-percenter and quickly shows the audience how truly powerful a guy like that is.

In Netflix’s Jessica Jones, we learn more about lawyer Jeri Hogarth through art. A large abstract hangs behind her desk;  its color, texture, and rhythm emphasize her aggressive personality.  The art shown throughout her office is never understated;  rather, it makes a bold statement, highlighting that Jeri - nor her wealth or reach - should be underestimated.

Art As a Trophy

AMC’s Mad Men uses art as a status symbol, as proof of being cultured. The Rothko painting hanging in Bert Cooper’s office is clearly a trophy, and he talks of its value increasing in the future, proving that he has no emotional attachment to it and only sees it more as a fiscal investment (he’s right, by the way, in that similar paintings by Rothko have been sold for as much as $75 million in recent years).

The hallway at Axe Capital. Left, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s  Nile  (1983). Right: Aaron Young’s  Untitled . Image © Nicole Rivelli

The hallway at Axe Capital. Left, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Nile (1983). Right: Aaron Young’s Untitled. Image © Nicole Rivelli

Art As a Reminder

In the movie Good Will Hunting, we see a small painting in the office of therapist Sean Maguire. The painting isn’t flashy and would never sell for millions of dollars. Despite its low-key status, it ends up being the centerpiece for a powerful scene.

Will, with his academic tendencies, slams its composition then fails to notice that the art evokes an emotion in him. He sees chaos in the piece, and projects that chaos onto Maguire’s life, not realizing that it’s his life that’s full of chaos.

Beyond the TV Screen

If you are looking to make a statement with art in your own workspace, I want to help. Reach out today to learn more about how I can help you transform your office into a place your employees feel inspired every day.