Uploaded by Hannah Aubrey De Torres

The Honest Art Dictionary

Illustrated by
Carmen Casado
About the Art History Babes
In the Beginning, there was Introduction to Art…
Find Out More
Hello, and welcome to the book!
ndividually we are Natalie De La Torre, Corrie Hendricks, Jennifer
Gutierrez, and Virginia Van Dine. Collectively, we are the Art History
Babes. One day, while studying art history at the University of California,
Davis, the four of us found ourselves having a particularly rowdy
conversation about Italian Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his
sordid past. Within moments, the Art History Babes podcast was born. The
podcast began as an outlet for our grad school-induced anxieties and has
since blossomed into a multimedia platform and digital community consisting
of podcasts, videos, social media, and now, books!
The term “Art History Babe” originally stems from friendship. It began
as a term of endearment used between the four of us, and as the podcast came
to fruition, it was the obvious choice for the title. Since the podcast’s
inception, the term Art History Babe has come to encompass something much
larger than us four art nerds. An Art History Babe is not just us, it’s you as
well. An Art History Babe is anyone who loves art, art history, and/or visual
culture. It’s as broad and as simple as that. It’s not gendered, it’s not
relegated to outwardly “artsy” people, and it is not used in reference to any
societal beauty standard. Being an Art History Babe is more about
connecting to art in whatever form appeals to you. It carries with it a sense of
joy and empowerment. Art helps the four of us make more sense of this wild
world and we hope to share that sentiment with all of you.
y “the Beginning” we mean your first contact with the field of art
history—whether that was in high school or college—and by
“Introduction to Art” we mean any variation of the woefully banal,
painfully drudging intro course that will often be the first and last art history
class the general public will ever take. This course usually takes you from
the vocabulary of art (hello elements and principles!) to the timeline of style
shifts in Western art, starting from ancient Greece and ending with European
Modernism (with maybe one or two classes that lumped all non-Western art
under labels like “Asian art” or “Arts of the Americas”). Class time usually
consists of sitting in a dark room, trying to stay awake, while grainy slide
after grainy slide is displayed on the overhead projector.
Or maybe this very moment, when you chose to pick up this book and flip
through its pages, is your first foray into the world of art history. If this is the
case, welcome! And please keep reading because this book was made with
you in mind as well.
We at the Art History Babes have a deep, passionate, sometimes overthe-top love for the study of art. We believe in art’s value and power and we
believe it to be central to the human experience. We are also well aware that
the nature of “art-speak” can be completely alienating and—let’s be real—
elitist as hell. Is it any wonder, then, that the field of art history has long been
maligned as being out-of-touch and snobby? The art world can be a strange,
seemingly impenetrable place. Stereotypes that may come to mind are stylish
art dealers in all black with oversized glasses who speak about a work of art
using buzzwords like “derivative” and “dynamic”. Or it’s a stuffy auction
house filled with portraits of dead white people painted by old white guys
called “Old Masters”. What does that even mean? (Don’t worry, we’ll tell
Hey, friends, we hear you—art and art lingo can be hard to understand
and appreciate. We’re here to explain away the confusion, define the dull
(but in a fun way), and decode the terminology of art! Why are we doing this,
you ask? Well, because we love art. And you.
This book is meant to act as a helping hand in defining art terms you may
come across in class, museums, galleries, or perhaps in conversations with
the tattooed Art Bro you’ve been casually dating. With these terms decoded,
you can glide into a gallery and lay down that art jargon with the best of
them. We will also cover terms you know and recognize but maybe just need
a refresher on. If you’ve ever thought, “I hear the word acrylic all the time
but what is it actually? This book is for you. At its core, this book aims to
give you a deeper understanding of the language of art: its varied history,
background, and intent. We’ve covered a wide range of topics here because,
more than anything, we hope this book expands your curiosity.
We all have advanced degrees in art history, so we know a thing or two
when it comes to art (humble brag). That being said, while writing this book,
it was amazing how much we learned. There were terms some of us had
never heard before, had forgotten, or had never actually understood. The
breadth of art terminology is vast. Undoubtedly, we could have included
many more terms here and you would have yourself a tome the size of a
toddler in your arms. Alas, we were selective in what we chose to write
about, in order to make a more digestible book on the language of art.
Creating a fully comprehensive compilation of art and art history terms is
impossible. As is writing definitions for these terms that will satisfy every
single reader. While we hope you find this book to be a valuable educational
tool, please keep in mind that art (and life) are extremely subjective.
Therefore, in order to spice things up a bit, you will find many of our own
feelings and opinions inserted into this dictionary of terms. If you find
yourself disagreeing with our take on a particular artist or art movement,
great! That’s what discourse is about, babyyy.
Ultimately, we encourage you to make meaningful connections between
art and your life. Art helps us understand the world. It expands our creativity
and sense of wonder, and it just makes everything more fun—all the
fundamentals of living an enriched-ass life.
We hope this book adds even a little sparkle of that enrichment to yours.
> 60,000 BCE
The oldest known cave painting is created by a legit Neanderthal in the
Maltravieso cave in Cáceres, Spain.
(shown here)
28,000 – 25,000 BCE
Venus of Willendorf is created, possibly as a fertility statue. Thousands of
years later this figurine would become a symbol of *girl power*.
(shown here)
3000–2000 BCE
Stonehenge is believed to have been built for any number of mysterious
purposes. Burial site? Solar calendar? Alien landing pad? Who knows.
(shown here)
432 BCE
The Parthenon is built as a temple to the Greek goddess Athena, completing
the Athenian acropolis.
(shown here)
323 BCE
Alexander the Great dies, marking the start of the Hellenistic period in which
ancient Greeks were hyped about their vast empire and created a lot of art.
(shown here)
200 BCE
The practice of calligraphy is first recorded in China.
(shown here)
30 BCE
Cleopatra, the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, kills herself
rather than surrender to Rome, resulting in many future artists painting a
hypersexual Cleo offering her boob to a poisonous snake—sigh.
480 CE
The fall of Rome –Byzantine rule begins and lasts until 1453.
(shown here)
Book of Kells is written
The Bayeux Tapestry, a 70-meter-long embroidery commemorating the
Norman conquest of England, is made. Charlemagne started building
structures that looked “kinda Roman” and Romanesque-style architecture
was born.
(shown here)
Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus lands on the American continent.
Systematic European colonialism is born. Yikes.
(shown here)
Hieronymous Bosch paints the infamously trippy The Garden of Earthly
Delights triptych.
(shown here)
Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa. And it’s a really big deal for some
(shown here)
Martin Luther nailed some ideas on a door. This caused the massive
paradigm shift known as the Protestant Reformation. Art depicting
Christianity (which let’s face it, is a lot of it) begins to develop outside of the
Catholic context and we get styles such as Northern Mannerism.
(shown here)
Giorgio Vasari publishes the first edition of The Lives of the Most Excellent
Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, essentially making the discipline of art
history a thing.
(shown here)
Bad boy of the Baroque, Caravaggio murders Renuccio Tomasoni with a
SWORD and is then on the run from the law for the rest of his life and career.
(shown here)
Boss babe and Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi paints Judith
Beheading Holofernes. Hundreds of years later it would become a symbol of
righteous female rage.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini completes the infamously sexy sculpture, the Ecstasy
of St. Teresa which gets people all hot and bothered.
(shown here)
Edmund Burke writes about the theory of the Sublime—face the
overwhelming power of nature and get humble!
(shown here)
Choo choo! The Industrial Revolution has arrived and Europe and the U.S.
are pretty much obsessed with production and progress.
Hello French Revolution. Goodbye Rococo and all your sugary decadence.
French scholar Jean-François Champollion is the first to decipher ancient
Egyptian hieroglyphs, and English Egyptologists are pissed that it wasn’t a
Brit who cracked the code first.
(shown here)
Edmonia Lewis gains widespread recognition for her Neoclassical
sculptures representing themes related to the experiences of African
Americans and indigenous peoples in America.
Van Gogh ear incident.
(shown here)
Mystic painter extraordinaire Hilma af Klint starts talking to ghosts and
makes some truly transcendental abstract paintings. These would then be
hidden away for over 50 years to avoid her being thrown in a mental
(shown here)
The Ashcan School is founded, creating art that celebrates the grit of
working class New York at the turn of the century.
(shown here)
Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque get really into cubes.
(shown here)
The Mexican Revolution begins—Frida Kahlo later claims this as her birth
year (even though she was born in 1907) in order to align herself with the
modern Mexico.
WWI brings with it devastation and warfare, the likes of which the world
had never seen. Understandably this has a big impact on art.
The Russian Revolution: out with the Tsardom, in with the proletariat.
Bauhaus founded by the architect Walter Gropius.
(shown here)
The Harlem Renaissance is born.
(shown here)
Brazillian poet Oswald de Andrade published the Manifesto Antropófago.
(shown here)
Chrysler building was built in NYC.
(shown here)
Bauhaus shut down by Nazis (boooo).
(shown here)
“Abstract Expressionism” becomes a term widely applied to art made in
America during the 1940s and 50s.
(shown here)
Andy Warhol opens his midtown Manhattan studio known as “The Factory”.
It becomes an infamous hang out for artistic types and, needless to say,
everyone has a real good time.
Yoko Ono performs Cut Piece for the first time in Kyoto, Japan. This
powerful and personally invasive performance work would go on to inform
the later performance works of Marina Abramović and Shia Labeouf of
"Even Stevens" fame.
(shown here)
Founding year of Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland.
(shown here)
Edward Said publishes Orientalism taking down the problematic ways in
which colonial nations have fetishized and exoticized the Middle East and
(shown here)
Jean-Michel Basquiat breaks through as a solo artist after showing in a group
exhibition in New York where various art dealers and curators saw his work
and dug it.
18-year-old architecture student Maya Lin submits a design for the future
Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. Lin’s design is chosen and
her modern take on the war memorial is built. Her architecture professor
gave her a B on the assignment.
(shown here)
The Guerrilla Girls is formed. This group of anonymous activists donning
gorilla masks spend the next 35 years speaking out against racism and sexism
within the art world.
(shown here)
After being diagnosed with AIDS, Keith Haring establishes the Keith Haring
Foundation with the intention of using his art to generate activism and
awareness about the AIDS epidemic.
Prepare to have your realities rocked, the internet is here! And it’s gonna
change the way art is created and consumed on just about every level.
YBA bad boy Damien Hirst made his immersive art installation Pharmacy—
a drug store full of empty pill boxes, shaking up the standard ways in which
people view art.
(shown here)
Kara Walker’s cut-paper silhouette mural Gone, An Historical Romance of
a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young
Negress and Her Heart demands the art world’s attention with its portrayal
of slavery and violence in the Antebellum south.
(shown here)
Yayoi Kusama becomes the highest paid living female artist of all time.
A tipsy night of grad school decompression amongst four friends at a local
bar leads to the now ubiquitous “we should start a podcast” moment, and the
Art History Babes podcast is born!
Banksy’s painting Girl With a Balloon is sold for $1.4 million at Sotheby’s
and then immediately shreds itself to the shock and awe of wealthy art world
(shown here)
An AI painting is sold at auction for the first time for (drum roll) $432,500.
Technology’s a trip. So is capitalism.
(shown here)
Maurizio Cattelan taped a banana on the wall at Art Basel Miami and it was
a whooole thing. The work sold for $150,000. How Duchamp must have
giggled from the afterlife.
(shown here)
Art History Babes publish their first book!
Abstract Expressionism is an art movement that began in America,
specifically New York, after World War II. Ab-Ex, as the cool kids call it, is
all about abstraction and conveying emotion in painting. Ab-Ex painters
were coming up in post-WWII America (see postwar art), in a culture that
was largely conservative and churning with Cold War politics and paranoia
—it’s no wonder artists were striving to express their thoughts and feelings
on canvas. Painters such as Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko, and Lee
Krasner were developing new ways of painting abstractly and expressively.
You can’t really pin down a single style to unite Ab-Ex painters. Rather, they
should be noted for breaking the mold of traditional painting techniques by
using unique materials such as house paint, putting canvases on the floor as
opposed to easels and walls, and having a sense of spontaneity in their work.
The general concept of abstraction is difficult to define and gets really, well,
abstract. So, we’re gonna keep it simple and just talk about abstraction in
art, which is called abstract art (imagine that). Abstract art is unconcerned
with depicting things from the visible world in a realistic way, and
sometimes ignores the visible world altogether. There are varying degrees of
abstraction—from reshaping the natural world à la Pablo Picasso to
depicting completely unrecognizable subject matter, as in African–American
Expressionist painter Alma Thomas’s explorations of deep color and form in
the 1950s. So why abstraction? Sometime around the turn of the 20th century,
it seems artists were starting to feel disillusioned with the material world.
Advancements in science and technology, changes in urban life, and a rising
interest in psychoanalytic theory began to cause many to question the very
nature of reality and our place within it. Innovations in photography
especially pushed artists to challenge the limits of their medium in order to
make some new discoveries. Thus, abstraction became a tool for artists to
utilize in order to explore everything from the enigma of the fourth dimension
(Cubism) to the mysteries of our most complex human emotions (Abstract
Expressionism). Through abstraction, artists were able to offer alternative
ways of seeing, which is extremely awesome.
I know what you are thinking, “But Je-ennn, I’ve seen that stuff in
museums and I could do that!” Well then, go right ahead, sweetie. Show us
what you got. J
Accidental painting—while not quite an accident, does require a certain
level of chance aesthetics. This technique involves pouring a synthetic paint
onto a flat, horizontal surface, and waiting for it to spread before pouring
paint of a different color on top. Slow, controlled pouring of the secondary
colors results in trippy, unexpected patterns, due to the layers of paint
infiltrating one another.
Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros developed the technique in the
1930s, when he began experimenting with synthetic paint and different
application techniques. He was amazed by the simple process coupled with
the complex results. Using acrylic paint, he found the medium would adhere
to the surface no problem, while also creating these otherworldly effects. For
example, in Collective Suicide (1936), he created portions of the work using
this method with a fast-drying lacquer typically reserved for painting cars. In
1936, Siqueiros held his first workshop for new techniques in New York
City called the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop. None other than Jackson
Pollock reportedly attended one of these workshops, meaning it’s likely his
infamous splatter paintings were in some way influenced by his time spent in
Siqueiros’ workshop. N
High city. No, I’m not talking about that kind of high city (shout out to
Denver and legalized cannabis though). I’m talking about an acropolis,
meaning “high city” or “upper city” in Greek. The ancient Greeks built citystates made up of core cities and surrounding territories that, as a whole,
acted as independent states within larger Greece. They often built a temple
on the acropolis, which served as the literal and symbolic center of the citystate. These centers were also fortified with high walls. If a city-state came
under attack, residents would take cover in the acropolis, where they had the
advantage of being less exposed, but also the ability to see enemy invaders
coming. The ancient Greeks are renowned for their architecture and some
acropolis temples are still standing today, including the Parthenon on the
Athenian Acropolis. The Parthenon was dedicated to Athena, goddess of war
and wisdom, so of course it still stands strong and badass to this day. G
Not all paint is created equal. When acrylic paint arrived on the art scene in
the 1930s, artists were drawn to the medium because a) it sticks to nearly
anything and b) it dries quickly. A relatively new medium compared to oil
paint or tempera paint, it gave artists the option of a more convenient and
nontoxic paint to work with.
David Alfaro Siqueiros helped popularize the medium among artists
when he used synthetic paint to develop his accidental painting style.
Thanks in large part to him, acrylic paint was commercially available by
1955. Pop artist David Hockney discovered acrylic in the 1960s and used it
to create many of his famous swimming pool paintings, including Portrait of
an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972).
Basically, acrylic is the chameleon of paints. It’s meant to be applied in
layers, and the consistency and volume of paint in those layers facilitates the
end result. It’s water-soluble, and can be applied in super thin, translucent
layers called veils, to mimic watercolor paint. Or, it can be mixed with a
special polymer medium so it behaves more like oil paint: layering gobs of it
straight from the tube in thick impasto that will dry waaayyy faster than oil.
For all these reasons, and more, acrylic paint is an excellent choice for
beginners and professional artists alike. N
If Jackie Chan had buckets of paint strapped to his arms and legs in Rush
Hour 2, and there just happened to be a blank canvas nearby, you would end
up with an action painting. Action painting describes a style in which paint is
applied spontaneously to a surface. This includes splashing, splattering,
dribbling, or smearing paint onto the canvas, rather than applying it carefully.
The most essential aspect of action painting is the action, and the finished
product should emphasize the physical act.
The style was popularized during the 1940s through 1950s and is most
closely associated with Abstract Expressionism. The works of the action
painters were not meant to portray objects or even specific emotions. Rather,
they were meant to tap into the subconscious mind, evoking a sense of the
primeval. This touches on psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory of a collective
archetypal visual language—this is the idea that we are born with ingrained
primordial images that we can psychically recognize in the physical world.
In other words, the appeal of action painting lies in its ability to tap into base
human forms that make our brains feel good. Nice. J
All right, so, looking at a color wheel, primary colors are red, blue, and
yellow. However, when talking about additive color, the primary colors are
red, blue, and green. I’m sorry to throw your world into chaos like that, but
bear with me. Color, as we see it, is basically just reflected light.
Wavelengths of light travel to our eyes, which then perceive color. Our
eyeballs have three types of cone receptors: red, blue, and green. So, our
eyes are able to perceive wavelengths of light that are red, blue, and green.
“Additive color” is a blanket term for all the colors we are able to see and
how we are able to see them due to the mixing of red, blue, and green light. It
is the varying combination of these three colors, traveling to our eyes in the
form of wavelengths, that creates all perceivable colors. For example, when
equal parts of red, blue, and green light connect, we perceive the color
white. When all three colors are removed, we perceive black. Blending of
the three colors allows us to see teals, mustards, periwinkles, salmons, and
so on. Ultimately, additive color is all about light perception and how the
mixing of only three colors can open up a Pandora’s box of color
possibilities. G
AESTHETIC (n./adj.)
The word “aesthetic” is, and always has been, nebulous. It refers to a number
of ideas and is used in a variety of contexts. Add in the 21st-century world of
internet lingo and the word takes on even more meaning, with increased
In the realm of art history, aesthetic is often used as a noun describing
the visual principles of an artwork, artist, or artistic movement. For example,
“The overall aesthetic of her work is reminiscent of early 18th-century
ukiyo-e,” (and the crowd oohs and aahs at your vast knowledge). Aesthetic
can also be used as an adjective describing a concern or appreciation for
beauty. This type of aesthetic is often used in philosophical and scientific
discourse. “Aesthetics” is the branch of philosophy that picks apart
unanswerable questions such as, “What is beauty?”
If that isn’t enough for you to wrap your mind around, aesthetic or
#aesthetic has come into use across popular social media platforms in recent
years. In this context, “aesthetic” can be used to describe something that is
visually pleasing. For example, “Your blog is so #aesthetic” may be
something you say to compliment a carefully curated tumblr feed of pastel
colors, sunset shots, and “soft grunge” images. However, “aesthetic” can also
describe one’s personal fashion, vibe, or lifestyle in a comedically
simplified way. This often includes a specific image or pop culture
reference. For example, “my aesthetic is Hermione Granger eating a
cheeseburger” accompanied by a photo of a costumed Emma Watson at
So, to answer your question, I suppose aesthetic is everything. It is all the
things. C
Agnotology is the study of culturally induced ignorance. If that doesn’t prick
up your ears, I don’t know what will. The field was born when American
science historian Robert Proctor learned how the tobacco industry used
confusion and doubt about the dangers of smoking to deliberately spread
ignorance. Now, in no way does that mean this was the first instance of
agnotology on a large scale—really it had been around for centuries as a
political tool. Maps are perfect examples of agnotology in action. When
mapmakers of the past were filling in unchartered territory, they made up
information to enforce certain assertions (see cartography). If you’ve ever
read Homer’s Odyssey, you’ll know the monster-laden scenery I’m referring
to. Oftentimes this involved fearmongering about areas and people that were
unknown or foreign. I wish I could say that has died out over time, but alas. N
AI ART (n.)
