Art media

Art historians turn to TikTok to shake up the narrative

In May 2021, Australian art historian and TikToker Mary McGillivray went viral for using her knowledge of visual geometry to demystify a claim as Eurovision winners Måneskin snorted cocaine in the green room. In her clip on the video-sharing app, she used her background in Renaissance art to map angles and prove singer Damiano David’s nose couldn’t have touched the table.

Use name @_theiconoclass, McGillivray has amassed nearly 400,000 followers on TikTok who tune in for its concise and irreverent art content. One of his most popular videos provides tongue-in-cheek lyrics explanations of artists’ styles. “If it sounds like the chaos after the blackout where everyone is stumbling around in the dark under a lone emergency light, it’s a Caravaggio,” she explains in the clip, and “If there’s at least one person looking at the camera like they’re on The Office is a Velázquez.

Other videos praise Taylor Swift’s unwitting reference to how medieval iconography works and Lizzo and Cardi B’s hidden references from art history in their Rumors Musical clip. She also takes a deep dive into the role of bananas at Maurizio Cattelan Actor – a banana taped to a wall – and that of Susan Gourley Half eaten banana – actually recycled materials pretending to be a banana. As McGillivary thinks, “Do people agree more with [Gourley’s] a work of art because it’s not a real banana? Do we feel more comfortable when the artist has carefully constructed the banana out of scraps and then put it on the wall? »

McGillivray is part of an art-historical subculture on the video-sharing app that, despite being a niche, is hugely successful. While the bite-sized clips might be dismissed as superficial, TikTok art historians are using the platform to explore viewpoints often excluded in more established spaces like galleries and museums.

Cordelia Noe, the founder of gorgeous art media group and website sharing stories about creative endeavors around the world, is an advocate for TikTok’s art history content. “I think people and the art world got a bit bored with Instagram, the algorithms and how to communicate there,” she told Observer of TikTok’s growing popularity. on the subject of art. The video-sharing platform is particularly appealing because “it’s more fun, even a bit silly,” she says.

Colette Bernard, an artist living in New York, turned to TikTok during the pandemic because of its refreshing informality. Like Noe, she noticed that TikTok seemed to provide a good platform for her content. “I have so many more followers than I’ve ever managed on Instagram,” she told Observer. “People really want to comment, share and weigh in on things on TikTok.” Bernard describes the platform as “dumb and informal” resulting in a more accessible approach to content and education.

Bernard notes that one of his most popular video series was titled “Poopoo Peepee Art History”. He was talking about restroom-related content in art, like Maurizio Cattelan America. “It was so mind-blowing to some people,” Bernard says. “If you take something as serious as art history and approach it in a fun way, I think that’s the best way to educate.”

TikToker Evan Hart, currently a Masters student in Medieval Art and Civilization, also appreciates the lack of convention that the social network offers. “I can discuss more controversial topics or a number of different perspectives than some [art] organizations would not be able to do,” Hart told the Observer. Publish as @evan.hart, Hart’s content focuses on female art, medieval iconography and paleography, while finding offbeat angles like ‘Story’ (story of the snail), explaining the symbolism of snails in medieval art. “Ancient art has more in common with modern memes than meets the eye,” says Hart, “and it’s always interesting to discover fun little facts about secret messages or innuendos in the art.”

Art history TikTokers are also interested in delving into topics like racism, misogyny, and colonialism that aren’t often addressed in mainstream art historical discourse. “If you come from art history classes or art history institutes, it’s even more classic,” says Noe. “On TikTok, you get an insider’s perspective with a tongue-in-cheek undertone but also in a more accessible way.”

Dane Nakama, on TikTok as @umeboi and studied fine arts at the California Institute of the Arts, often exposing discrimination and prejudice in the art world. In several videos, he watches cultural erasure stemming from sexist and racist attitudes of the past. He is also keen to approach art through a non-eurocentric objective to open up the study to people who “felt they weren’t smart enough to understand the art or that their voices were underrepresented,” as he says in a video.

Content creator Cassandra Rush, art history student on TikTok as @pheauxtogenic, is known for his short biographical videos on contemporary black American artists. She started posting earlier this year on artists like Jammie Holmes and Tschabalala Self, only to find that most people had never heard of it. “Some of the comments or direct messages I get on my videos are from different art graduates who say they never heard of these artists in school,” Rush told Observer. “But how is that possible when we exist in these same spaces at the same time?”

Bernard also likes to present art and artists often excluded from the canon. One of Bernard’s most popular series focuses on public art, which she plans to expand next year with public art videos around New York City. “When you spotlight things that aren’t so traditional, it gets people interested,” she says. “I try to emphasize on my page that your interests in the art world don’t have to be linear.”

Content like this has earned Bernard over 300,000 subscribers. Noe explains, “TikTok’s art history content has the potential to grow an audience quickly because there isn’t that intimidation you sometimes get with the most theoretically loaded sources.” As Bernard says, “Every time I make a video about art history, whether it’s from today or a thousand years ago, I want people to be able to understand what I’m talk and don’t think ‘I never learned this and I’m too scared to look it up myself.'” Bernard notes how TikTok’s informal format also helps remove that sense of intimidation allowing more people to engage.”I can make a video with a towel over my head after taking a shower and people are still going to listen,” she says.

With such interest online, it is hoped that this will translate into real changes in the art world. Noe thinks this is an opportunity for arts institutions to rethink how they reach out to a wider audience. “I think it will have an impact on how museum tours or digital content might be created and presented on content platforms,” she says. For Hart, “Art history content on TikTok rejuvenates and invigorates the discipline, bringing new twists and perspectives to what can sometimes be seen as a somewhat ‘stuffy’ discipline.”

For Hart and Rush, an important goal is to engage an audience that may not feel welcome in the conventional world of art history. “There is less elitism involved [on TikTok]says Rush. “You can choose to engage without needing a Yale degree. Nobody asks what your credentials are. Everyone is just there to engage, learn, and show their passion. Rush herself says that she did not feel comfortable visiting a museum before the age of 20. “I want to cultivate the thought that we (black people) also belong in these spaces […] Representation is everything for a young black child.