When Broad City Stuck a Skewer in Art World Pretentions

When the US sitcom visited a gallery opening the results were as painfully familiar as they were achingly funny, writes [author]Charlotte Jansen[/author]

Openings at art galleries feel like an artifact nowadays, the memory of them as faint as the scent of cheap prosecco splashed on a concrete floor. Everyone who has ever been to an opening (no matter how distant in the past) will remember a few things: the farcical fawning over each other’s outfits as much as the art (which no-one is really looking at); the bitching; the stone-cold stares thrown across the room as glasses clink.

Few have created as scintillating and incisive a satire of gallery openings as Abbi Jackson and Ilana Glazer managed in their comedy series Broad City. The show began in 2009 as a web series before moving to Comedy Central and evolving into one of the best sitcoms of our times. It centres around Abbi and Ilana (played by Jacobson and Glazer), two creative young women who spend their time getting stoned and trying (and often failing, with panache) to live their best lives in New York City. Broad City’s blend of slapstick, bawdy humour and close observations of the paradoxes of everyday life perfectly captured the peaks and troughs of contemporary life in the metropolis. So it was probably inevitable that when the show turned its attention to a gallery opening, the art world would get a special kind of roasting.

“It was inevitable that when Broad City turned its attention to a gallery opening that the art world would get a special kind of roasting”

In Two Chainz, the 2016 episode which opened the show’s third season, aspiring artist Abbi invites Ilana to an opening at a gallery where one of her ex-housemates is exhibiting. After an abortive attempt to rescue the keys to a 12lb bike chain that’s now stuck around Ilana’s waist, the pair try to get Abbi a new outfit at a sample store but end up with a top that still has the security tag attached. At this point, any viewer acquainted with the dress code of a gallery opening is already squirming in their seat. “Artists aren’t judged by what they wear,” Ilana remarks. The irony is almost too much.

The scene was shot at Maccarone gallery, a local landmark in New York’s West Village. Maccarone represents contemporary artists such as Danny McDonald, whose sculpture of a military man drinking from a giant pink penis through a straw has a cameo in the episode. The gallery’s particular level of pretentiousness (Maccarone’s first exhibition in 2001 was a conceptual affair that involved signing a waiver before crawling through a hole to get inside) made it the perfect setting for this scene, but similar cavernous, polished spaces and ludicrous art can be found in any major city.

The people Ilana and Abbi meet there are instantly recognisable too. Take Max, for instance: the young, slim, woman who is Abbi’s artist friend but looks more like a fashion model and wears what appears to be avant garde haute couture. “It helps to have a look around here,” she shrugs (Max’s artwork is a white fingerprint barely visible on a white canvas that took two-and-a-half years to paint using only the soft end of a feather). Then there’s the curator, wearing, of course, an oversized black hat like an umbrella over an equally black outfit, not to mention a shirtless wannabe performance artist (played by Har Mar Superstar), with “Oy Bomb” scrawled on his bare chest. The rest of the bystanders throwing out frosty glares offer up a festival of black garments, spiky jewellery and sharp fringes.

“They exit, but not before Ilana becomes magnetically attached to a giant golden sculpture of a pair of testicles”

It’s not just the fashion and frolics that Glazer and Jackson do so well in the scene: they also capture with pinpoint accuracy the social hierarchy, laying bare the art world’s elitism and snobbery. “I recognise you from Abbi’s Instagram”, Max oozes at Ilana, before promising them both an introduction to the curator, an introduction which inevitably never happens after the pair accidentally destroy Max’s masterpiece by jetting ink from the security tag on Abbi’s top across it.

Flung out by a weeping and furious Max, they exit to the sound of a slow clap from someone who thought that it was all a performance piece, but not before Ilana becomes magnetically attached to a giant golden sculpture of a pair of testicles dangling from the ceiling. “You don’t need to steady it!” Max screams as Abbi valiantly moves to stop the sculpture’s pendulum motion by balancing one of its pubic hairs. As both image and metaphor it’s hard to forget, and it’s hard to imagine a more concise way to sum up the braggadocio of the art world.

The scene is only a few minutes long, but it’s a snapshot of every exhibition opening at any contemporary art gallery: the excruciating insecurity, the sycophancy, the paranoia, the drama, the existential malaise… Ah openings, how we’ve missed you.