Whenever people ask me why I love art so much, one of my favorite go-to
answers is, “because creating art is distinctly human.” Lovely response isn’t
it? Simple, elegant, universal. Too bad I’m wrong.
Robots make art now. Not only that, but Christie’s is out here selling
portraits made by artificial intelligence for half a million dollars. Here’s
how it works: a human feeds an algorithm of aesthetically pleasing images to
a robot. The robot then learns the aesthetic elements of the images and spits
out an image that follows those same guidelines. Boom! Robot art.
Now, whether or not AI art is actually created by humans (or can even be
considered art) is up for debate. For one, humans build the AI in question.
Humans also create the visual information the AI uses to make its art.
Furthermore, the resultant artwork is dependent on the curation of images that
is fed through the algorithm (by a human).
AI Art: An innovative approach to art-making, or further proof we’re in a
simulation—who’s to say? C
AIRBRUSH (n./v.)
An airbrush is a wee tool that, when connected with pressurized air, sprays
out liquid materials such as paint and ink. Airbrushes push fast-moving air
through a pump that is able to spray the paint out in very fine splatters. When
used correctly, there are no brushstrokes. Everything is smoothly and evenly
applied. An airbrush artist has the ability to control the size of the spray in
order to achieve a variety of styles and forms. The airbrush is not relegated
to the art world alone: perhaps you’ve heard of airbrush makeup? Yes, you
can spray your face and body with foundation so that you look like a perfect,
poreless doll. People also airbrush cars, clothing, buildings, and more
traditional art surfaces such as canvas and panel. While airbrushing reaches
outside of the accepted realm of fine art, I appreciate its ability to be seen
and experienced in many ways. I’m not saying your circa 1999 airbrushed
Backstreet Boys sweatshirt is fine art, but people who paint with airbrushes
are painting, and there is a great deal of skill and technique involved. If you
don’t believe me, check out some airbrush videos on YouTube—a lot of them
have electric guitar soundtracks and guys in garages, but the airbrush skills
are real. G
Let’s talk walls. Specifically, the fourth one. What is the fourth wall, you
ask? It’s the imaginary barrier between performers and their audience.
Alienation effect is the strategy used by performers to keep their audience
from getting completely swept up into a story. In other words, they want to
alienate the audience. While having a captive audience seems like a good
thing, this theory says that, in order to stay critical, a viewer must be
engaged, but not overtaken by their emotions. Only then can they remain a
conscious observer. By breaking the fourth wall during a performance, actors
remind the audience of their separation from what’s happening on stage.
Performance artists often practice this theory by engaging with their audience
in a way that keeps them from being passive observers. A shining example is
Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), in which Ono invited audience members on
stage and handed them scissors (go visit Jen at Fluxus for more on that).
German socialist, playwright, and poet Bertolt Brecht coined the term
Verfremdungseffekt (estrangement effect) in 1936. He created techniques to
alienate the audience, such as showing captions or images, breaking into
song, highlighting the fakeness of backdrops, and general breaking of the
fourth wall. So it seems I have Herr Brecht to thank for the trauma my tenyear-old self endured when the hyenas tore through that fourth wall and came
down the theater aisles during The Lion King musical. In some ways, that
made the show feel more real, but I can confirm it indeed shocked me back
into my tiny, terrified body. N
Fourteenth-century Italians loved going to church. For fun, let’s imagine a
teenager named Giacomo sitting in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei
Frari in Venice. The priest is giving mass, but his back is turned to the
congregation and he’s speaking in Latin. Giacomo, along with many others in
the church, does not understand Latin. What to do Giacomo? Well, here is
where an altarpiece comes in. Altarpieces are works of art placed behind
and above the altar in a Christian church. Some of these devotional pieces
date as far back as the Middle Ages and were made with the intention of
engaging worshippers while conveying a religious message. Biblical scenes
on altarpieces provided an additional form of religious doctrine. So, while
the priest drones on in Latin, Giacomo gazes up at the altarpiece depicting
the Virgin Mary as she ascends into heaven after her death. The divine
imagery and vibrant composition are meant to spiritually move Giacomo.
Today you too can be moved by Titian’s altarpiece, the Assumption of the
Virgin (1516–18), in its original location in Venice. G
In the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, an art movement cropped
up that was all about the heartland—the American Midwest that is—in all its
corn-laden glory. Forgive me if I get a bit sentimental, I hail from the great
state of Iowa, along with the poster boy of American Regionalism, Grant
Wood. One of the best-known paintings in contemporary cultural
consciousness is Wood’s American Gothic (1930). It has been parodied in
just about every sitcom created in the past thirty years. You know the
painting, the ambiguously glum, pitchfork-wielding couple standing rigidly in
front of a farmhouse. That’s quintessential American Regionalism right there.
Proponents of American Regionalism believed that the modern art coming
out of Europe at the time was out of touch with the American spirit.
American Regionalists chose to focus on realism and storytelling in a way
that celebrated the lives of hardworking midwestern folk, while capturing the
raw reality of rural life during the years of the Great Depression. C
Anachronism describes something that appears to belong to a different time
period or place than the one it’s actually in. Imagine this: you’re going to a
Renaissance fair with some friends because it sounds like fun to drink mead
and maybe buy a cool hat. When you and your 21st-century friends arrive at
the scene, you’re suddenly part of a world in which people are dressed as
knights, ladies, lords, blacksmiths, and wizards. The woman at the mead
stand is dressed like a 15th-century barmaid, yet you are not in the 15th
century. This, in a nutshell, is an anachronism.
Artists have incorporated people from the past into their contemporary
compositions, and vice versa, for centuries. Consider the fresco School of
Athens (1509–11) made by Italian painter Raphael in the Vatican. At a quick
glance, and without context, we could guess this scene contains men from the
same time period, but look closer and something seriously anachronistic is
going on. Second-century intellects are in the same space with men from the
6th century, seemingly all discussing topics in one collective space. Raphael
used anachronism here to herald men of intellect in a painting that was made
for men of intellect to look at. No one viewing the fresco in this context
would be confused as to why men from different time periods were together
in one scene.
There’s a painting currently hanging at the White House titled The
Republican Club, by Andy Thomas. It depicts a jovial group of men sitting
around a table. Notable Republican presidents from history—Richard Nixon,
Ronald Reagan, both George Bushes, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D.
Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and Abraham Lincoln—sit at a table with Donald
Trump. Now we all know Lincoln has long been dead and apart from a
potential séance, Abe and Trump can’t chat and laugh while Trump guzzles
his Diet Coke. However, this is anachronism at work. The reasons for
anachronism in art are varied and vast, but it is always implemented with the
intent to forge connections and make statements—whether on a wall in the
Vatican, or on a wall in the White House. G
Anamorphosis, or an anamorphic image, is when an image is distorted in
such a way as to be unrecognizable unless viewed at a certain angle or
reflected in a mirror.
My favorite example of anamorphosis in art is Hans Holbein the
Younger’s 1533 painting The Ambassadors. Holbein was a German-Swiss
artist who thrived as a portrait painter in Tudor England, becoming the court
painter for Henry VIII shortly after this painting was completed. The two
fancy men in The Ambassadors were French ambassadors living in England
at the time, and the painting is full of rich detail and symbolism. A large,
striking skull is painted at the center of the composition, toward the ground.
Viewing the object straight on, it doesn’t really look like a skull, but rather a
piece of weird driftwood that somehow magically floated into the
composition from some Surrealist painting. Position yourself to the right of
the painting, however, and the skull is no longer stretched and distorted, but
corrects itself to become recognizable. Holbein altered the skull in this way
because it is a reminder of death (see memento mori). All other objects in
the composition are rendered naturalistically because they represent earthly
things, not transcendental things (like death). To view the anamorphic skull,
you have to change your position, but it is still ever present at any angle—
just like death! Here Holbein used anamorphosis in a very conceptual way to
remind everyone, including fancy French ambassadors, that death comes for
all … even if you can’t always see it. G
See iconoclasm.
Antiquity refers to the ancient time period prior to the Middle Ages. For
example, an ancient Roman sculpture of Venus, the goddess of love, is
considered an object from antiquity. When you hear about civilizations from
antiquity, you’ve most likely heard about ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and
Mesopotamia. Given that antiquity refers to civilizations and cultures before
the Middle Ages, these are obviously not the only worlds from antiquity to
consider. However, we hear more about these largely Mediterranean
civilizations from antiquity because the original art historians—typically
white, European men—told us they were the ones that mattered most. But the
term “antiquity” casts a much wider net than those early art historians would
have us believe.
Despite the centuries that separate ancient civilizations from the modern
world, antiquity can still teach us a lot today. Through studying antiquity, we
can learn about history, art, culture, innovation, and just, like, humanity in
general. I’m not going to lie, that last part sounds like something a drunk girl
pretending to be deep at a cocktail party would say, but I’m going to roll with
it. G
Antropófagia is the Portuguese word for “anthropophagy,” the technical term
for eating human flesh. It is also a term associated with a philosophy that
guided the development of modernism in Brazilian art during the 1930s.
Let me give you a short history lesson: When the Spanish landed in the
Lesser Antilles (in the Caribbean) in 1493, they encountered an indigenous
group called the Carib (Carib, Caribbean, you see?). The Spanish explorers
really wanted to enslave the Carib, but Queen Isabella said, “nah.” That is,
until the explorers began sending reports of the Caribs performing human
cannibalism back to the queen, who then said, “oh, hell no, enslave them
asap.” Many reports of cannibalism subsequently emerged across both North
and South American continents. They became so synonymous with the New
World that images of America personified often showed a nude woman
holding a disembodied human head, arm, or leg. Even the word
“cannibalism” derives from the Spanish mispronunciation of Carib as
Fast-forward 500 years, to a time when Brazilian authors, poets, and
artists saw Europeans cannibalizing non-Western works in their art and
calling it modern. That pissed some people off. So, they decided to
cannibalize European modernism in their own unique brand of Brazilian
modern art.
The Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade published the Manifesto
Antropófago in 1928. In it, he proposes that Brazil’s history of cannibalizing
the works of other cultures is the country’s greatest strength. The manifesto’s
iconic line, “Tupi or not Tupi: that is the question,” is simultaneously a
celebration of the Tupi of Brazil, who practiced certain forms of ritual
cannibalism, and a metaphorical instance of cannibalism: it eats
Shakespeare. I love some good cannibal talk myself, it’s really my jam. But
still, don’t eat people. It’s not a good look. J
First things first. Expel any thought of that godforsaken television show.
Apprentices in the art world are simply students working under a
professional or master of their craft. In Europe, this trend began during the
Renaissance (see Italian/Northern Renaissance), when children as young
as five were sent to apprentice in workshops. This feels like a bad idea for
many reasons. Putting all the poisonous materials aside for a moment, fiveyear-olds aren’t exactly known for their dexterity, they love putting things in
their mouths, and can’t reach anything higher than 4 feet (1.2 meters).
Apprenticing meant beginners could learn from more experienced artists,
but it wasn’t all glamour. Much like studying under The Karate Kid’s Mr.
Miyagi, apprentices would often clean equipment and prepare materials for
their master. Eventually, though, they would learn some pretty neat
Apprenticeship helps keep certain traditions alive through multiple
generations. During the Ottoman Empire, due to the importance of miniature
painting, young artists were taught the techniques over years of
apprenticeship. Having a professional artist for a parent could also provide a
path to apprenticing. The Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi was
able to apprentice in her father’s workshop at a time when this was relatively
uncommon for women (early 1600s). Through many hardships, she was able
to use the skills she learned to build a successful career in her life because
she was—and I cannot emphasize this enough—a complete badass. N
In recent years, the word “appropriation” has taken on a pretty critical
association due to the increased awareness of offensive and hurtful examples
of cultural appropriation. Unfortunately, this has given the practice of
appropriation a bad rap.
At its core, appropriation is the use of pre-existing images, objects, or
ideas. It is super common in art and, well, life in general. It has even been
argued that all art is appropriation in some form or another. Think about
collage. The practice almost always involves the combination of images
made by someone else.
Many professional art practices actively appropriate images created by
others. In fact, the term “appropriation art” can be used to describe the work
of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Sherrie Levine.
Nonetheless, appropriation can be seen as stealing. This tends to happen
when no respect or credit is given to the originator of an image or idea.
When it comes to appropriation in whatever form, it’s best to use the preexisting material as a launching pad for something new, and always, always
give credit where credit is due. C
Archaic means mega old. Most of the stuff we see from ancient Greece is, in
fact, mega old, but scholars use the term “archaic” to describe a particular
period of ancient Greek art.
The Archaic period in ancient Greece lasted from 600–480 BCE, and was
stylistically more natural compared to the previous Geometric period. This
move toward naturalism is attributed to contact with ancient Egypt. To help
achieve a more lifelike appearance, artists of the time would give their
sculptures a closed-lipped smile that came to be known as the archaic smile.
Korai and kouroi statues made during this period often don the archaic
smile, as it was believed to breathe life into the semirigid figures. While
ancient Greeks found the archaic smile warm and inviting, I have to admit I
find it slightly unnerving (if not just flat-out creepy). N
The straightforward definition of architecture is that it refers to constructed
buildings and structures. Where people diverge in opinion on architecture, is
whether it’s more art or more science. To be honest, architecture’s ability to
dodge clear categorization is one of my favorite things about it. Throughout
history, many artists have also worked as architects. Architecture requires
artistic vision and creativity, but it is also a science that requires careful
calculations and planning. The best way to find out what architecture means
to you is to go out and experience it, because it’s everywhere, my dudes! G
ARCHIVE (n./v.)
An archive is a collection of preserved historical records or artifacts that
refers to a specific group, location, or subject. Art archives are collections
of art, objects, and primary resources concerning art, such as rare books and
An archivist archives in the archives (see, it’s a noun and a verb—
English is funny). Sometimes the archivist aids in the discovery of the key to
an ancient mystery, but more often than not, they organize and maintain the
archived sources for all to use—a truly noble cause. C
An art advisor is like a financial advisor, but for art. Art advisors can help
you acquire and sell art, based on their expert knowledge of the art market.
Say you have a collection of paintings you inherited from your great uncle
and you’d like to sell them: you can hire an art advisor to help you find the
right institutions to sell to and how to broker the sale. Art advisors can also
help clients looking to purchase art in a variety of ways, including sourcing
art, bidding at auction houses, taking clients to galleries, putting art
proposals together, and negotiating purchases with other art professionals
and institutions. If you think this sounds like something reserved for the wellto-do, you’re not wrong. More often than not, clients who are hiring art
advisors have some money to spare. No value judgments here, the art world
most definitely needs its patrons. G
Appraisal is the act of assessing the value of a thing. An appraiser is
someone who examines the thing, does research on the thing, and determines
the market value of the thing. An art appraiser is someone that specializes in,
you guessed it, art.
Say, one day, your grandmother found an interesting oil painting in the
back corner of her attic. She does not recall the origin of the painting, just
that it had been passed down to her from her grandmother. The painting is in
relatively good condition and she finds the composition rather striking.
Gran’s got a hunch it could be something valuable, and she’s been saving up
for a trip to the Bahamas. Being the model grandchild you are, you help
Granny hire an appraiser to determine the market worth of the painting. It
could end up being a long-lost work of Gustav Klimt … or it could be
something your great-great-grandmother made in a hobby class. Ultimately,
the appraiser will help determine whether or not Granny will be rolling in
the big bucks. C
Art Basel is an international art fair that takes place annually in three major
cities: Basel, Switzerland; Hong Kong, China; and Miami Beach, Florida.
The fair is called Art Basel after the city in Switzerland, where it was first
held in 1970. Art Basel is a space for galleries to show the work of artists
they represent to potential clients. If you’ve ever been to a trade show, art
fairs kind of have the same vibe: various booths set up as people roam
around checking it all out. Art Basel continues to draw enormous crowds in
each city, with visitors coming from all walks of life. Plenty of them work in
the art world themselves and are there to scout talent and shop for clients.
Others are shopping for art for themselves. And, of course, there are people
who like to go for the experience of being around art. In addition to art
browsing, you can also buy overpriced cocktails and observe the interesting
outfits of other attendees. G
ART BRO (n.)
You’ve seen him before, probably at a gallery opening reception for the girl
he has gaslit into changing her entire thesis show. He’s probably wearing
couture acid-washed overalls, tastefully stained with streaks of paint and
John Lennon-esque spectacles. He looks unamused, but we shouldn’t take
that too seriously because he always looks like that. Yes, he is the art bro.
To understand the concept of the Art Bro we must first deconstruct the
stereotype of the “Bro.” These are men who hang out with other bros, watch
sports together, mansplain, grunt, and exclude women from their bro worlds.
Now, remove sports and replace it with art, and remove grunting and replace
it with chin-beard stroking, and you have yourself an Art Bro.
The Art Bro uses his superior knowledge of noise music and the art scene
rather than UFC and trucks to exclude women. You will often find these men
at art galleries, explaining art to women who are probably younger than them
and are likely taken with his mysterious air of aloof resentment (and let’s be
honest, we’ve all been there).
The Art Bro desperately wants to convey that he doesn’t care about
fitting into society, and that the world at large does not understand his art. He
is usually unemployed but travels constantly (high socioeconomic status—
that is, having rich parents—is often a prerequisite for this brand of bro).
When he eventually gets kicked off of his parents’ gravy train, he will likely
take a job at his dad’s company and, somewhere down the road, open a
microbrewery. It’s hard out here for the Art Bro, he is misunderstood, so if
you see one around and he starts mansplaining art movements to you,
consider your role as cultural anthropologist of this fascinating aspect of the
late capitalist art scene. And then school the shit out of him. J
Art brut is a French term meaning “raw art.” Art brut, often called outsider
art, is art created outside of the academic tradition of art-making.
Now you may be asking yourself “Why is academically produced art
called art and all other art called outsider art?” Because of a dumb elitist
hierarchy, that’s why. However, for the sake of understanding the history of
art, we will further define the term.
The term “outsider art” is pretty sticky. It came into use in 1972 mostly to
refer to art produced by children, prisoners, and psychiatric patients.
Stigmatize much?? The term has since expanded to include most art made
outside of the established art world. Other terms that have been used to
describe art of this kind are naïve art, folk art, and primitive art.
While the insider artist has undergone formal training, regularly engages
with art historical tradition, and can adequately use art jargon to explain
their work, the outsider artist is typically self-taught, and often disconnected
from contemporary culture in some way. Since the 1990s, the term “outsider
art” has been reclaimed by artists working independently of the established
art world. Additionally, with the rise of social media, the means by which
artists are able to market themselves has expanded and will likely turn the art
world on its head. Does this mean the line between art and outsider art is
blurring? I certainly hope so. C
An art critic’s job is to analyze and evaluate art. In this sense, the Art History
Babes are sort of art critics. We spend a great deal of time looking at,
discussing, and thinking about art. However, professional art critics often
have this uncanny ability to believe that their opinions about art are objective
truth, despite art being a rather subjective thing.
Yes, shade has been thrown.
Don’t get me wrong, art criticism and art critics are necessary and
valuable. Art critics help us question art’s meaning and purpose. They
encourage us to dig deeper. At its best, art criticism values cultural
consciousness and brings to light how our thoughts, feelings, and biases
affect the art we create and consume. At its worst, it discourages creativity
and encourages an elitist art world. Ultimately, how you analyze and critique
art is up to you, just beware the haters. C
An art dealer acts as a sort of business bridge between an artist and a buyer.
Art dealers represent different artists and aim to sell those artists’ work to
clients. In this arrangement, clients do not buy art directly from the artist, but
purchase it through the art dealer. The artist is paid by the art dealer and the
art dealer gets a commission. Percentages of what the artist earns versus
what the dealer is paid can vary, often it’s a fifty-fifty split. This might sound
like a raw deal for an artist, but operating business dealings is a full-time job
that often requires its own field of expertise—one that an artist may not be
interested in. Dealers often work at art institutions such as galleries, but they
can also work independently. This is not a new profession, as the history of
dealing in art goes all the way back to the Renaissance, when dealers were
slingin’ paintings into the collections of various patrons that included the
king of France. G
SpongeBob SquarePants famously declared, “Everything is chrome in the
future!”. This sentiment was not that different from what the early 20thcentury Art Deco designers saw as the markers of progress in design.
“Art Deco” derives from the French arts décoratifs (decorative arts),
from the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes
(International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts) held in
Paris in 1925. It was big in both Europe and the United States. Its
combination of modern styles, fine craftsmanship, and rich materials led to
associations with luxury and glamour. Chrome-plating, stainless steel, and
plastic were all Art Deco favorites.
Designers looked to industry and technology for inspiration and, in doing
so, applied the Art Deco style to skyscrapers, ocean liners, movie theaters,
trains, and even everyday objects such as radios and vacuum cleaners. Look
to the Chrysler Building in New York City for Art Deco par excellence.
Complete with radiator-cap-themed ornaments, a chrome-and-nickel-plated,
steel-framed spire made up of a series of tapering sunbursts, and a
spectacular lobby covered with huge slabs of decorative, colored granite, the
Chrysler Building is the Art Deco dream come true. J
Ah, the art fair. Like any kind of fair, an art fair is a gathering place for
buyers and sellers. Galleries set up booths and potential buyers peruse row
after row of art in search of the perfect painting for above their mantel, or a
free-standing sculpture that will really make a statement at their next holiday
party. As a business model, the art fair has proven to be an effective and
popular way to buy and sell art. From the buyer’s perspective, an art fair
allows you to see a lot of art all in one place. You don’t have to go hopping
around the city to various galleries, you just have to walk through a
converted warehouse full of art. Art fairs allow galleries to reach new
audiences and gain new clients. Some galleries even choose to forgo having
a brick-and-mortar building, and instead travel around the world to sell at art
fairs. Art fairs have really gained momentum since the turn of the century,
some drawing huge crowds and even celebrity art collectors. Will I see you
at Art Basel Miami this year, Leonardo DiCaprio? G
A French philosophy that asks “Does art need to serve some greater moral
purpose or are people just trying to keep me from living my life?”
Art for art’s sake, or l’art pour l’art, is a 19th-century catchphrase that
claims true art need not serve a didactic, moral, or utilitarian purpose.
Champions of art for art’s sake believe that art has intrinsic value simply
because it is art. A painting of a colorful sunset is beautiful because a
painting of a colorful sunset is beautiful.
The phrase “l’art pour l’art” arose in response to increased
politicization of art and, specifically, the philosophy of English art critic
John Ruskin, who preached that great art should be an honest expression of
one’s morality. At the time, enthusiasts of art for art’s sake did not see
Ruskin’s moral criteria as a deal breaker. They believed that art was just as
good, nay better, if it was dissociated from all political viewpoints.
Over time, many people have had many thoughts surrounding the phrase.
For example, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that art is not
purposeless or aimless, that ultimately an artist is expressing something about
themselves, and that l’art pour l’art is itself a moral stance. Certain Marxist
thinkers, on the other hand, doubled down on the idea that art must serve a
social purpose, claiming that the phrase was empty. But let’s be real we will
probably argue the purpose of art until the end of time, so …. C
See art preparator.
An art historian is a person who studies art history. Art historians believe
and operate from the idea that art enhances our understanding of the human
experience. Traditional art historians focus on the fine arts, but younger
generations are embracing a broader view of what constitutes art, and that’s
helping to expand the discipline into what is increasingly referred to as
visual culture. Now, more than ever, we are bombarded by images via the
multitude of devices we come into contact with on a daily basis. And while
people sure do love to throw a good jab at art historians and the supposed
uselessness of a humanities degree, it’s hard to argue that visual literacy is a
worthless commodity at the present time. When you strengthen your visual
literacy, you are more effectively able to communicate in the modern world.
Plus, nothing beats the feeling of passing along the perfect meme. N
Art history is the study of art and architecture throughout time, and in
tandem with human history. Essentially, it follows the development of art
alongside humankind’s progress. As a field, art history has become
increasingly interdisciplinary, encompassing ideas from philosophy,
anthropology, psychology, and sociology. Because art is a product of human
creation, studying history through the lens of art allows us to express, and
thus interpret, history in a more holistic way. Fun fact: art production is older
than written history, and many consider the invention of art to be the
beginning of human consciousness. In the most basic terms: creating for the
sake of creating is a quintessential part of being human. N
The term “art hoe” hit the scene c. 2015 with the Art Hoe Collective, a group
of queer people of color (QPOC) interested in creating an inclusive and
positive space for POC artists and creatives. Over recent years, the term has
become generalized and whitewashed, and is often used to describe young
girls who like art (and Kånken backpacks, I guess?). Searching the term on
Urban Dictionary doesn’t really clear things up. Some definitions are
extremely vague, such as “a hoe who is mysterious and chill and like
hippyish and good at art.” Others just seem to throw massive shade at young
girls who take an interest in art and express it on social media. And a few
definitions actually give credit to the creators of the Art Hoe movement and
their intention.
Aesthetically speaking, the Art Hoe movement created a very distinct
visual style, using the selfie as a form of self-expression and selfempowerment. Adding splashes of color, squiggly lines, or collage elements
to accent these self-portraits, allowed their creators to challenge stereotypes
and express themselves freely. The fact that these images could be created
using nothing more than a cell phone added to the accessibility and
inclusivity of the movement. C
“Art market” is a blanket term used to describe the places in which art is
sold—primarily galleries, art fairs, and auction houses. To make things
confusing for everyone, the art market has two categories: primary art market
and secondary art market. The primary art market is when an artwork is sold
for the first time: you buy a painting, painted in the year you bought it, for
example. The secondary market is when an artwork that already sold in the
primary market, is sold again: you decide that painting you bought years ago
is tired now, so you give it to an art dealer to sell in the secondary market.
In summary, my friends, a market is where stuff is sold, the art market is
where art is sold. G
So much swirling. So much flowing.
The term “Art Nouveau” likely brings to mind super-ornate images of
elegant young women with long, flowing hair in warm golden hues. And that
would be accurate, Art Nouveau is an art movement characterized by many
super-ornate images of elegant young women with long, flowing hair in warm
golden hues.
Art Nouveau—French for “new art”—was a prominent art movement that
lasted from the 1880s until World War I. Artists drew inspiration from
several sources, including the Arts and Crafts movement, Japanese
woodcuts (ukiyo-e), and Celtic design. The leading artists of Art Nouveau
included the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, the Austrian painter Gustav
Klimt, and the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. They looked to the unruly
natural world for ideas and incorporated organic plant forms into their
designs, including swirling images of flowers and leaves. This imagery can
be read as a metaphor for freedom. Nature is free and unfolds as it will.
Proponents of Art Nouveau were similarly interested in breaking free from
traditional art.
“Art Nouveau” = “new art”. Get it? C
Art practice is pretty self-explanatory. It involves you, a person, doing art, in
whatever form that takes. You are practicing art when you go to your figure
drawing class and tell yourself: “this time I will not be afraid to draw the
penis.” Your art practice is the way in which you choose to make art. It can
be rigorous, as with a ceramicist who dedicates six hours daily to working in
their studio. It can be specific, like that of a painter who walks a certain
nature trail every month, taking photos and making sketches that later inform
large-scale paintings. It can be painting some small-scale watercolor nudes
a few times a year when you’re at that one friend’s family’s place in Canada,
and you’ve had some wine, and you get really liberal with pubic hair colors
(me). Art practice is what you make it. G
Handling art can be tricky business, which is why museums and galleries
hire professionals called art preparators to safely move and install their art.
Art preparators are in charge of preparing for an exhibition or other art
While art preparators work closely with curators, the job of handling art
requires specific knowledge and a slightly different skill set. Preparators’
duties range from hanging small paintings to building a specialized mount to
constructing large-scale installations. These people are responsible for
executing a curator’s vision and keeping the art safe at each stage of travel
and installation. This work requires a good amount of physical labor that
includes lifting, moving, and building, and work-related injuries are not
uncommon. It may not be the most glamorous job in the art world, but art
preparators work tirelessly to make sure a show is set up correctly and they
are often the unsung heroes of the exhibition space. N
An artifact is a (typically old) human-made object. We are interested in
artifacts because they teach us about various cultures and history. Artifacts
can be works of art or they can be functional objects, such as tools.
When I think of artifacts, I often think of archaeological digs that unearth
ancient clay pottery fragments—or I think of Indiana Jones stealing artifacts
from places he shouldn’t be in the first place. This is a big issue with
artifacts, and it’s no fault of their own. Colonial powers (see colonial art,
imperialism, postcolonialism) all over the world have gone into other
countries and taken shit that did not belong to them. This leaves residents of
previously colonized countries looking at museums in Europe and the United
States today—many of which have large collections of artifacts from other
countries—asking: “hey, uh, can you give that back?” Nigeria has repeatedly
asked the British Museum for the return of some 4,000 sculptures stolen by
British troops in 1897. In response, the museum has thus far only agreed to
send some of the sculptures back on temporary loan.
Look, artifacts are important educational tools and I appreciate their
value in museum spaces. But being aware of the provenance of those
artifacts is hugely important, too. Indiana Jones should not have stolen those
artifacts, and museums that are being asked today to return stolen artifacts to
their original countries should be a hell of a lot more accommodating. G
Detailed embroidery, stained glass, handmade furniture, ornate wallpaper
—also, socialism!
It’s Great Britain in the 1860s and life is like a Charles Dickens novel.
There are factories galore with smoking chimneys, cities are overrun with
crowded slums, and wealth inequality is a serious problem. These may seem
like strictly sociopolitical issues, but the leaders of the Arts and Crafts
movement would strongly disagree. Craftsmen such as William Morris and
Philip Webb believed that the quality of life in 19th-century Britain was
directly connected to art and design.
The founders of the Arts and Crafts movement believed that rampant,
mechanized production created a decline in design standards, and that this
decline was bad for beauty, society, and humans in general. Their solution
was to promote a return to traditional craftsmanship. By producing handmade
wares, the craftsman would be inspired by a sense of fulfillment that had all
but disappeared with mass industrialization. Have you ever built your own
bookshelf or refurbished an old patio set for your backyard? Tell me you
didn’t feel like a superhero afterward.
Stylistically, the Arts and Crafts movement valued naturalistic forms
much like medieval Gothic design. Many of those involved in the Arts and
Crafts movement later became card-carrying members of early socialist
organizations, such as the Socialist League (founded by William Morris) and
the Social Democratic Federation. They brought Gothic-inspired design with
them, infusing socialist propaganda and political art with the Arts and Crafts
aesthetic. C
Circa 1900, a group of New York City painters united in a desire to express
the raw reality of the booming metropolis in which they were living. Instead
of focusing on the bougie lifestyle of Manhattanites, the members of the
Ashcan School chose to highlight New York City in all its glorious grit.
Ashcan School painters such as George Bellows, Robert Henri, and George
Luks depicted the reality and diversity of New York City’s inhabitants and
focused on subjects such as members of the working class, immigrants,
nightclub performers, and boxers.
The group’s choice of subject matter received plenty of criticism at the
time, even from those on the inside. Henri and Bellows illustrated for a
socialist magazine called The Masses and a fellow staff member once
complained that there were too many “pictures of ashcans and girls hitching
up their skirts on Horatio Street.” Considering that’s exactly what the artists
were going for, they adopted the name and became the Ashcan School. C
In science, the atmosphere is made up of the gases that surround our planet.
When you’re using the term “atmosphere” in art, it’s usually to talk about the
way the air, sky, and/or horizon are rendered in a work of art. You can also
use “atmosphere” to describe mood or ambience in an artwork.
Consider a James McNeill Whistler painting of boats floating on dark
water in a blanket of fog: I’d say this has a quiet and mysterious atmosphere,
but you may see/feel a different atmosphere. It’s subjective, and that’s cool!
There’s even more to unpack with atmosphere and art, so go check in with
Jen to learn about atmospheric perspective. G
Also called aerial perspective, atmospheric perspective is a technique that
creates the illusion of depth in painting. By using color and shading, artists
can simulate the effects that the atmosphere has on colors of things seen at a
distance. To experience this for yourself, go for a hike somewhere with some
great views of a valley or mountain. You’ll notice that things that are far
away seem hazier, with less distinct edges and outlines. That’s that
atmosphere, baby! J
The auction house is where auctions take place, however, this term has
grown to encompass the companies who run auctions, such as Christie’s or
Sotheby’s. We all know the stereotypical auctioneer, speaking way too fast
for comprehension and causing the heart rates of everyone in the room to
simultaneously spike. I don’t know from experience, but I’m pretty sure art
auctions are slightly more tame than our shared image of an old-timey
auctioneer with a hat and gavel (sorry if I’m projecting my imagination).
This is not to say that auctions are boring—in 2018, the famous and
anonymous street artist Banksy debuted their latest work during a Sotheby’s
auction. Moments after Balloon Girl (2002) sold for $1.4 million, it dropped
through the bottom of the frame, which contained a small paper shredder,
destroying half the painting. Whether a space for dramatic art stunts, or
business-as-usual art sales, auction houses are an important facet of the art
market and now they’re becoming nearly as spectacular as the art being
sold. Now that Banksy has opened the window for wild auction-house stunts,
tell me you’re not a little more interested in attending. Maybe a Jeff Koons
will explode or something. That’d be cool. N
Automatism is a method of producing artwork that relies on the unconscious
mind. You might be saying “woah, slow your roll, I don’t even know how to
find my unconscious mind, let alone paint with it.” Well, there are a few
ways to achieve this. One common approach is by rapid stream-ofconsciousness style creation—the idea being that you get all your thoughts,
feelings, and urges out onto the paper as fast as you can, without intervention
from your thinking brain. A prime example of this type of automatism is the
action painting of Jackson Pollock.
One can argue that the practice of automatism has existed since the dawn
of humankind. However, it didn’t become a big-time art method until the
Surrealists made it central to their practice. The Surrealists used automatism
to bring to life ideas from their unconscious mind, and then they would
actively integrate those thoughts with their conscious, thinking brain. For
example, Salvador Dalí’s paintings were often influenced by the contents of
his dreams. When he woke up, he would sketch out aspects of his dreams
using automatism, and would then use conscious understanding to bring them
to life on canvas.
Various substances (drugs) or occult practices, such as communing with
your spirit guide, can also instigate automatism. Ultimately, the idea behind
the practice is that there are beautiful secrets hidden deep down below your
conscious awareness and automatism can help you get ’em out. C
AVANT-GARDE (n./adj.)
You’ve probably heard the term “avant-garde” before, and you probably
thought that it sounded pretentious. Pretentious or not, both the origin and
meaning of avant-garde are pretty cool.
Avant-garde comes from French military speak. It means “advance
guard,” referring to the troops that led the rest of the soldiers into battle. The
term wasn’t applied to art until the 19th-century, when socialist politician
and economic theorist Henri de Saint-Simon noted art’s ability to drive
societal change forward, just like those avant-garde troops. This theory
credited artists with their ability to impact society and pave the way for new
theoretical and political ideas.
With the progression of art history, avant-garde has come to apply to
various art movements and artists who pushed the boundaries in some way or
another. People often referred to Cubism as avant-garde because it innovated
the way forms were depicted and perceived. Dada was considered avantgarde for its rejection of artistic norms and critique of capitalism.
Avant-garde is not a fixed term, it is not constrained by time or by place
because, when you get down to it, avant-garde celebrates all that is
innovative and challenging. Now, of course, this is a subjective label. But at
its core, I think it’s a badass term that acknowledges art’s power to impact
society, politics, history, and more. G
BAROQUE (n./adj.)
It’s bold, strange, sexy, theatrical, and emotional. It’s the Baroque, baby, and
I love it. Baroque art is known for its dramatic, dynamic, evocative, and rich
qualities, which stood in contrast to the more formulaic and simple aesthetic
preferences of the earlier Renaissance. Baroque style developed in Italy over
the course of the 17th century.
Architecture from this period displayed undulating curves, elaborate
arches, twisting forms, and a variety of rich materials. Sculpture was no
longer static but captured a moment in time as sculpted forms gesticulated,
ran, grasped, embraced and fought. Paintings were theatrical and stimulating
as they conveyed scenes from mythology and the Bible. Baroque art was full
of bold ambition and aimed to appeal to the senses, coaxing emotional
reactions out of viewers. To that I say, hell yes, Baroque, coax these
emotions. G
A basilica is a large oblong hall or building with double colonnades and a
semicircular apse. This building was traditionally used in ancient Rome as a
court of law or for public assemblies, and often served as the main meeting
place for the people of the town. After the fall of Rome, basilicas were
converted into churches, and examples such as the Basilica Ulpia (completed
c. 112 CE) were used as the architectural prototype for the layout of new
Christian churches.
Today, pilgrims often visit basilicas to be in the presence of Catholic
relics, thought to hold mystical properties. These objects bring large crowds
of pious visitors to basilicas all over the world. With this in mind, ease of
circulation is crucial for a successful basilica. One of the most famous is the
Basilica of La Virgen de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe), which set a
record in 2011 by receiving 6.1 million pilgrims over two days for the
anniversary of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. The basilica remains an
enduring architectural solution for the need to house the devout multitudes. J
A German school of art and design, the Bauhaus was founded in 1919 by the
architect Walter Gropius, on the guiding principle of creating a
Gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art). This was huge for modern art,
design, and architecture, and the Bauhaus became one of the most iconic
names in modernism.
Gropius designed a curriculum that took students through a foundational
course (Vorkurs) that focused on promoting New Objectivity. Theo van
Doesburg, who introduced De Stijl ideas from the Netherlands, called this
the machine aesthetic. Students learned color theory based on that of
German Expressionism, and architectural theory derived from the
philosophies of Russian Constructivism. Over the years, competing ideas
concerning the correct type of modernism to teach caused strife among
instructors, students, and the various directors of the school.
The Bauhaus relocated twice, from Weimar to Dessau, then from Dessau
to Berlin. With each relocation a new approach to modernism developed.
Eventually, the school was shut down in 1933 by the Nazis. As many of us
know, Nazis famously ruin everything, and the Bauhaus was no exception.
They denounced the school for being “un-German” and producing
“degenerate art” favored and influenced by “the Jew”. The closure of the
Bauhaus was a sad day in the modern era, however, many artists, architects,
and designers trained in the Bauhaus style would emigrate from Germany to
the United States. In the U.S., they pioneered what came to be known as the
International Style and helped spread modernism around the world. J
BEAUX ARTS (n./adj.)
Beaux arts is French for “fine art.” The term refers to a style of late19th-/early-20th- century architecture that originated at the École des
Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris, France, and was brought back to
the United States by American architects who studied there.
Basically, Americans wanted to show off all the money they made during
the Industrial Revolution, and beaux arts was the perfect style to flaunt all
that wealth and prosperity. So, many big, important public buildings were
built in a classical style that referenced the ancient Greeks and Romans. The
San Francisco Opera House and Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal are
two prime examples. C
BIO ART (n.)
Bio art is a super fascinating practice of creating art using living organisms.
You heard me right, we’re talking about art that is alive—art created
from living tissues, bacteria, and organisms. By using living organisms as an
art medium, bio artists bring attention to rapidly developing biotechnology
and how it can affect society.
In 2000, contemporary artist Eduardo Kac presented GFP Bunny to the
art world. Kac used genetic engineering to inject an albino rabbit with
jellyfish DNA so that the bunny glowed bright green when exposed to the
right light. While this art act seems to have been performed with love and
care for the bun in question, this type of art-making poses a whole mess of
ethical questions. There’s much debate concerning when, or if, a material is
considered living, and deciding which living materials are cool to work with
is highly controversial. Bio art is a fascinating example of how art can grow
and change using contemporary technologies. I am curious to see how it
develops, but Kac better keep his hands off my pet rabbit. C
Founded by German Expressionist painters Wassily Kandinsky and Franz
Marc in Munich, in 1911, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) movement
strove to promote the spiritual value in painting and to explore the
psychological power of color. The movement was named for a painting by
Kandinsky titled Der Blaue Reiter (1903), which depicts a rider wearing
blue on a white horse running through an open field. Kandinsky associated
color with music and believed some colors, such as blue, had positive
effects on viewers. The movement’s cofounder, Franz Marc, was distressed
with the state of humanity, and found animals a purer subject in art. The
movement is the synthesis of the two men’s interests. Many of the paintings
from this period depict vivid colors, animals, and scenes from nature, as
members of the group felt alienated from the increasingly industrial world
around them.
The movement was looser in structure than other movements in art
history. It consisted of just five core members and lasted only a few years.
Marc and Kandinsky wrote a collection of essays on art pertaining to Der
Blaue Reiter, but they did not control the individual style of its members. The
unifying force that drove these artists was a belief in art’s spiritual potency.
Despite its short run, Der Blaue Reiter was a key part of German
Expressionism at large. G
The ancient Greeks were some crafty sculptors working in marble and
bronze. Bronze, in particular, was difficult to make large sculptures out of.
The metal was expensive and volatile to work with, often warping as it
cooled. But this did not deter the ancient Greeks! They devised a way to
make hollow casts of bronze using wax.
Bronze casting meet lost-wax technique.
First, the sculptor makes a clay model of the intended bronze sculpture.
Let’s say, a muscly guy draped in grapevines. The sculptor forms a master
mold around grapevine guy using clay. Then, grapevine guy’s master mold is
broken into sections so that each body part can be made separately. This is
easier and prevents metal breakage and distortion. Next, the sculptor pours
beeswax into the mold. Once cooled, this provides hollow wax models in the
shape of grapevine guy’s head, arm, leg, and so on. Now the sculptor adds
details to the wax—pouty lips or curly hair. Yet another clay mold is formed
around each wax body part and liquid clay poured into the hollow inside of
the wax. Then the entire clay and wax mold is fired, melting away the wax
and creating a mold for hot bronze to be poured into. This lost-wax technique
creates clay molds for bronze casting—a process that turns our grapevine
man into a real bronze man. G
Massive blocky buildings made of concrete.
The Brutalist style of architecture arose from early-20th-century
modernist sensibilities and had its day in the sun in the 1950s. This
architectural style, characterized by straight lines, unusual geometric shapes,
and a general sense of heaviness, fell out of favor in the 1970s when it
became widely criticized as unwelcoming and inhuman (in other words,
brutal). C
BUTTRESS (n./v.)
Not only is buttress fun to say, it’s also an interesting architectural feature. It
refers to a brick or stone structure against the outside of a wall—generally of
a Romanesque basilica or cathedral. Like a good bra, a buttress’s main job
is to provide support. In order to build tall, sturdy structures, architects had
to solve the problem of the roof pushing the walls outward and inevitably
knocking them down (you know, physics and whatnot). In order to fix this
problem, they would buttress the walls with heavy supports against the
outside to keep them upright (anyone who has built a pillow fort is nodding
along right now). As humans became more ambitious, and cathedrals grew to
greater heights, buttressing evolved alongside.
Flying buttresses—or arch buttresses—are the same structures, just taken
up a notch. During the Gothic period in parts of Europe, they literally raised
the roof—cathedrals got taller, walls got thinner, and everyone got really into
stained glass. All these factors complicated construction and meant standard
buttressing practices wouldn’t cut it anymore. In order to support less stable
walls, builders invented flying buttresses, which enabled them to stack archshaped buttresses on top of one another. This distributed the weight out and
down. Unlike their predecessors on the ground, flying buttresses were further
from the wall they supported and more delicate in their construction. Don’t
get any ideas about these being dainty or decorative features though—without
the trusty buttress and its support, building Gothic churches such as Chartes
Cathedral, in France, would not have been possible. N
A byobu screen is a Japanese folding screen. Byobu translates as “wind
wall.” Back in the 8th century BCE, in Japan, these screens were designed to
help block out cold drafts and maintain heat by sectioning off rooms. With
time, byobu screens became more popular and grew in size, often consisting
of multiple panels. Function and design merge in byobu screens, as artists
have been painting them for centuries. They often depict landscapes, but
figurative scenes and calligraphy sometimes feature as well. By Japan’s Edo
period (1603–1867), samurais would show off their status by owning big
byobu screens with elaborate paintings by notable artists of the day,
sometimes even covered in precious gold leaf. If I were a lady living during
the Edo period and a samurai invited me back to his house to see his byobu
screen collection, I'd be into it. G
The Byzantine Empire existed from 330 to 1453 CE. A continuation of the
Roman Empire in the East, its citizens still saw themselves as Romans and so
the Byzantine style developed as a combination of Eastern and Western
influences. Emperor Constantine decided to change the name of the capital
from Byzantium to Constantinople because he was clearly not one for
Byzantine art was all about evoking the ethereality of the heavens. Its
purpose was to transport viewers to a heavenly realm where they could feel
a connection to God. In order to achieve this, the Byzantines produced many
mosaic works that glittered and sparkled in candlelight. No better example
exists of Byzantine architecture than the church-turned-mosque-turnedmuseum (you still with me?): Hagia Sophia. Emperor Justinian had this
church built in 537 in modern-day Istanbul, Turkey (Constantinople at the
time of construction), and the structure is most famous for its large, heavenly
In order to bring the ethereal realm down to the earthly, Byzantine
artisans created the illusion that the dome was floating, achieved through
strategic placement of windows and a helluva lot of gold decoration. When
the Ottomans overtook Constantinople in 1453, rather than destroying Hagia
Sophia, they converted the church into a mosque. Nowadays, neither
Christianity nor Islam can claim the building for themselves, as it was
converted into a museum in 1935. N
Calligraphy combines writing with visual art. Calligraphers handwrite and
carefully design letters, applying them with brushes or broad-tipped
instruments, just as a painter might. The practice goes way back and its
consistent influence across the world is pretty amazing.
The practice of calligraphy can be traced back to 200 BCE in China, and
Chinese calligraphy is still widely practiced today. Islamic calligraphy was
first used in the Quran in the 6th century CE and soon developed into multiple
distinct styles.
Due to its reliance on the written word, calligraphy is often overlooked
as a visual artform. However, as we have seen with contemporary graphic
design and text-based art, the written word can function as a visual element.
Bringing words to life with stylized letters and a practiced hand is what
calligraphy is all about. I’ve always been fascinated by calligraphy and have
meant to take a class at some point—I’ll sign up for one after this book is
done, hold me to it. G
Thousands of years before the invention of cameras as we know them, there
were predecessors known as camera obscuras. For those like myself who
never formally learned Latin, that translates to “dark room,” though a camera
obscura is much closer in concept to an actual camera than the red-lit space
that comes to mind. One major difference between a camera obscura and a
camera, is that a camera obscura projects a temporary image. They can range
in size from a small box to an entire room. In order to make a camera
obscura, you need a very dark space—be it box or room—with one pinhole
to admit light. An inverted image of whatever is well-lit on the outside of the
pinhole is projected onto the adjacent wall inside the dark space.
Originally, camera obscuras were used to view solar eclipses without
damaging the eyes, but eventually some smart and curious people figured out
that it’s a fantastic way to project a scene or object in order to achieve a
nearly perfect sketch for a painting. (If you’ve ever used a projector to trace
a preliminary sketch on a canvas, you know what I mean). Much like modernday cameras, camera obscuras kept getting smaller—i.e. more portable and
convenient. The technology advanced as well. During the 16th century, a
small mirror was placed inside to reflect the image right-side-up and
eventually a convex lens was added to the pinhole. Leo da Vinci became
slightly obsessed (as he did with many things) with camera obscuras and
what they could tell us about optical theory, and our boy Caravaggio was
believed to have used a camera obscura to sketch the form of his figures in
some of his paintings. N
CAMP (n./adj.)
Bad taste. Irony. Banality. Artifice. Frivolity. These are just some of the
aspects that build the backbone of camp.
So, what is camp? It is hard to wrap up with a pretty bow (I mean, we
can, that would certainly be in the spirit of camp). Camp can be thought of as
an aesthetic style or sensibility that disrupts ideas of what is considered
high society and high art. It can also be considered a kind of social practice
that many subscribe to through fashion and performative identity for the
purpose of entertainment. (Take RuPaul’s Drag Race, for example, a TV
show in which the American drag queen searches for America’s next drag
superstar.) Elements of camp have been identified in popular culture dating
back to the turn of the 20th century, but it was not until Susan Sontag wrote
Notes on “Camp” in 1964 that the term came to describe a cohesive
In many academic readings it is asserted that camp is not identified with
any specific group, but I would argue that you cannot discuss camp without
discussing the queer community that birthed and raised it, complete with
massive, peroxided beehive and feather boa. Entertainers such as Divine,
Liberace, and Cher paved the way for an anti-academic take on pop culture
that was largely driven by gay fanfare. Pop art giants such as Andy Warhol
(whose queerness is often erased or downplayed) made huge contributions to
the camp aesthetic. In 2019, the Met Gala had camp as its theme, with no
mention of its queer roots and history (you blew it, guys). Ultimately, camp is
not necessarily making fun of culture, but rather making fun out of it. Camp
deserves several theses and dissertations, which we unfortunately do not
have room for, so consider this your primer, darling, and get lost. J
Wait, how is this an art term? Well, hear me out. We’re talking about the
concept of cannibalism, which became a powerful metaphorical tool and
approach to modernism for a group of Brazilian modernists in the early 20th
century (see Antropofagia). The idea was that, as a trope, the act of human
cannibalism marked the line between savagery and civilization—a line that
became a very important cornerstone of colonial thought. By reclaiming the
act of cannibalism, historically an act that denotes difference, Brazilian
modernists cannibalized European culture to create a hybrid identity. This
identity celebrated difference as a central concept in defining Latin American
identities (I know, its complex stuff).
The artist Tarsila do Amaral has long been considered the first modernist
Brazilian cannibal. Her painting, Abaporu (1928), depicts a stylized figure
with massive feet seated next to a cactus with a lemon-slice sun in the
background. She gave it to her husband, Oswald de Andrade, as a birthday
gift. He was so taken aback by what he saw in the work as a devouring of
European styles, that he gave it its title (which means “man eats” in an
indigenous language). He wrote his Manifesto Antropófago that same year. J
CANON (n.)
Canon, not to be confused with artillery that shoots cannonballs, is a word
that refers to what is generally accepted as “the best” of a given subject. The
phrase is naturally biased, as “the best” ramen noodle place in the city in
your opinion, is likely to be different from someone else’s. However, much
of art history is defined by people claiming such and such to be a great
master, or specifying which qualities make the most beautiful sculptures, or
compiling lists of the leading artists from a given period, and so on.
Since the word “canon” derives from the Greek word kanōn, meaning
“rule,” let’s look at an example of canon from ancient Greek art history. The
ancient Greeks believed that a statue needed to have the correct proportions
in order to be aesthetically beautiful. To this end, Greek sculptor Polykleitos
wrote a treatise in which he provided a formula to create the perfectly
proportioned statue. His work on how to make an ideal, sculpted male nude
is considered a canon in art history. Which is why there are so many chiseled
nude dudes in your art history 101 textbook. G
Stretch it! Paint it! Dye it!
Canvas refers to a woven material made from some type of yarn.
Commonly used yarns include cotton, flax, and hemp. It’s pretty routine to use
canvas as your base in two-dimensional art. Painting on canvas is more
common than drawing, but don’t let anyone tell you how to live your life. You
draw on that canvas if your heart so desires.
Painters usually treat their canvases with a layer of gesso, which makes
the colors a little brighter. Alternatively, an untreated/unprimed canvas—that
is, with no gesso—can soak up more paint, making for a hazy effect.
Abstract Expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler experimented with
leaving her canvases untreated and then staining them with pure color.
Through this staining technique, she was able to achieve subtle shifts in tone
and opacity in her paintings. Canvas even works great for collages since it’s
stronger and sturdier than paper—meaning it can hold more stuff. N
The Caravaggisti were a group of artists who were influenced by, and
painted in the style of, Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
Caravaggio left a legacy of dramatic paintings known for their stark contrast
between light and dark, also known as tenebrism. This style was full of
emotional potency, as certain figures would stand out from their mysterious,
shadowed backgrounds when illuminated with painted light. It’s moody, it’s
mysterious, it’s hip, so no surprise other artists wanted to emulate
Caravaggio’s style. Numerous Caravaggisti painters emerged in
Caravaggio’s native Italy, including one of the Art History Babes’ collective
faves, Artemisia Gentileschi. However, Caravaggisti were spread widely
across the whole of Europe.
You may be thinking: so, they just copied Caravaggio, what’s so great
about that? Well there’s a difference between painting in a style similar to
Caravaggio and making art pretending to be an actual Caravaggio.
Caravaggisti took certain techniques and inspiration from Caravaggio, but
they also had their own unique styles and worked as autonomous artists.
When looking at a painting by a Caravaggisti, the main thing you’ll notice is
the dramatic treatment of light. Caravaggio certainly made such effects
popular, but by no means owned the rights to them (something I’m sure he’d
be annoyed to hear—that hot head). G
I’m obsessed with Carrara marble. That may sound like a weird thing to be
so fascinated by, but I’m about to convince you why it’s crazy cool.
Earth science time! Marble forms with the help of dead sea creatures. A
long, long time ago, certain bodies of water on Earth evaporated, leaving
behind the crusty shells of dead ocean dwellers, which were very rich in the
mineral calcite. Calcite forms limestone. When limestone is buried under
tons of rocks, the pressure and heat transforms the limestone into marble.
Marble can be found all over the world and comes in a variety of colors
—from rose to rust—depending on what else gets mixed into the limestoneto-marble process. For example, clay and iron oxide make for darker
marbles. Carrara marble is a white, blue-gray marble that forms from pure
limestone—meaning there isn’t any clay or iron oxide getting in there.
The Carrara marble quarry is nestled in the Apuan Alps, north of
Tuscany, in Italy, and it is a gorgeous and mineral-rich place. You’ve
probably seen Carrara marble listed as the material for famous works such
as, say, a sculpture by Michelangelo. The ancient Romans were all about
Carrara marble, transporting heaping hunks of it back to Rome to construct
temples and sculptures. Renaissance artists and architects coveted the
marble for their projects (see Italian Renaissance).
Carrara marble is the only marble of its kind and the Italians continue to
quarry it and send it all over the world today. The supply of the stuff seems
endless when you look at aerial photos of the quarry with its carefully carved
steps and deep, cavernous spaces. See? Crazy cool. G
Cartography is the study and practice of making maps. It is one of the many
places where art and science meet.
The earliest recorded cartography was practiced by the Babylonians who
carved geometric shapes into clay tablets to represent their environment
(often intentionally leaving out the land of their neighbors, the Persians and
ancient Egyptians). Maps have since gone through many incarnations before
arriving at the satellites-are-always-watching-you, hyper-accurate maps of
Often thought of as objective, scientific objects, maps actually have much
more in common with art objects. In being small-scale, two-dimensional
things representing very large-scale three-dimensional things, all maps are a
little bit wrong (unless maybe you ask a flat-earther). Maps very often
misrepresent scale—for example, world maps exaggerate certain continents
over others—and they are most definitely influenced by the agenda of the
map maker.
Throughout history, cartographers have created maps in alignment with
spiritual, economic, and political purpose. Many of them have also infused
their works with their own aesthetic choices, ranging from illustrations of
mythical beasts to descriptions of landmasses that simply don’t exist. See
agnotology for more on all of that.
Maps represent how we think about the world, and ultimately, our place
in it. C
It may surprise you to learn that the cartoon originated with our pals
Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo during the Italian Renaissance. Well,
the word did at least. Carta is Italian for “paper” and the suffix “-one”
means large. Cartone = large sheet of paper. Da Vinci and Michelangelo
would make preparatory drawings on large sheets of paper with the intent of
transferring their images to a painting surface. Over time, the use of the word
“cartoon” morphed to describe a printed illustration with exaggerated
characteristics, often with satirical overtones. This includes everything from
the political cartoons of 18th-century England, to the “funnies” in your local
newspaper today.
With the advent of animation, the cartoon became your fave Saturday
morning TV program. Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and Bart Simpson are all
cartoon characters. So, we can use the word “cartoon” to describe a number
of different things, historically speaking. While the development of the
cartoon is not particularly linear, this bit of info will come in handy when
charting the visual history of Leonardo da Vinci: from Renaissance master to
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. C
The ancient Greeks seriously loved to sculpt the human body. So, it didn’t
take long for them to morph the female body with another of their great loves,
the column. A caryatid is a sculptural female figure who doubles as a
supporting column for a given structure.
Women in ancient Greece wore what’s called a peplos, a sort of tunic
dress with lots of folds. It offered the ideal clothing style for translation into
the sculpted, columnar form. Take, for example, one of the caryatids from the
Erechtheion—an ancient temple (421–406 BCE) at the Acropolis in Athens,
Greece—where there are a total of six caryatids supporting a porch. On the
head of each girl sits a capital, which functions to help mediate the weight
bearing down on the column.
Look closely at one of the caryatids and you can almost feel the burden of
the mass crushing her head. Yet, as a woman sculpted from stone, her face is
stoic, almost serene, as she bears the literal weight of a building on her
shoulders. Instead of widening her stance to handle the immense weight, or
crouching beneath it, she simply juts out a hip and knee, placing all the
weight on her other leg. Sculpting one of her legs as rigid allows the folds of
her dress to take on the look of a typical column, with straight vertical lines
running down from the hip to the feet. This caryatid is both woman and
column, carrying literally tons of weight on her shoulders—girl power. G
CATALOG (n./v.)
“Catalog” is the word for an organized list of items. Art catalogs contain—
you guessed it—lists of art! They generally take the form of books and
accompany private collections and exhibitions. A catalog offers a way to
remember an exhibition for years to come, and who doesn’t love a good
As a bibliophile, I’m always tempted by a well-made catalog. While
many take the form of a luxurious book, it’s also common to create something
more cost-efficient. Oftentimes, artists will print catalogs on cheap paper in
the form of pamphlets or zines to provide a free, or low-cost option for
smaller shows. Catalogs also offer supplemental information about a show,
including essays, photographs, or wall text from the exhibit. N
What does the word “catalyst” have to do with art? Well, a catalyst is a thing
that can cause a change or reaction of some kind.
Art can certainly be a catalyst. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I
watched the reality TV dating game show, The Bachelorette, this past season
(it was on and I just got sucked in!) and there was a big, emotional art-ascatalyst moment for the bachelorette. She was in a museum, waiting for one
of her contestants boyfriends to show up for their private date in a museum
(goals). Anyways, she’s looking at a painting of St. Catherine, who is reading
the Bible and holding a sword while men are off fighting in the distance
behind her. The bachelorette starts crying because she feels she can relate to
the martyred saint and later sends her date home. Although this made me want
to laugh and scream at the same time, it’s undeniable that the painting of St.
Catherine was an emotional catalyst for the bachelorette.
On a more serious note, art can be a catalyst for societal and political
change. The Women’s March on January 21, 2017 saw millions of protestors
in streets across the world wearing knitted “pussy hats,” visual markers of a
demand for change. Artists making work that draws attention to global issues,
such as climate change, are part of a call for action. Art is always tied to
political movements, uprisings, demonstrations, and protests: all of these
events are catalysts.
The art world gets its fair share of disses from people in politics—
people who don’t seem to recognize art’s role in political change or take it
very seriously. But every major sociopolitical movement has involved art in
some integral way, making art an absolute catalyst. G
Picture it: you are in the Paleolithic era, about 40,000 years ago, and you are
entering a dark, deep cave. It’s your coming of age ceremony, and your tribal
elders are leading you deeper and deeper into the cave to the sacred cavern,
your torch the only source of light. You finally arrive at the central cavern
and you find that the walls are covered in paintings of massive animals. The
flickering of your torch makes them appear to move. Maybe your elder
instructs you to imbibe some kind of hallucinatory drink, and now those
animals are really moving (see psychedelic art). You have just been initiated
into adulthood, and now you, too, are allowed to see the sacred paintings that
hold the guarded knowledge—knowledge that is lost to us 40,000 years later.
Cave art, also called parietal art, refers to paintings, drawings,
etchings, carvings, and pecked artwork on the interior of rock shelters and
caves. These artworks are extremely old and are found all over the world,
dating all the way back to the Middle Paleolithic era (70,000—35,000 BCE).
These works could be relatively simple geometric petroglyphs to more
elaborate figural representations.
The Chauvet Cave in southern France (c. 32,000 BCE) is a prime example
of this kind of art. Gigantic animal paintings fill the caves, and they’re so
expertly rendered that archaeologists can identify species of animals that
have since gone extinct. Strangely, human figures are almost never depicted,
and when they do appear, they’re usually miniscule in comparison to the
animals. Theories abound about possible interpretations of these images,
many of which suggest that cave paintings may have been a vital part of the
ceremonial life of early humans. Perhaps the scenario I described at the
beginning of this entry isn’t too far off from fact, but the lack of a written
record from this era leaves us, well, in the dark. J
Half-man, half-horse, this mythological beast is all attitude. Stories of
centaurs abound in ancient Greek mythology and are described as being as
wild and uncontrollable as untamed horses, thereby wreaking havoc on the
civilized world of humans. These unruly creatures have several origin
stories, but the most popular one involves an instance of the Greek god Zeus
meddling with the lives of humans, a favorite pastime of his.
The story goes that, one day, Zeus invited the human Ixion, king of the
Lapith tribe, to a dinner party on Mount Olympus. However, instead of being
grateful to his host, Ixion grew lustful for Hera, Zeus’s wife. This was a nono. When Zeus found out about Ixion’s advances, he concocted a plan to trick
Ixion into sleeping with the cloud nymph Nephele, whom Zeus had molded
into the shape of Hera. From this weird union, the deformed Centaurus came
to be. Poor Centaurus was shunned by both humans and gods alike, and took
refuge on Mount Pelion, where he mated with the Magnesian mares. Thus, the
race of the centaurs was born.
Several theories relate to the true origins of this particular hybrid
monster. The most common is that the idea arose from the meeting of the nonhorse-riding Aegean peoples with horse-riding nomadic tribes from the east
—one of many examples in Greek mythology of crafting monsters out of
“barbarian” intruders. Other interpretations suggest that the centaur may
symbolize the internal struggle of humanity between good and evil, civilized
and barbaric, propriety and immorality. One thing is for certain: you don’t
want to invite these guys to your parties. J
In chemistry, a ceramic refers to an inorganic, nonmetallic, often crystalline
oxide, nitride, or carbide material. This can include all kinds of materials,
but for our less scientific purposes, we’ll focus on clay and porcelain.
Ceramics are objects made from these materials and can range from clay
pottery for your garden to the fine china displayed in that antique cabinet,
never to be used for anything other than looking at, ever. J
Chance aesthetics are typically associated with Dada, and rightfully so,
because chance aesthetics totally undermine the intent of the artist. Forget
your artistic vision—we’re leaving this up to the powers that be! Nothing
matters. Go with the flow, bro.
A prime example of chance aesthetics is Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard
Stoppages (1913–14). This work evolved from a combination of Duchamp’s
artistic intent and a totally unpredictable element of chance. Duchamp
dropped three pieces of thread—of the same length and from the same height
—onto three pieces of canvas. He then attached the thread to the canvases
exactly as they fell. The resulting visual aesthetic of the artwork was
completely due to the chance nature of the fall.
So, any time an artwork actively incorporates a guiding element that is
beyond the control of the artist, that piece is using chance aesthetics. Taking
chances is cool! But stick to low-consequence chances such as dropping
strings—nothing that might put you in mortal danger. Then again, do what you
want. I’m not your boss. C
On a chemical level, charcoal is what you get when you remove water from
animal or plant products, in order to produce a black carbon residue (full
disclosure: I had a very hard time in high school chemistry). Much more in
my wheelhouse, is what comes after charcoal is produced: a lightweight, dry
material pressed into a writing utensil, perfect for drawing or sketching.
Charcoal lends itself to sketchy impressions—don’t expect to achieve
precise, clean lines. It’s messy as hell, and between its dark color and
powdery fragility, you’re sure to get it all over your hands—if not your face,
clothes, belongings, soul, etc. N
Despite what you may think, a cherub is not a cute, chubby, arrow-wielding
baby boy similar to the modern-day conception of cupid. No, instead it is a
super-intense mythological hybrid angel creature. Over time, we have
culturally referred to putti as cherubim and, as a result, the meaning of the
word cherub has morphed and changed … because that’s how language
According to the Bible, a cherub is a member of one of the highest
angelic orders. It has four faces—one of a man, one of a lion, one of an ox,
and one of an eagle. It also has four wings covered in eyes (always watching
you) and its appearance is “like burning coals of fire.” In other words, you
probably don’t want to mess with cherubs. C
Chiaroscuro is an Italian word: chiaro meaning “bright” or “clear” and
oscuro meaning “dark” or “obscure.” It relates to a technique that focuses on
the contrast between light and dark elements in a composition, and how this
contrast can enhance a sense of space and create heightened drama. A solid
way to visualize chiaroscuro from the comfort of your home is to pull out
your phone and turn the contrast aaall the way up on one of your photos.
Both Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio implemented chiaroscuro in
their work. One of my favorite examples of chiaroscuro is Caravaggio’s c.
1610 painting David with the Head of Goliath. The painting depicts a young
David, holding up the head of Goliath, still disturbingly locked in an
expression of shock. It is so dramatic. The drama is enhanced by
chiaroscuro: the background is dark and indistinct, but David’s torso, sword,
and half his face are cast in light as he holds up Goliath’s decapitated head,
also partially illuminated.
With the progression of art history, chiaroscuro continues to be a
popular choice for artists wanting to create depth and/or intensity in their
work. In a move that may have shocked Da Vinci and Caravaggio, there’s
chiaroscuro photography as well now—check it out, it’s stunning. G
Think japonisme but Chinese! You didn’t think the problematic
romanticizing of East Asian cultures by Europeans was limited to just the
Japanese, did you? Chinoiserie is the European interpretation and imitation
of Chinese and East Asian artistic traditions, especially in the decorative
arts, garden design, architecture, literature, theater, and music. As a style,
chinoiserie is related to Rococo. Paintings are similarly full of pastels and
frivolity, only everyone is wearing Chinese costume (I cringe). Porcelain,
jade, pagodas, folding screens, and luxurious wallpapers were all the rage
for the trendiest Europeans.
Why did it happen? Chinoiserie is just one of many aspects of the
European fascination with the “exotic” world of the East, due to Europe’s
newly acquired access to Eastern cultures through expanded trade with East
Asia—and especially China—in the 18th century (see Orientalism). The
Western world has historically experienced problems when it comes to being
exposed to non-Western (read: non-European) civilizations. The result has
usually been horrific violence and death, but there was some art, too. J
Classicism can be understood as an aesthetic and philosophical attitude. The
term emerged in Europe during the 17th century, during the Renaissances—
Italian and Northern—which are largely considered times of rebirth of
classical style. Classicists put antiquity on a pedestal (probably a Corinthian
one), and sought to replicate classical principles in their own art,
architecture, and literature. Classical art draws aesthetic inspiration from
its ancient pals, including a preference for harmonious design. A good
example of this lies in use of classical architecture to represent traditional
modes of power. The stereotypical facade that comes to mind involves a
looming stairway up to white marble columns lining the front of a stately
structure, possibly with a fancy frieze above its entrance. Reminiscent of the
Parthenon of ancient Greece, this architectural style is often used for
government buildings where the intention is to command authority. N
Clay comes from the ground. When combined with the correct ingredients, it
becomes moldable and can be turned into pottery. The three main types of
clay are porcelain, earthenware, and stoneware.
Because clay comes from the ground, it has been commonly used by
civilizations all over the world, going back as far as the Neolithic period.
Between 10,000 and 2000 BCE, long before the pottery wheel was invented,
people in China used coiling techniques to make vases. I’m pretty sure
everyone who has ever taken a beginner ceramics class has made a coil pot.
You roll out a long, clay snake and then you start wrapping it around a flat
base, until you run out of snake—boom: coil pot. That method has truly stood
the test of time. After the invention of the potter’s wheel, sometime around
3000 BCE, throwing on a wheel made the molding process quicker, easier,
and more efficient. Clay pottery has remained popular over the years because
it’s practical, sturdy, and readily available. N
You know what they say … “collaboration is the spice of life.” And if they
don’t, they should. Collaboration is when two or more people come together
to create something. Likely, you’ve heard of musical collaborations—Queen
and David Bowie, Kanye West and Jay Z, or Tim McGraw and Nelly
(remember that strange time?).
In art, it’s generally when two or more artists work together on a project,
but it can be expanded to include curators collaborating, as well as artists
collaborating with people from other industries. It’s more than just working
together—the word “collaborate” implies that the parties involved are
partners, with equal voice.
One of the hottest collaborations in art was between American artists
Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. They created a series of paintings
from 1980 to 1986, where Warhol’s pop art aesthetic and Basquiat’s
graffiti-style painting came together in dialogue. A young Basquiat was
reportedly thrilled to work with one of his artistic icons, and a businesssavvy Warhol knew that his declining status could only be elevated by
working with the current rising star of the New York art scene.
Thanks in large part to good ole capitalism, we often see this in the form
of artists collaborating with corporations. Louis Vuitton has worked with a
ton of well-known artists including Warhol, and contemporary artists
Takashi Murakami and Yayoi Kusama. N
COLLAGE (n./v.)
Remember that giant tub of old magazines in the corner of your elementary
school classroom? The one that got pulled out for every project? Science,
math, art, social studies—there wasn’t a single subject that couldn’t be
represented by cutting out disjointed images from an array of magazines and
gluing them onto a piece of construction paper. Well, whether you were
aware of it or not, you were creating a collage.
The word “collage” can refer to both the technique and the resultant
artwork in which various elements (paper, photographs, fabric, etc.) are
intentionally arranged on a surface. Common collage technique involves
overlapping these elements. This can allow for an obvious and intentional
juxtaposition of images or mediums. For example, you could paste an image
of Homer Simpson’s face on the body of a religious official and create a new
meaning for both of those images (I don’t know exactly what it would be, but
people would probably be pissed about it). Collage relies heavily on the
appropriation of images and is a powerful means of exploring the images
that we consume every day. C
Quite simply, anyone who collects something is a collector. Art collectors
obviously collect art, and these private collections look wildly different
from one to the next. While collections often have a general theme tying them
together, cohesion isn’t necessary, and some can be quite diverse. Themes
include era, country of origin, specific objects, specific artists, and so on.
Collectors, like patrons, can support an artist and help to propel their career
by promoting their work to their hoity-toity friends. Collectors can even take
steps to ensure that their collection stays intact by selling or donating it to an
museum or gallery.
You could decide that you’re going to collect yellow art, or rocks, or Nan
Goldin photographs (alright, big shot), or literally whatever you so please.
Pablo “problematic” Picasso collected African artifacts, actor Seth Rogen
collects vintage ashtrays, and our babe Ginny’s working up a nice record
collection. Collections often say more about the person collecting than the
objects themselves. Picasso engaged in primitivism, Rogen is a cannabis
connoisseur, and Gin is just a cool gal who likes good music. Find whatever
it is that brings you joy, and collect on, my friends. N
We all know that colonialism is harsh and ugly and bad. Well, I guess we
don’t all know that. There are academics who believe colonialism was a
force for good in the world. I don’t have enough space in this one entry to
fight them on that (catch me outside), but the stance at the Art History Babes
is that many aspects of colonialism were awful, and it’s silly to pretend
otherwise. Nonetheless, there are certain periods of time in world history
that are characterized by colonial rule. And during those times, art was made,
just as it was in every other period in human history.
“Colonial Art” is a term used to describe art that depicts colonial
expeditions and colonial rule, made by colonizers for colonizers (literally, a
lot of American colonial art features portraits of powerful white dudes and
their families). The term is most commonly used in reference to American
and Spanish colonial art. American colonial art encompasses art created by
17th- and 18th-century colonists of North America. It is Eurocentric in style,
reflecting English and Dutch art of the time. American colonial art shows
little to no influence of indigenous art styles. Spanish colonial art, on the
other hand, is super Catholic and reflects a merging of cultures via
globalization. Spanish colonial art encompasses art produced in the Spanish
colonies of the New World from the early 16th to early 19th centuries. Over
time, Spanish colonial art came to include work produced by indigenous
Since so much of it was awful, we are currently in an intense period of
trying to untangle the mess made by colonialism. This is often referred to as
postcolonialism —I’ll pass it to Jen for more on that. C
I am a color fiend, and if you are anything like me, you can easily get lost in
color swatches, spending hours playing with side-by-side combinations.
Color is eye-catching by nature, and it has been scientifically proven to affect
our moods, thoughts, and feelings.
In the late 1940s, an art style developed that took advantage of this fact,
with the intent of achieving transcendence through color (intense right?). The
Color Field movement, a subset of Abstract Expressionism, found meaning
in color and simple forms instead of symbols. Mark Rothko didn’t define
himself as a color-field painter, nonetheless, he is typically considered the
big daddy of the style. Rothko is known for his multiforms, which are large
canvases covered in blurred rectangular blocks of two or three colors. The
goal of these works was to express the most raw, primordial experience of
human emotion possible.
Getting lost in a Rothko should definitely be on your art bucket list. Let
the color ignite your fire, cool your jets, or swallow you whole. C
A color wheel is a handy and visually pleasing circle with colors on it. It
typically has primary colors (yellow, red, and blue), secondary colors
(orange, purple, and green) and tertiary colors (mixes of the other colors,
for example red/orange). The purpose of the color wheel is to show the
relationships between colors.
Did you know that scientist, mathematician, author, and all-around
Renaissance man, Sir Isaac Newton invented the color wheel? Seriously, that
guy did everything. One day in the 17th century, Newton was thinking about
color and playing around with a prism on a windowsill. He observed the
rainbow of colors caused by direct sunlight passing through the prism, and
later made the color wheel to demonstrate the relationship between various
colors and light in a more hands-on way. Thank you, Sir Ike! G
In ancient Greece, columns were big. Both in terms of popularity, and
sometimes size (but watch out, if it becomes too big it’s a pier). Basically,
columns are pillars that can provide support for structures. Some columns
are freestanding, some are engaged (when attached to a wall), and some
stand alone as monuments (look, ma—no building!). Out of these variations,
only free-standing columns provide actual support.
The hypostyle prayer hall in the Great Mosque of Córdoba, in southern
Spain, is filled with rows of columns supporting double horseshoe arches.
All these columns in the prayer room are meant to evoke the feeling of being
in a forest, which is objectively dope.
A column consists of three parts: the base at the bottom, the shaft in the
middle, and the capital on top. The three classical Greek orders of
architecture are Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, and each order has a
corresponding style of column. Doric columns are fluted and baseless, with a
simple round capital at the top. The Parthenon in Athens was built in the
Doric order. Ionic columns are taller and thinner than their Doric
predecessors, with fancier, scroll-like capitals. Corinthian columns were the
tallest and most elaborate of all, their capitals decorated with sculpted
acanthus leaves and scrolls. The Greeks got really creative, and even made
columns called caryatids that look like women supporting the structures—
Ginny will tell you all about them. N
Combines are paintings that incorporate various mediums on canvas. Does
that sound like mixed media? Well, it is, but combines take things to the next
The term was first coined by American painter Robert Rauschenberg. His
1955 painting, simply titled Bed, looks like a bed if the person who owns
that bed also happens to bleed paint. The entire painting is mounted on
wooden supports and contains an actual pillow with oil paint and pencil on
it, a quilt, and a sheet, all covered with seemingly randomly applied paint.
What is this? Was Rauschenberg yanking everyone’s chain? Was he having
some kind of breakdown? Rauschenberg simply merged action painting with
found objects. By adhering the objects to a painting’s surface, he created a
new technique he called combine painting.
Combine paintings usually involve items applied on canvas, but Bed is
just made up of the quilt, sheet, and pillow on wooden stretcher bars.
Rauschenberg said he couldn’t afford to buy a new canvas when he made
Bed, so he used his quilt because it was summertime and he didn’t need it.
He apparently tried to transform the quilt to look like something other than a
bed, but as he continued to work on the composition, it kept telling him “I’m
a bed” so he added a pillow and called it Bed. Sometimes the art tells you
what it wants to be and you just gotta listen. G
The older, yet littler sibling of the graphic novel, a comic strip is a sequence
of drawings arranged in interrelated panels to form a narrative, with text in
balloons and captions. These strips are typically humorous in nature and are
usually serialized, meaning segments of the narrative are published in regular
installments, so individual comic strips are shorter by nature. Comic strips
are traditionally published in newspapers and magazines, with the first
printed in American newspapers as early as the late 19th century. Daily
newspapers generally feature shorter black-and-white comics while longer
sequences in full color appear in the Sunday funnies.
Comic strips are particularly near and dear to my heart. There is
something special about art that not only tells a story, but that you can get in
regular installments! The practice of clipping your favorite comics and
pinning them somewhere creates a tactile, personal connection between art
and viewer. With the rise of webcomics (comics you can find online), the
accessibility of the comic strip has reached a new level. Comics are art for
the people, taken out of the museum and put straight into the palm of your
hand. I’m all about it. J
Simply put, commercial art is all about selling something.
Working in the commercial arts often requires skills in graphic design
and advertising. Commercial art is often considered of lesser merit than fine
art, but that is pretty much due to an outdated hierarchy. Just like all art,
commercial art requires specific skill sets and creative vision. Commercial
art includes advertisement campaigns, logos, and branding, and a lot of massproduced images.
Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964) are an example of fine art bringing
attention to this contradiction. Warhol painted and silkscreened wooden
boxes with reproductions of famous product logos (Brillo soap pads, in this
case). His sculptures looked like exact replicas of the consumer product.
However, Warhol’s work was considered fine art, while the original design
for the product was considered commercial art. People still love to argue
about the value of this work and how it relates to the creation of commercial
artwork. But, ultimately, if you appreciate the design of the Brillo logo,
you’re appreciating the work of the commercial artist, James Harvey, not that
of pop artist Andy Warhol. C
You can think of a commission as a custom-made artwork for a particular
customer. Patrons purchase works from artists to be made specifically for
them. An artist could also garner a reputation for painting a certain scene
well. Mannerist painter Lavinia Fontana became famous in her town of
Bologna, Italy, for her skill in portraiture and altarpieces alike. Her work
was coveted by Bologna’s wealthy patrons, and thus she was able to support
her husband and eleven children through commissioned work. At different
points in history, commissions have been more-or-less imperative to an
artist’s livelihood. Commissions were more common when artists relied on
wealthy patrons. This is because, with supplies being so costly, they often
needed funding to begin working in the first place. Religious institutions and
governments have historically been the biggest commissioners of art in our
world. Anytime you see public art, remember that someone had to pay for it.
Even the Colosseum in Rome was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian as a
gift for the Roman people. (Thanks, Vesp!)
We don’t generally associate commissions with our modern conception
of the free-spirited artist, but they offer a great way for artists to guarantee a
return on the work they’re creating. Nowadays, it’s less necessary for a
successful career, but definitely still common. In fact, some artists even work
solely on commissions. Whether or not an artist accepts commissions is
entirely up to them, but it is a great way to make a buck to support that freespirited artist lifestyle. N
I know the term “complementary color” sounds like colors should
complement one another, but in reality it means a color’s opposite. Don’t
look at me like that. I didn’t write the rules.
Complementary colors are pairs of colors that lie opposite one another
on the color wheel and yield the highest contrast when used together. Every
pair of complementary colors has a warm color and a cool color; examples
include red/green, orange/blue, and yellow/purple. When layered or mixed,
complementary colors of the same hue cancel one another out, and when you
put complementary colors with too-high saturation next to one another, they
appear to glow and vibrate. It’s all very science-y and technical, but artists
have been using this knowledge since Sir Isaac Newton discovered the color
wheel in the early 16th century—now go visit Gin for more on that. N
Composite view, also known as composite pose, also known as twisted
perspective, was a popular convention in Near Eastern and ancient Egyptian
Composite art was typically two-dimensional in nature. Ancient Egyptian
artists wanted to convey as much information as possible in a single scene,
creating a narrative for the viewer. In order to do this, they combined
multiple viewpoints in a single pose. For example, ancient Egyptian figures
were often depicted with the feet, legs, hips, and head in profile (facing the
side) while the torso was facing forward. Their bodies were all twisty—
hence twisted perspective—and hence the late-1980s dance craze, “Walk
Like an Egyptian.” C
The term “composition” means the nature of something’s ingredients or parts,
the stuff that makes up a thing. In the visual arts, composition is the placement
or arrangement of visual elements of a work of art. This is different from the
subject of the work. Rather, we’re talking about the pieces of the work and
their arrangement in that work. Some other words that can be used
interchangeably: design, form, visual ordering, or formal structure,
depending on the work and context. We’re talking about the arrangement of
the stuff, and if you’re smart about it, your stuff might just make up an iconic
—or, at the very least, interesting—composition. J
Think about it. C
In 1922, five years after the Russian Revolution, artist Aleksei Gan wrote a
manifesto titled Constructivism, in which he called for an “uncompromising
war on art.” Intense. What he really meant by this war on art was to destroy
the notion of traditional art, previously made for the wealthy elite.
Constructivism aimed to abolish previous artistic norms and pave the way
for a new kind of art.
Much like the sociopolitical ethos of the time, Constructivism was all
about production and utility. Artists were viewed more as engineers who
“constructed” compositions rather than composing them with paint on canvas
—the old, elitist medium that did not serve the proletariat. Constructivists
drew inspiration from the increasingly industrial world around them,
implementing mechanical and geometric forms in their work as well as
actual tools such as rulers and hammers. This combination made for some
really interesting compositions that blended collage, sculpture, painting, and
typography in many cases. G
Contemporary art—what a wild, silly umbrella term. It is often used to
describe the art of today. However, it has also become the term used to
encompass all art created after the postmodern period (and also some of the
art within the postmodern period???). Some people consider all art made
since the 1950s to be contemporary art. While this is up for debate, the term
undoubtedly includes a great deal of art from the 1980s, which is definitely
not the art of today.
The term “contemporary art” has been defended as a term that defines a
movement of art that has become undefinable. Approaches to art-making have
become so diverse that, in the timeline of art history it has become difficult,
if not impossible, to define using a single term.
But we are humans, and we use words to make sense out of complicated
things. The term “contemporary art” is useful in that it categorizes art created
contemporaneously to our 21st-century existence (and some of our most
recent history). But, this gets pretty sticky because, presumably, time will
continue to march on and there will be many more versions of the art of today
(that is if we get this climate change thing under control). And, presumably,
art and art practices will continue to diversify and further evade definition.
At which point we’re in what … the post-contemporary period? Naw bro.
Contemporary art is defined by being undefinable. But also, if we’re being
real, is any art truly “definable”?
Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. C
The textbook definition of contextualization is “to place or study in context.”
Contextualization is a favorite word of academics and art aficionados
alike, but it is also likely to be overheard in coffee shop discourse or seen
floating around the twitterverse. In the study of art history, contextualization
can also be referred to as contextual analysis—analyzing the context in which
a work of art was made. This can involve anything and everything from the
details of the artist’s personal life, to the religious circumstances of a
particular country, to the patronage of the work.
While visual analysis is also a valuable component of art history studies,
many would argue that context is everything (or perhaps, context is … key?).
One of the many amazing features of creating art is that artists have complete
control over the reality within their work. Therefore, rules we have to accept
in the real world don’t have to apply within the painting—including the
physical rules of space and time.
At some point, artists realized they could paint multiple moments from a
narrative into a single painting. Continuous narrative means there are
multiple moments represented in a single scene. This became common
practice in Christian art in which artists would be tasked to convey a long
story in one painting. So, if you’re looking at Sandro Botticelli’s The Story
of Lucretia (c. 1500) and wondering if you spaced out at the part where your
professor said Lucretia had two identical sisters—you didn’t. Botticelli
represented three different parts of Lucretia’s story in the same painting …
because he could. N
Contrapposto is an Italian word meaning “opposite” and is used in the visual
arts to describe the naturalistic pose of the human figure. The figure stands
with most weight on one foot, so that the line of the arms and shoulders
contrasts with those of the hips and legs—opposites, get it? This
asymmetrical arrangement of the human figure creates the appearance of
natural weight distribution and a balanced form. If you’re having trouble
picturing this, try standing completely straight in front of a mirror, with an
equal amount of weight on both feet. Comfortable? No? I didn’t think so.
Now try shifting your weight onto one leg. How does that feel? Better, right?
Look at yourself in the mirror and you will see a body posture not unlike
Michelangelo’s David, arguably the most famous example of contrapposto in
A recent eye-tracking study found that the contrapposto pose ignites the
parts of our brains that register attraction, so if you felt sassy and flirty while
you were in contrapposto, turns out there’s some science behind that. That
might help explain why, in art, goddesses of beauty and love are often
depicted in contrapposto pose. Oh humans, we’re just horny animals after all.
CONTRAST (n./v.)
If you’ve ever digitally edited a photograph, it’s likely you’re familiar with
contrast. If you were a teenager in the early 2000s, you’re well acquainted.
At its most basic, contrast means difference. Aesthetically speaking, it
allows us to measure the difference between elements. Contrast can apply to
tone, shade, color, context … if you can compare it, you can contrast it.
Painters over the years have developed techniques that center around contrast
(see chiaroscuro and tenebrism). Contrast intensifies elements by
juxtaposing them with their opposites. Colors are also contrastable—
complementary colors, for example, yield the highest contrast. Most
commonly, contrast in photography refers to contrast in light, or the balance
between light and dark. N
CRAFT (n./v.)
As a verb, the term “to craft” is to make or produce with care, skill, and
ingenuity. As a noun, “craft” refers to an occupation or trade requiring
manual dexterity and great skill. As a film, The Craft served as the
witchcraft primer extraordinaire for the Art History Babes and many other
spooky little girls of the mid-90s.
We associate craft with handmade objects, the underlying notion being
that somebody made that thing with their hands and we can tell. That last
part is pretty important, especially if you consider craft in the history of
human industry. In the 19th century, crafts and the craftsperson became
associated with morality and spiritual wellness in the face of
industrialization and mass-produced objects (see Arts and Crafts
movement). Because of this response to the advent of mass production, the
idea that handmade objects are intrinsically better has been around for a long
time. In the 21st century, this idea has been capitalized on in all manner of
consumerist tricks that work pretty well to grab our attention and our dollars
(craft microbrews, anyone?). J
Craft + activism = craftivism
Craftivism exists at the intersection of art and activism. Practitioners of
craftivism— craftivists—use traditionally defined craft materials to express
an activist message, often engaging with anti-capitalist, environmental, social
justice, or feminist issues. Some of the most popular examples of craftivism
are radical embroidery and yarn bombing.
Throughout the history of art, craft has been relegated to the margins.
Defined as the applied arts, needlework and other forms of craft production
have ranked lower on the hierarchy of visual art than other artforms. In
challenging this view, craftivism embraces craft-based mediums to use in
protest or to make political statements. C
In 1907, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque got together in Paris and
pioneered the artistic movement known as Cubism. The name comes from the
depiction of “little cubes” that were ridiculed by critics of the time. Guys, so
many names of art movements come from derogatory comments made by
critics. It’s a thing.
Picasso and Braque developed a visual language for Cubism in which
traditional one-point perspective was tossed aside, conventional
representation was rejected, shapes became more geometric, and the fourth
dimension was considered. Artists challenged viewers to contemplate a
subject broken down into simple, fragmented pieces—oftentimes from
several different angles at once—but left identifiable features so that subjects
were still somewhat recognizable. Engaging with the fourth dimension meant
adding time to the equation, so artists showed a figure moving through space
on the same plane.
Cubism focuses on taking complex or weighty concepts and simplifying
them visually, which sounds wonderful and harmless. Unfortunately, much of
Picasso’s inspiration for Cubism came from the discovery of African tribal
art—which he considered to be primitive compared to Western art. *major
eye roll* N
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements from one culture by
members of another culture. On the surface, this doesn’t sound that bad, but
I’m here to tell you right now: it is not the business, folks. Cultural
appropriation (sometimes more aptly called cultural misappropriation) is
different from acculturation, assimilation, or equal cultural exchange. This is
because cultural appropriation is a form of colonialism: cultural elements are
copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these
elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even
against the explicitly stated wishes of members of the originating culture.
This makes it harmful, super problematic, and just not okay.
Cultural appropriation happens all of the time. Take a look around at a
costume party or music festival and chances are you will see someone
wearing a kimono, a Native American headdress, or a bindi. And chances
are also that that person does not belong to the culture that claims ownership
of that particular garment or accessory. Some of you may be asking, “What’s
the big deal? They’re just playing dress up.” The big deal is that cultural
appropriation is exploitative and disrespectful. Cultural elements that may
have deep meaning to the original culture are reduced to “exotic” fashion or
toys by those from the dominant culture. The original meaning of these
cultural elements is lost or distorted, which alienates those whose culture is
being appropriated. It’s also worth pointing out that, when this is done, the
imitator gets to “play” temporarily, and doesn’t have to experience any of the
oppression or discrimination faced by other cultures. This is all to say: you
can appreciate other cultures without being disrespectful, just have some
common sense. J
Cuneiform is a kind of writing created by the ancient Sumerians in
Mesopotamia. It combines pictographs (images of words) with phonograms
(symbols representing sounds) and was carved into soft clay using a pointed
tool. Aesthetically, cuneiform is wedge-shaped, hence its name, which comes
from the Latin word for “wedge” (cuneus). It was first developed around
3000 BCE, as a way for temple officials to keep track of moving grain and
animal livestock. Soon everyone was using cuneiform: it was translated into
about fifteen different languages and expanded in usage to record histories
and literature including the Epic of Gilgamesh (2800–2500 BCE). Cuneiform
had a 3,000-year long history before it was eventually ditched for an
alphabetic system. Fortunately, we have many examples of cuneiform that
have been preserved. G
Curators are the keepers of a museum’s collection. They manage the
acquisition, preservation, display and, in many cases, interpretation of
museum artifacts. In fact, the word “curator” derives from the Latin word
for “to take care” (curare).
A curator specializes in their given field—often holding a PhD in history,
history of art, archaeology, anthropology, or classics—and has multifaceted
tasks dependent on the particular institution and its mission. They are also
expected to contribute to their academic field, for example, by delivering
public talks, publishing articles, or presenting at specialist academic
conferences. It is also important that curators have knowledge of the current
collecting market for their area of expertise and are aware of the ethical
practices and laws that may impact their organization’s collecting. In recent
years, the role of the curator has evolved alongside the changing roles of
museums. As museums are becoming increasingly more digitized, curators
find themselves constructing narratives in both the material and digital
But the concept of curation is not just reserved for a small group of
experts. In fact, most of us engage in curation on a daily basis. Choosing
images and content to display on our social media accounts is a type of
curation: you are curating the experience of your life for your followers.
Your tastes, hobbies, humor, and politics are just some of the aspects you
choose to reveal or conceal to the world. And just as you curate your own
online presence, the people you follow are doing the same—a good thing to
keep in mind as you scroll away on the ’gram. J
DADA (n.)
Let’s go back to 1916, to a small nightclub in Zürich, Switzerland, called
Cabaret Voltaire. Inside, the German author, poet, and founder of the club,
Hugo Ball, has taken the stage. He wears an absurd costume made up of
various tubes encasing his limbs and body, lobster-like claws protrude from
his arm tubes and, to top it off, a hat resembling a chef’s toque covers his
head. He is reciting his new poem “Karawane,” consisting of a bunch of
nonsensical words (or, more appropriately, sounds). The audience looks on,
This moment has long been marked as the beginning of the avant-garde
art movement known as Dadaism, or simply Dada. These artists formed the
movement as a reaction to the horrors of World War I and rejected the logic,
reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society. Instead, they embraced
the illogical, the irrational, and the nonsensical. The word itself—“dada”—
sounds like the babbling of a baby, although there is no official consensus on
where the name came from.
The art of Dada spanned the gamut of everything from poetry and painting
to collage and sculpture. Dada can be difficult to nail down as a cohesive
style or aesthetic, but one unifying principle reigns supreme: complete
absurdism. Today, we see evidence of the Dada absurdist credo all around
us, from the pervasive world of internet meme culture, to the outright circus
that dominates our daily news media. It seems the most enduring aspect of
modernism has been the mass appeal of absurdism during times of great
uncertainty. J
It’s the 21st century and, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed
that data is everything … and everywhere. So obviously humans are going to
turn it into art. I mean, what a waste if we didn’t.
The broadest definition of data visualization is the use of graphics and
pictures to represent information. However, an entire subset of scientists,
artists, and coders have taken this practice to a new level. Data visualization
artists turn scientific datasets into visual representations. This can be done
by using data to produce an abstract image on a computer screen (as in a
music visualizer), or the same data can be molded into a three-dimensional
sculpture using predetermined criteria. That same data could then be
translated into music or brushstrokes or steps in a performance piece or
really any other thing you can possibly imagine. While the artist sets the
parameters and chooses the data sets, the numbers guide the direction of that
artwork and the end result is a beautiful collision of art and science. What a
time to be alive. C
Datamoshing is the process of creating video glitch art. It sounds very fast
and violent, but is essentially corrupting the data of a video file to create
visually interesting glitchy effects. The practice hit the scene in the early
2000s and went mainstream in 2009 when Kanye West used the technique for
his “Welcome to Heartbreak” music video.
I’m sure my elementary explanation will enrage all coder bros
everywhere, but here goes … The three main types of datamoshing are: file
destruction, I-frame destruction, and P-frame duplication. File destruction is
pretty straightforward—you mess with the video’s code by replacing random
bits of data with other random bits of data. With I-frame destruction, you
remove important image data (I-frames) and images from previous frames
end up stuck on top of the motion of the following frames. With P-frame
(predictive frame) duplication, you duplicate the P-frames and you end up
with a trippy, colorful blooming effect. It’s all very fun to look at. Especially
when certain substances are involved. C
In 1918, Dutch furniture designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld made a chair.
Over one hundred years later, we’re still talking about it. The chair in
question, known as Red Blue Chair, is made up of intersecting panels of
lacquered beechwood, painted in primary colors. While Red Blue Chair
doesn’t exactly look like the coziest chair to curl up in, it is hugely important
in the history of modern design because it was one of the first times the
theories and principles developed by the De Stijl movement were put to task.
De Stijl, Dutch for “The Style,” was a Dutch modern art movement
founded in 1917. Artists, architects, and designers came together to promote
the art of geometric abstraction, primary colors, and an overall emphasis on
pure abstraction. The Dutch artist Piet Mondrian provides us with the best
visual example of De Stijl principles. You’ve probably encountered his work
before: stark white canvases broken up by grids made up of thick, black
lines. The rectangles made by the grids are sometimes painted a bold,
primary color or are left white. The basic idea behind De Stijl was that a
universal language of form could be achieved using geometric shapes and
simplified color, and modern design could be codified into a cohesive,
easily applicable style (The Style, get it?). J
Traditionally, the term “decolonization” refers to the political process by
which a colonized population becomes independent of its colonizing country.
This process is most often the result of revolution (violent or nonviolent).
I’m sure you’re at least vaguely familiar with political revolutions and wars
of independence, as there have been endless examples all over the world
throughout history. If not, it’s time to use that big beautiful brain of yours and
get to researching, because this stuff is important.
Contemporarily, the word “decolonize” has taken on a much more
comprehensive meaning. It has come to mean the conscious undoing of
narratives developed by colonial powers, as well as the dismantling of
social and political structures that are rooted in colonialism or that unfairly
benefit colonial powers (there are plenty of them).
This concept comes into play in both the art world and academia a lot. In
the art world, the need for decolonization can be seen with issues such as
repatriation of artifacts to their countries of origin, equal representation of
artists, and highlighting marginalized voices. In academic institutions this
work can be seen through incorporation of postcolonial theory and the
decolonization of classroom syllabi.
See our entries on Eurocentricism, postcolonialism, and Orientalism
for more information and then consult more resources, and then more
resources. Decolonizethisplace.org is a great place to start. This is an
amazing action-oriented collective carrying out powerful and necessary
political and arts-based work. Most importantly, listen to the voices that have
been silenced or undermined. Make space. Do the uncomfortable work.
We’re all in this together and we all have a great deal of unlearning to do. C
* cracks knuckles *
Alright, let’s talk philosophy in <200 words. Deconstruction defines the
20th-century philosophical technique invented by the Algerian-born French
philosopher, Jacques Derrida, for using a text to dismantle itself. He said, to
disprove a piece of writing, you only need to use that writing, or as he
famously put it: “there is no other text.” Derrida’s method attacks writing
from within, using the words of a text as the basis for a counterpoint
argument. This is because he believed language to be subjective, meaning
there is no collective understanding of language, and therefore multiple
meanings can be extracted from a single piece of writing. Multiple
interpretations? That’s contradictory, folks. Basically, Derrida said “no, no,
no” to what Western philosophers had been saying since ancient Greece: that
language holds objective meaning, and therefore writing in that language
holds objective truth. Derrida saw this as a thinly veiled attempt for
powerful institutions to achieve their own self-serving objectives. Instead, he
insisted that the appropriate response was to break it open and deconstruct it
from the inside out.
Because deconstruction aimed to dismantle powerful structures, why not
use it—literally—to deconstruct powerful structures such as, say, buildings
Deconstructivism is a postmodern architectural style that developed in the
1980s from the philosophy of Jacques Derrida’s (see deconstruction). Its
aim was to reject the basic tenets of modern architecture. I know, sounds
dangerous. Pioneers of the style weren’t interested in making structures less
safe, but instead focused on design elements and expanded beyond the
traditional reliance on the cube and right angles. As Iraqi-British architect
and designer Zaha Hadid asserted when asked about the unusual use of
angles in her designs, “There are 360 degrees, so why stick to one?” That
logic is evident in her design for the new Antwerp Port House, in Belgium, a
modern structure constructed on top of the existing early-20th-century
building. Her addition looks like a giant glass bow of a ship jutting out over
the water. Words (just as Derrida claimed) don’t do it justice, so go do a
quick internet search, I promise you won’t be disappointed. N
See The Blue Rider.
If you’ve ever been to a gallery or museum, chances are you’ve heard the
term “derivative” thrown around at least once or twice. I would stand to bet
that it went something like: “*sigh* … that is so derivative of [insert artist,
movement, or aesthetic sensibility of choice here].” Perhaps the person
saying it is wearing eyeglasses with very gaudy (very expensive) frames—
some designer brand you’ve probably never heard of. Maybe they think they
are better than you … hmmm.
This word is often used disapprovingly when someone wants to suggest
something is unoriginal, uninventive, and unimaginative. It may not be
straight-up plagiarism, but it’s cliché, stale, tired, trite, banal (all good
words to use in a gallery if you really want to sound like an epic tool). But
people like our hypothetical snooty gallery-goer have given an otherwise
very useful and descriptive word a bad rap. For, in the simplest terms,
something or someone is derivative simply when they imitate the work of
another person. Personally, I believe that everyone and everything is
derivative in one way or another. Art is not created in a bubble, and it’s okay
to take inspiration from someone else’s work. Just change it up a little bit so
it doesn’t look like you copied the homework. J
See The Situationist International.
DESIGN (n./v.)
If you learn anything from this book, please let it be the genuine importance
of good design. To design is to create, so everything ever made by humans
was technically designed: buildings, cars, pieces of furniture, graphics, back
scratchers, snuggies, Squatty Potties, and so much more. If you choose a
career in design, there are so many different directions you can go with it.
There’s interior, graphic, urban, landscape, product, exhibition … just to
name a few.
Many creations begin with a physical design—a plan drawn up before
the actual assemblage of an item. Fashion designers draw designs of their
garments before sewing a sample (often called a pattern), artists sketch
designs before beginning a masterpiece, and a graphic designer designed
this book before it was printed.
In the modern world, especially, design impacts us every day. If you’re
not convinced that bad design can be all that bad, just remember the Palm
Beach Ballot scandal of the 2000 U.S. presidential election. The designer
who created the ballots decided on a butterfly ballot design, so the candidate
names were staggered on either side of a central column of markers. It meant
that the order of names on either side did not correspond to their given
marker. So, VP Al Gore’s name was listed second, but his marker was listed
third, which meant that confused voters likely marked Patrick J. Buchanan of
the Reform Party when they had intended to vote for poor Al. To be fair,
amazing design rarely gets the attention that we give to design failures.
Taking the time to appreciate well-thought-out design is a subtle act of
practicing gratitude, and can’t we all use a little more of that? N
If you wish to sound rather sophisticated (I couldn’t even write that without
hearing the voice of the Dowager Countess from TV’s "Downton Abbey"),
the phrase “in dialogue” can be used to describe two artworks or ideas that
are in conversation with one another. Art can often be “in dialogue” with
major issues or concepts. For example, Juliana Huxtable’s 2015
performance There Are Certain Facts that Cannot Be Disputed provides a
rich, multi-layered perspective to the dialogue surrounding the issue of
Eurocentric institutionalized narratives of history. C
See German Expressionism.
Digital art is art made using some form of digital technology, such as a
computer or artificial intelligence. The term was born in the 1980s, the
decade of step aerobics and cutting-edge computer technology. Artist Harold
Cohen began working with a computer program called AARON, which was
a robot programmed to make large drawings on paper. Yes, robot art (see AI
art). In the decades since the creation of AARON, technology has continued
to advance, and artists are working with digital art in many ways, from video
manipulation to interactive digital art installations. Computer Generated
Imagery (CGI) is huge right now, and with today’s technology plus social
media, you can easily access digital art. Want to see some lil' aliens doing a
coordinated dance? Check out artist Marc Tudisco’s Instagram, I could watch
his surrealist animations for hours and he’s just one of many incredibly
talented digital artists out there. G
The art of producing and manipulating digital photographs. Unlike images
produced via film photography, digital photographs are represented as
bitmaps (rows and rows of tiny dots). These images are most often created
using a digital camera, however, there are other ways of producing digital
photographs. For example, if you scan a film photograph, the scanner uses
computer magic to digitize the image. In other words, it converts the image
into rows and rows of tiny dots, and you have yourself a digital photograph.
There are many gadgets and gizmos you can buy to become a digital
photographer, but all you really need is a tool that you are statistically likely
to already have—a smartphone. The quality of the tiny cameras inside our
phones is constantly improving, as are the photo-editing apps we use to
manipulate those photos. Technically, if you have an Instagram or VSCO
account, you’re a digital photographer and your feed is your portfolio. C
The size of a given artwork is known as its dimensions. This can include
length, height, depth, time, or breadth. Two-dimensional artwork includes
drawings, paintings, and photographs—anything on a flat surface. Threedimensional art is anything with a height, length, and depth, like sculptures.
Now if you’re into Dada and want to get into the fourth dimension, we
consider a fourth factor: time. *Insert Twilight Zone theme song*
Whether you’re working with two, three, or four dimensions, this
information can be extremely important when it comes to understanding,
curating, showing, storing, or transporting art. Entire exhibitions can be
planned and organized without actually seeing works, so having the wrong
dimensions can result in an art preparator’s nightmare. N
A diptych is one piece of art, comprised of two pieces. They can be painted
or carved on a variety of materials and are either joined together or hung
with space in between them. Because a diptych is meant to be viewed as one
piece, the composition on one panel usually relates to, or continues right on
to, the next.
Often, altarpieces are diptychs, with the panels hinged together so they
can be closed. Shutting an altarpiece diptych when not in use better protects
the art, keeping it safe from smoke, dust, grubby fingers, and so on. There are
also a variety of examples of diptychs in contemporary art. They are
practical for artists who want to make bigger works, but have cars that can
only fit a certain sized panel.
And you don’t have to stop at two! A polyptych is a more general term
used to describe an artwork made of multiple sections: diptych, triptych with
three sections, quadriptych with four, and so on. As you can imagine, these
get pretty elaborate.
The Flemish painter Jan van Eyck won the polyptych game with his
extravagant Ghent Altarpiece, completed c. 1432. Van Eyck painted twelve
panels for this masterpiece. A little over 15 feet (4.5 meters) long when
opened up completely, it depicts various scenes from the Bible, with Christ
the King (or God the Father) in the middle-top panel, flanked by the Virgin
Mary and John the Baptist. There are various singing angels, Adam and Eve,
and below them are prophets, apostles, confessors, martyrs, popes, and
angels galore. On the back are a number of angels and saints, and even the
donors for the work (because with the right amount of cash, you, too, can be
raised to the level of saintly folks). Because we don’t know enough about
Greek numbering conventions to figure out what to call this work, we’re
going to go with polyptych and call it a day. G & J
Welcome to Let’s! Get! Theoretical! I am your host, Michel Foucault and
today we are playing for an understanding of the flow of human history!
The word “discontinuity” can be defined as a distinct break in physical
continuity or sequence in time. Michel Foucault, widely considered to be one
of the leading voices in postmodern philosophy, used the term as a tool for
understanding human history, specifically the transitions between eras.
Foucault believed that discontinuities in knowledge and reason were likely
to occur during transitional periods of history.
As you can imagine, there is considerable overlap between postmodern
art and postmodern philosophy. Unlike earlier art in the chronology of art
history, postmodern art tends to represent the physical world inaccurately,
and sometimes doesn’t make a lot of logical sense. We often see a disruption
of narrative, which can be helpful in highlighting contradictions within social
structures or just straight up messing with your reality. For example,
experimental filmmaker Maya Deren plays with discontinuity in her 1943
trance film, Meshes of the Afternoon. The film does not follow a smooth,
progressive timeline (see continuous narrative), but moments are
interrupted and transitions occur abruptly. Instead of providing a cut-anddried storyline, the film relies on the repetition of certain visual motifs, such
as the image of a knife.
It’s safe to say that many of us have experienced discontinuity in our
lives. In Meshes of the Afternoon, Deren is expressing the discontinuity that
occurs in one’s memory after a particular experience. Moreover, the 21st
century has been a pretty crazy ride so far, and many of us likely feel that we
are experiencing the discontinuity of historical transition firsthand. That
feeling of “everything I thought I knew is wrong” or “nothing is as it seems”
or “what even is reality?”—that’s discontinuity! C
DISEGNO (n./adj.)
I love saying disegno—it makes me feel like a gallery director who has a
villa outside of Rome and has only lovers, not boyfriends.
Disegno is Italian for “design” or “drawing,” but the meaning is much
deeper than the literal translation. The term was first coined during the
Italian Renaissance. It emphasized an artist’s intellectual ability to create,
elevating them to a level with God. Can you believe? Artists were straightup kings in the Italian Renaissance. An artist credited with possessing
disegno was considered a master who could create works that were viewed
as superior to mere craft. Disegno dudes made art that inspired spiritual
contemplation, intellectual debate, and emotional epiphanies! Disegno,
disegno, disegno. Say it three times in front of a mirror in the dark and you
may see the ghost of Michelangelo. G
Divisionism—subsequently known as pointillism—refers to the artistic
technique developed and popularized by French artists Georges Seurat and
Paul Signac during the Neo-Impressionist movement of the 1880s and
1890s. The artist paints pure strokes of color as small adjacent “bricks.”
Though the paint dabs remain unblended on the canvas, they become mixed
by the viewer’s eye. This optical mixing of colors was based on popular
color theory of the time, and makes a painting appear more luminous. A
famous work of divisionism is Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of
La Grande Jatte painted in 1884. You know, the one Cameron has a moment
with at the Art Institute of Chicago in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
You’re probably more familiar with the term “pointillism.” At one point,
maybe you even had the pleasure of making your own pointillist masterpiece
using tempera paint and cotton swabs, like a tiny Vincent van Gogh. Though
many refer to this style of painting as pointillism, Seurat and Signac
preferred divisionism for its emphasis on the division of color—not on the
point-like strokes. So, out of respect for the OGs, let’s bring back the term
“divisionism.” N
DOME (n.)
It’s big, it’s round, it’s an effective architectural form—it’s a dome.
Humankind has been building domed structures since prehistory (some
archaeologists claim these forms go as far back as 19,000 BCE), using
materials such as mud, grass, hides, and in some climates, even ice. Since
domed structures popped up around the same time in ancient civilizations
throughout the world, we have reason to believe the shape has no single point
of origin. It seems to be a universal truth that humans just love a good dome.
So why the dome? Theories abound, but one of the most prevalent is that
the dome serves as a reproduction of the heavens on Earth. To the ancient
observer, the night sky appeared as a gigantic dome overhead, marked with
millions of stars, enclosing Earth in a protective womb. Perhaps this is why
the shape of the dome has been seen predominantly in funerary and religious
architecture. Regardless of the symbolism, one thing is for sure: we love
domes. J
Drypoint is a printmaking technique. It involves drawing onto a metal plate
(usually copper) using a sharp tool. Drypoint is part of the broader term
“intaglio,” which refers to any kind of printmaking that involves incising or
engraving a design into a surface. To make a print, the artist rolls ink over
the top of their engraved design and wipes off any excess. Some ink remains
inside of the engraved incisions, and it’s this that translates to the image
when printed. With drypoint, the lines incised in the metal plate have a slight
jagged edge (called the burr). When the plate is printed, the burr makes the
lines soft, and somewhat out of focus, giving a luscious, velvety look.
Because of the fragility of the burr, drypoint prints are typically made in
small editions. If you keep printing on the same plate a bunch of times, the
burr gets pressed right on out of existence. G
When something is Duchampian, it resembles, or brings to mind, the style of
modern French artist Marcel Duchamp. If you think such a word is too niche,
just know that Corrie, Jen, and I took a full grad-school course on this guy
and there was no shortage of material (shout out, Professor Housefield).
Duchamp was so prolific during the 20th century, that signs of his influence
are sprinkled all over. I mean, the guy invented the readymade for heaven’s
sake (meaning Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are Duchampian as hell).
American sculptor Alexander Calder’s mobile-like sculptures remind me so
much of The Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors,
Even) (1915–23). And British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s work with
headless mannequins brings to mind Duchamp’s Étant Donnés (1946–66). I
won’t even get into the many artists who have paid homage to Fountain
(1917). His widespread approach to art opened the door for many interesting
styles, techniques, and attitudes in modern art—and for that, he rightly earned
his very own adjective. R. Mutt (jk, it’s Nat)
The word “dynamism” comes from the Greek dunamis, which means
“power.” The theory is that all phenomena can be explained as
manifestations of force. If something is dynamic, it is constantly changing. It
is the opposite of static, which means staying the same.
The Italian Futurists were the first to use dynamism in relation to
artwork. This tracks, since they were particularly enamored with powerful
machines, such as trains and automobiles. In this instance, dynamism is
defined by motion in a pretty literal way. However, the use of the word has
broadened to mean a powerful sense of movement or energy expressed
through a work of art. In other words, if a work has energy, is exciting, and
makes you feel something powerful, you could say something along the lines
of: “This piece has such dynamism” or “The use of red in that painting is so
dynamic,” and you will look all smart and well-versed in art lingo in front of
your friends. C
Art created from the Earth! Well, technically, most art is created from the
Earth, but the terms “earth art,” “land art,” and “earthworks” all refer to art
made from raw materials such as dirt, rocks, trees, dead bugs—whatever you
can find. Many of these works have a sizeable, if not somewhat invasive
effect on the landscape. In this way, a land artist makes art out of our planet.
Earthworks date all the way back to prehistoric times (see prehistoric
art). Some early examples are the Nazca Lines in southern Peru, Stonehenge
in the United Kingdom, and the effigy mounds of pre-Columbian America
(see pre-Columbian art). In the late 1960s, an entire movement of land art
developed from the hippie movement. These free-minded artists wanted to
make art that was one with the planet, and many of them were influenced by
the aforementioned geoglyphs and effigy mounds of earlier artists and
cultures. These contemporary earth artists also adopted the rejection of
commodity championed by 1960s counterculture. By creating artworks that
were site specific, reliant on the natural landscape, and ephemeral in nature
(see ephemeral art), the earth artists hoped to escape the greedy clutches of
the art market.
However, capitalism is a relentless machine and many works of land art
have managed to make their way into the market. Nonetheless, massive
earthworks, such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) and Nancy Holt’s
Sun Tunnels (1976), make for a pretty rad and contemplative, art-meetsnature adventure. C
Effigy mounds are man-made hills of dirt, often shaped like animals. Such
mounds acted as landmarks and burial sites during the Woodland period
(1000 BCE–1000 CE) in pre-Columbian North American culture (see preColumbian art). The Native Americans who built effigy mounds inhabited
what is now the American Midwest, including Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin,
Illinois, and Ohio. Effigy mounds exist in the shapes of snakes, bears, birds,
deer, bison, turtles, panthers, and water spirits (I have no idea what a water
spirit is—that came straight from the Effigy Mounds Monument National Park
website). It’s believed that effigy mounds were considered sacred by those
who built them. Unfortunately, their significance remains mostly a mystery
because their history has been lost over time due to the oppression, forced
assimilation, and mass genocide of Native American tribes. History is a real
bummer sometimes. N
Embroidery is the practice of designing and decorating fabric using a needle
and thread, or yarn. You know what I really appreciate about embroidery? It
is so old. People have been embroidering for thousands of years, all over the
world, and the technique remains just as popular today as it ever was. Just
think about that collective human practice that has continued to endure, how
beautiful is that?
While embroidery certainly serves the practical purpose of mending
materials by stitching, people also use embroidery as a visual form of
expression. It’s fairly common to embroider clothing or more decorative
items such as rugs, table runners, and so on. Embroidered pieces can also
stand alone as framed works.
Due to the patriarchy frequently associated with art history and
embroidery’s own history as women’s work, the craft is often overlooked as
an artform. Historical examples, such as the massive 11th-century Bayeux
Tapestry, which conveys the Norman conquest of England, is a work of art.
Contemporary pieces by Iranian embroidery artist Ibrahim Jabbar-Beik are
also works of art. Embroidery is art! G
En plein air is French for “outdoors” and refers to the act of painting
outdoors. Obviously, anyone can paint outdoors, and artists have been doing
it for a long time, but in the mid-19th century, the French took it to the next
In 1830, a group of French artists formed the Barbizon school, which
took its name from the village of Barbizon, France, where these artists
gathered and painted landscapes that explored tonal qualities of light and
color. These early proponents of painting from nature went on to inspire the
Impressionist movement of the next generation, who took painting en plein
air as doctrine. Later on, Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh became obsessed
with painting outdoors and believed that only by living and working in the
middle of unspoiled countryside, could an artist truly understand nature. For
van Gogh, nature and art were inseparably linked, a position that would lead
him to have many arguments with his friend and fellow artist, Paul Gauguin
(don’t even get me started on that guy).
Today, painting en plein air has become a standard part of a traditional
arts education, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a painter to paint
outdoors! Go on, buy a cheap canvas, set it up in your backyard or a local
nature preserve, and have at it. If you have the ability to get out the door you
can do it! J
Not to be confused with tooth enamel, this enamel is a kind of paint that dries
to a hard, usually glossy finish. In the 20th century, artists such as René
Georges Hermann-Paul and Australian Sidney Nolan popularized the use of
commercial enamel paint in their works. Certainly, the look and finish of the
paint was the main draw for these artists, but something about the radicalness
of using industrial paints (most often reserved for use in manufacturing) made
enamel a choice medium for these artists at the forefront of their respective
movements. J
ENCAUSTIC (n./adj.)
The word “encaustic” originates from the Greek enkaustikos, which means
“to burn in.” The term refers to a process in which an artist mixes colored
pigments with hot beeswax before applying to a surface—usually prepared
wood or canvas. The artist may then use metal tools or special brushes to
manipulate the paint before it cools. Because the binding material is wax,
artists can sculpt with the medium too.
Given the Greek origin of the word, it’s fair to say that this method is
quite old. In fact, the technique is evident in the Fayum mummy portraits
from ancient Egypt (100–300 CE). The portraits, painted onto sarcophagi,
retain their vivid colors almost 2,000 years on! In the 20th century, American
artists such as Jasper Johns and Mark Perlman employed the technique to
create a dynamic body of work, so demonstrating the sheer versatility of the
medium. J
Everything dies.
I have a lifespan, you have a lifespan, and even art, despite our constant
attempts to keep it frozen in time, has a lifespan.
Ephemeral art embraces and explores this idea. An artist can achieve this
through a single occurrence, such as an non-replicable piece of performance
art, or through something more gradual, such as an artwork left to decompose
amidst the elements of nature. Ephemeral art hinges on the fact that it (and
everything) is fleeting and impermanent.
Every year, a bunch of hippies congregate in the middle of the Nevada
desert to celebrate artistic expression during a nine-day festival called
Burning Man. And every year, massive sculptures are erected atop the
scorching hot sand, many of which are burnt to the ground at the festival’s
end. The sculptures are meant to exist as an element of the festival.
Ephemerality is what gives the works their impact, and what gives the
festival its name. Much like these sculptures, the entire “Black Rock City” is
meant to exist only temporarily and eventually the sculptures, the city, and the
experience reach their an inevitable end.
There are many reasons to explore ephemerality in art but, ultimately, an
ephemeral work of art shouts at the viewer that it is here now, so you better
appreciate it before it disappears. C
Ah, two of my favorite things come together. The word erotic comes from the
Greek god of sexual love, Eros. So, we call art that stirs up sexual feelings
erotic art. What constitutes erotic art and what exactly arouses that kind of
excitement can vary drastically—I’m not here to judge. Erotic images have a
long lineage, with examples existing from ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome,
India and Peru, among others. On a cultural level, eroticism looks different
depending on where and when the art was created. Images depict erotic
scenes between men and women, just men, just women, and even some
casual bestiality. Sexual acts represented in erotic art focus on pleasure, not
makin’ babies, and certain civilizations were more sex positive than others.
Major world religions like Christianity and Islam have never really been
down with images of an erotic nature, but that doesn’t mean that the
occasional sensual work didn’t slip by. Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture the
Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1647–52) was created for the Vatican in Rome and
represents the saint mid-heavenly vision—yet her face and curled toes allude
to a more familiar sensation.
During the Edo period in Japan, Shunga prints featured scenes ranging
from tender to downright explicit. Even considering the raunchier stuff, don’t
make the mistake of confusing erotic art for porn. According to poet and
feminist Audre Lorde, eroticism is a source of power whereas pornography
—its opposite—denies and suppresses erotic power. As she put it,
“pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling,” while “the erotic is a
measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our
strongest feelings.” Eroticism pairs perfectly with art as they’re both
examples of humans exploring their place and power in this chaotic world. N
ETCHING (n./v.)
An etching is created when you coat a piece of (usually) metal with a
protective, waxy layer before you carve into it with a fine needle, removing
the protective layer and exposing the surface underneath. Then, a layer of
strong acid is applied to the surface (or the plate is dipped into an acid wash,
called the mordant), attacking the parts that were exposed by the carving.
This acid “bites” into the metal, leaving behind lines sunk into the plate. The
result is a piece of metal that you can then use to create multiple prints. This
process was developed sometime around the turn of the 16th century and was
a very important technique for creating Old Master prints, but remains
popular today. If you want to try it for yourself, make sure you get some
formal training in the technique beforehand. Acid is no joke. J
As in, the academic study of art history is hopelessly Eurocentric. Just
kidding, I mean, it’s true, but I’m not without hope.
Eurocentricism is a bias in favor of Western civilization. It’s a
predominant tendency to view the world from a European or AngloAmerican perspective. This worldview can manifest in any number of ways
including: defense of colonialism and imperialism, organizing and teaching
academic disciplines in a way that unfairly prioritizes the work of
Westerners (cough, COUGH), or just believing that Western cultures are
better than others. The technical term for this is “European exceptionalism,”
and it’s the worst. C
An exhibition is a show of artwork traditionally held at a gallery, museum,
or art fair. Not to say these are the only locations they take place. I’ve seen
exhibitions in cafes, libraries, warehouses, and studios.
Types of exhibitions include solo shows (focused on a single artist),
group shows (a group of artists showing together), or a curated show (mix of
works chosen by a curator, usually related by a common theme). Exhibitions
often include short essays in the form of wall text, which is generally written
by the show’s curator. There might even be a catalog to accompany it—yay
souvenirs! A good exhibition—like a meal or a lover—should leave you
satisfied and maybe a little exhausted, but still curious and wanting to come
back for more. N
Fauvists: The wild beasts of the early 20th century. At least that’s what
critics called them (fauve is “wild beast” in French) and they just rolled with
it. But they were not wild in the wreckless, devil-may-care kind of way. No,
instead the Fauves were wild with their painting.
Fauvism was a short-lived art movement that took off in Paris c. 1905.
French artists such as André Derain, Henri Matisse, and Émilie Charmy
essentially took what the Impressionists did and amped it way up. Like the
Impressionists, the Fauvists focused on landscapes and leisurely subject
matter. However, they got expressive with their brushwork, dove further into
abstraction—and, ooohhh boy, the colors. C
Every definition of feminist art seems to be a little bit (some a lotta bit)
different. Some define feminist art as art that intentionally engages with
feminist theory (yes), while others define feminist art as art that specifically
focuses on a woman’s identity and experiences (no).
Like so many terms used to describe genres of art, the term “feminist art”
is often rejected by the artists its meant to define. Many womxn1 artists
refuse the label, making the excellent point that art by womxn about womxn is
often labeled feminist art, while art by men about men is labeled art.
Additionally, not all womxn artists wish to be categorized according to a
sociopolitical movement that they may or may not adhere to (fair).
Therefore, since this is our book and we can do what we want, we’re
going to take the opportunity to amend the terminology to the best of our
Feminist art is art that intentionally engages with feminist issues and is
most often associated with the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and
1970s. Feminist art sought to bring women’s perspectives to the table. A
particularly notable (and literal) example of this is Judy Chicago’s The
Dinner Party (1974–79), a massive triangular banquet table set with thirtynine places—each one for a different stand-up gal from history. Chicago
utilized traditional domestic crafts such as ceramics and needlework to
bring attention to the historical contributions of women in the arts.
The goal of feminist art is to create a dialogue surrounding issues that
were brought to light by feminist theory of the 1970s, such as: women’s
representation in the art world, women’s sexuality and eroticism,
matriarchy, criticism of male violence and patriarchal values, and
challenging historical portrayals of women in art. The work of feminist
artists of the 1960s and 1970s helped to knock down barriers and provide
space for future womxn artists. However, as we move into a world of
intersectionality, we may want to give extra consideration to what we label
feminist art.
Goddess bless. C
Fiber art is art made from fiber, yarn, or fabric. It is often differentiated from
the broader world of textile art, based on utility or purpose. Textiles often
serve an everyday purpose. For example, that beautifully crafted quilt your
grandmother made you serves the purpose of helping you achieve maximum
coze during the bitterly cold winter months. Fiber art, on the other hand,
prioritizes the aesthetic component of the medium and often includes using
fiber in unexpected ways. You might see an immersive installation made of
carefully arranged threads or, perhaps, a sculptural object made entirely of
yarn and discarded cloth fragments. The end result may not have a practical
purpose, but it sure looks cool. C
Figural representation in art means an artist is attempting to represent
figures as they appear in reality. All art represents something, but not all art
is representational. That’s because, in art speak, representational denotes art
that’s attempting to resemble a thing from the real world, and as you know by
now, plenty of art isn’t at all concerned with representing reality. Most art—
especially that made before the 20th century—falls into the figural
representation category. Because it resembles images that are familiar,
people tend to understand figural representation more easily than abstract art
(see abstraction), and it’s a universal truth that people feel more
comfortable with things they understand. As someone who hates feeling dumb
or just out-of-the-know, I completely empathize. It’s a great and comfy place
to start, and figural representation is a fantastic gateway drug into the more
abstract stuff. N
Film photography, also known as analog photography, is your classic
approach to producing photographs. In fact, it was the only approach to
producing photographs for over one hundred years, until the technological
world of ones and zeros pushed photography into the digital realm.
For any post-Y2K babies who might not be familiar, film photography
requires loading a roll of film into an analog camera. The film contains
certain chemicals, and when light enters the camera it interacts with those
chemicals, recording an image. After you fill a whole roll of film you take it
to a photo lab and have it developed. Keep in mind a roll of film is, at max,
thirty-six pictures, making it pretty difficult to capture the perfect selfie
without burning through an entire roll. The development process involves
more chemicals and a dark room (a room devoid of light specifically for the
processing of photography images). This part is fun. Working in a darkroom
is a hands-on process that can greatly affect and alter how an image turns out.
Also, as 90s television proved, edgy artsy heartthrobs are always hanging out
in dark rooms *wink wink*.
Although no longer common practice, analog photography is still alive
and well. Many contemporary artists experiment with analog photography
in a variety of ways, such as creating double exposures and using pinholes. C
FIN DE SIÈCLE (n./adj.)
Fin de siècle is French for “end of the century,” and was used as an art
historical term in Europe at the end of the 19th century. The term
encapsulated trends in decadence and symbolism in art, as well as literature
during the 1890s. Various artistic styles and movements are grouped under
fin de siècle, including Art Nouveau. Interestingly, with all its beautiful art
and emphasis on living the good life, there was an underlying apocalyptic
vibe during fin de siècle. The end of the century brought the idea that
civilization as people knew it would end, and radical change would occur.
Unfortunately, the doomsday concern of fin de siècle was somewhat
accurate: with the beginning of World War I in 1914, art movements such as
Art Nouveau abruptly ended in the face of war and post-1900s society was
indeed radically altered. G
A floor plan shows the layout of a space from an aerial perspective. It is
extremely valuable for architects and designers to have a to-scale drawing of
the room or building they are working on. Floor plans can be two- or threedimensional, but always represent a single floor of a given space—hence the
name floor plan. N
Fluxus is weird.
The word is Latin for “flowing,” so think "in flux". Lithuanian-American
artist George Maciunas said that the purpose of Fluxus was to “promote a
revolutionary flood and tide in art, promote living art, anti-art.” In
“founding” Fluxus, Maciunas basically just gave an international collective
of avant-garde artists, poets, designers, and composers a label. So, what is
it? Well, it’s not a movement or style. The primary way these artists engaged
with the avant-garde was through performance events or “happenings,” as
they called them.
The main idea driving Fluxus was a desire to completely erase the
boundary between art and life and to challenge the concept of easily
commodified high art. This would deliver art to the masses. In fact, the
masses—that is, the audience, were integral to Fluxus performances. Works
often required audience participation, with one of the most famous examples
coming from an AHB fave, Yoko Ono. In 1964, she performed Cut Piece for
the first time. Ono invited the audience to cut away at her clothing as she sat
completely still and expressionless on the stage. Ono would perform Cut
Piece several times over the years. This is in line with the Fluxus belief in
anti-art: by creating several editions or variations of a work they could
deliberately devalue the object or “piece.” Ultimately, the world of fine art
found a way to commodify and commercialize Fluxus art (look up French
artist Ben Vautier). Capitalism, uh, finds a way? J
“Folk art” is the term used to describe art that is engaged with the cultural
traditions of a given community. It is often created outside the confines of the
established fine art world, and what does and doesn’t constitute folk art is
widely debated. Often, folk art displays a handcrafted aesthetic and can
include everything from embroidery to needlework, to basketry, to
woodcarving, to stone-masonry.
Furthermore, fine arts such as painting and sculpture can fall under the
folk art umbrella. Anna Mary Robertson Moses (known as Grandma Moses)
began painting at the age of seventy-eight and received great acclaim for her
works depicting the simplicity of farm life and the rural countryside of
America. Moses made these works with the lifestyle and traditions of people
from this community in mind. Her series of paintings titled “Sugaring Off”
depict various idyllic, snow-laden scenes and they’re lovely as hell. Makes
me want to drink a mug of hot cocoa, get bundled up in my coziest gear, and
go build a snowman. Moreover, works of “Sugaring Off” have been sold for
as much as 1.2 million dollars—a pretty nice chunk of change even by
contemporary art world standards.
The term “folk art” is decidedly more descriptive (and just better) than
the terms “naïve art” “outsider art,” or “primitive art,” all of which have
been used to describe this form of art-making. There are many museums
dedicated entirely to the folk arts and more and more big-name art
institutions have been incorporating folk art into their collections. Take some
time to get acquainted with this kind of visual material. Folk art has got a lot
of heart. C
To forge is to make a copy of something original with deceptive intentions.
When someone embarks on making a forgery, it’s pretty much always illicit,
which is why it is also fascinating. The art world, often consumed with
concepts of originality and monetary worth, has been a breeding ground for
forgery for centuries.
German printmaker and painter Albrecht Dürer was the victim of
multiple forgers, who imitated his engravings so masterfully, they were able
to pass them off as Dürer’s work. The forgery of his work distressed Dürer
so much that he wrote an ominous threat to potential forgers at the beginning
of his engraved series “Life of the Virgin” (1501–05). He warned that,
should they try to replicate his work, they would find themselves in “mortal
danger.” Contemporary examples of art forgery exist, too. Jean-Michel
Basquiat left behind an artistic legacy when he died at just twenty-eight years
old. Because he has remained a tremendously popular artist, forgeries
passing work off as original Basquiats can sell for millions of dollars. G
FORM (n./v.)
Let’s not overcomplicate this: form is the basic shape of an object. Form—
the verb—is synonymous with create. For example, “the child formed the
play dough into the form of a pancake before attempting to eat it.” N
Formline art is a stylistic feature of indigenous North American art,
specifically from the Northwest Coast. A formline is a continuous line that
contains dynamic movement as it curves, expands, and shrinks to make
distinct designs. Formlines may contain figural representations of animals
or they might serve as more decorative and abstract designs within a
composition. Formline art is adaptable and suits various mediums including
painting, engraving, and relief sculpture. The lines move in beautiful and
lively ways that pull your gaze through a composition, a little journey for the
eyes, if you will. G
FRAME (n./v.)
How do I frame this … ? (it’s low-hanging fruit, but I had to). Frames are
structures that surround and/or support things such as doors, windows,
concepts, and (though not always) artwork.
The purpose of a frame can vary. Early frames were more like
ornamental borders. Prior to the invention of canvas, artists generally
painted on wood, and sometimes an ornamental border would be carved
once the painting was complete. Frames can also range in complexity. Some
artists like to include their signature or an important message for their
viewers on a frame—likely something about how amazing they are. Some
frames even have their own value, separate from the artwork they hold.
Today, picture frames are a staple in nearly every household. Placing
something in a frame underscores its importance. Entire stores are dedicated
to selling frames and there are companies dedicated to custom-framing your
items. Whether it’s a 19th-century Dutch still life, a family photo, or even that
pesky grad-school diploma still sitting in its mailing envelope, framing says:
“Hey, this means something to me.” N
Fresco is Italian for “fresh” and that is exactly right because frescos are so
fresh and so clean clean. Now that I’ve got that OutKast reference out of my
system, allow me to be an art historian. Fresco is an ancient technique of
painting quickly onto freshly laid wet-lime plaster, allowing the painting
literally to become the wall as it dries. Examples of fresco painting have
been seen all over the world, but we primarily associate the technique use
with the ancient Mediterranean and, later, the Italian Renaissance.
There are two types of fresco painting: buon fresco, which means “true
fresh” in Italian, where you paint into the wet, fresh plaster; and fresco
secco, secco meaning “dry,” where you paint on to dry plaster using a
binding agent such egg tempera or glue. Generally, buon fresco was the way
to go, as it was way more durable and longer-lasting. Painting on wet plaster,
however, is really hard to do and requires a general knowledge of chemistry
and the right climate. You have to know what your pigments will look like
when they dry. You can only do a section at a time, so if you mix your plaster
a little bit differently on the next section you paint, your pigment will be all
wrong when it dries. And how do you erase a work of art that has become a
physical wall? That’s right. You tear it down and start over. Ugh. J
In art and architecture, a frieze is a broad, horizontal band of sculpted
and/or painted decoration. It often features as a part of the roof section of an
ancient temple. Since it occupies such a prominent location, it usually
conveys important information, such as an epic story or event. Examples of
sculpted friezes exist all over the world, but ancient Greek and Roman
buildings are some of the best known, the most popular being the Parthenon,
in Athens. It was sculpted in high-relief, meaning the figures are raised high
on the surface of the marble. It most likely depicts the Panathenaic
procession that was a central celebration in Athens during classical times. J
Futurism was an Italian artistic and social movement that had its heyday in
the early 20th century. The focus was on speed. This meant embracing
vehicles of industry: planes, trains, and automobiles—all relatively new
forms that represented technological advancement at the time. Youth,
technology, and all things exciting were Futurist favorites. Although Futurist
art made a conscious effort to break from past artistic traditions, painting
(which is very traditional) remained the medium of choice to represent the
“universal dynamism” of the movement.
Subject matter ranged from speeding vehicles and locomotives, to the
pulsating energy of the industrial city, and even to the rapidly moving legs of
little dogs. Italian painter and sculptor Umberto Boccioni’s sculpture,
Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), best exemplifies the goals of
the Futurists: man becoming the “unique” machine, driving forward through
space, trails of energy emanating from his limbs and torso, toward a daring
new future (Futurism!).
Unfortunately, violence and war were also exciting to the Futurists, and
the movement’s leader, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (did I mention he was
also Italian?), tried to make Futurism the official state art of Fascist Italy in
the 1920s. Marinetti—an angry little man who advocated violence, cruelty,
and the hatred of women—failed in his crusade and, ironically enough,
Futurism was later deemed “degenerate” by the Fascist regime of Mussolini,
inspired by the Nazis' famous attack on the avant-garde in Germany. Tough
luck, Marinetti. J
1 The term “womxn” is an alternative term for the word “woman.” It is used as an inclusive term that
broadens the scope of womanhood to include femme/femme-identifying genderqueer and nonbinary
individuals. The term originated at the University of California, Davis! Shout out to the alma mater of
the Art History Babes.
A gallerist is someone who works in an art gallery, be it the gallery owner,
curator, or general employee. “Gallerist” just sounds fancy. Gallerists can
be artists and vice versa, but the two are not mutually exclusive.
What do you envision when you picture a gallerist? Perhaps someone in
all black, dramatic glasses, and an overreliance on the word “derivative”?
Maybe you think of Rashida Jones’ kind and passionate character from the
2009 movie I Love You, Man. Or Amy Adams’ cold and detached gallerist
role in 2016’s Nocturnal Animals.
Hollywood stereotypes aside, a gallerist’s role is to oversee the flow of
the gallery, particularly in regards to exhibiting art for the purpose of
promoting artists, drawing in clients, and drumming up art sales. G
A gallery is a room or building dedicated to the display or sale of works of
art. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong! There are several deep
philosophical inquiries into the concept of the gallery (hello, Inside the
White Cube? It’s the Art History Babes name-dropping you yet again; see the
white cube).
When you think about a typical gallery, what comes to mind? Do you
envision a white room with little to no decoration? Maybe some spotlights
overhead to draw attention to the art? Do you find yourself whispering for
some reason? Many have critiqued the gallery-as-sacred-space mentality that
controls how we look, read, and think about art. This conversation can get
very complicated and political, so I will gently tiptoe out of it and leave you
to consider: When you have looked at art, where was it housed? How did it
feel to see it there? Did it impact how you felt about the art? How would it
have looked in a room in your home? Discuss amongst yourselves. J
See voyeurism.
Genre paintings are paintings that depict people doing normal everyday
activities. Technically, people have been painting scenes from daily life
(such as feasting and hunting) since ancient times. Even so, for a long while,
art—and especially painting—was reserved for the religious and the rich.
When painting became an art medium that was largely only accessible to the
wealthy, daily activities fell out of favor for more “important” subjects and
scenes. This meant that there was an overwhelming number of narrative
scenes, portraits of the wealthy, royalty and/or religious figureheads, and
so, so many goddamn versions of the Madonna and Child.
What we now classify as genre painting in art history became
popularized by Dutch and Flemish artists during the 17th century, so that
period is generally considered to be the heyday of genre. Scenes were
picturesque and represented generic people rather than specific
individuals. One famous genre painting by Dutch painter Judith Leyster titled
A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel (1635) looks exactly as it sounds.
I’m not sure exactly where this scene would be a daily occurrence, or what
dear Judy was trying to say with this one, but it’s confusing, strange, and
infinitely more fun to look at than another Madonna and Child. N
A geoglyph is a large design etched into the natural landscape. They are
often massive in size and some, such as Australia’s Marree Man (a very
large man outlined in the ground), are visible from space. Geoglyphs can be
made using stones, gravel, trees, or dirt. Adding these materials to the
landscape creates a positive geoglyph, while removing one layer of earth to
expose the layer of earth below creates a negative geoglyph. The difference
in color that occurs with either type allows for the creation of designs and
symbols. Kind of like if you strategically peeled an apple to create a …
decorative apple.
People (and possibly aliens?) have been creating geoglyphs for centuries.
This includes the massive land art produced by ancient civilizations, works
produced by the contemporary artists of the earth art movement, and, yes,
crop circles. C
Geometric abstraction is simply abstract art made using shapes. As a style, it
began in the early 20th century, but artists were making art using geometric
shapes long before that. Shapes are fundamental to the way we understand
form, so geometry and art are tight. The early use of shapes in art was
generally decorative. For example, the ancient Greeks had a Geometric
period (900–700 BCE), where figures were especially angular and stylized.
Islamic decoration, in general, tends to be more pattern-based.
Twentieth-century geometric abstraction coincided with many an art
movement, including abstraction, Cubism, Suprematism, Constructivism,
de Stijl, and minimalism. The term generally refers to art made using
geometric shapes on a non-illusionistic background. My hands-down favorite
geometric artists are the Canadian-born American artist, Agnes Martin, and
Iranian Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. Agnes’s works are nearly all twodimensional, and explore the uncomplicatedness and balance found in simple
forms. Monir creates three-dimensional sculptures or mirrored works that
make you feel as if dimensions are multiplying before your eyes. Geometric
abstraction reminds us of all the amazing insight found through the simplicity
of formal qualities—in other words, shapes are cool as hell. N
German Expressionism was an early 20th century German art movement that
placed an emphasis on emotions and ideas over depicting reality
naturalistically. Artists wanted to show big emotions and did this with
energetic brushstrokes, bold colors, simplified and stylized forms, and a
focus on provocative subject matter. There are several potential theories as
to why this movement became so popular in Germany, but a leading
explanation is that the style provoked catharsis for artists seeking to express
the anxiety and despair felt before and during World War I.
A group that called themselves “Die Brücke,” or “The Bridge” in
German, are considered the founders of the expressionist movement in
Germany. Forming in Dresden, in 1905, its members saw themselves as the
“bridge” between the past and the present as they drew great inspiration from
Europe’s rich artistic tradition. They studied the painting and printmaking
techniques of German masters such as Albrecht Dürer and Matthias
Grünewald alongside modern examples of expressive colorists such as
Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse. The results were sharp and sometimes
violently clashing colors that jolted the viewer into experiencing a particular
emotion. Nudity was also a big fave and Die Brücke made no qualms about
depicting sexual themes (although to our period eye one hundred years later,
some of these works are mega questionable and problematic). Die Brücke
went on to become an indispensable part of a greater Expressionist tradition
and would go on to influence many future artists who looked to German
Expressionism as a crucial part of modern art. J
Gesamtkunstwerk is German for “total work of art.” The term is used across
disciplines including architecture, literature, music, and the visual arts.
Essentially, it’s another way of saying a work is the total package. In certain
cases, this can be a work that literally blends multiple artforms together:
performing arts, painting, and literature for example. In other cases, a
Gesamtkunstwerk could relate to an architect’s design for a building that
takes into consideration acoustics, ambiance, structure, and interior
decoration—a total work of art. As with so many art-related terms,
Gesamtkunstwerk is a subjective label but it is a valuable tool for describing
a multisensory experience. Plus, it’s fun to say. G
GESSO (n.)
The unsung hero of painting, gesso acts as a primer for any number of
surfaces (wood, canvas, panels, and so on) that are to be painted on. In olden
times, gesso was made from a mix of animal glue (usually rabbit-skin glue—
if you are familiar with our logo, you’ll know we don’t like that!), chalk, and
white pigment. An artist would then use this mixture to coat a surface with an
off-white base that would help to absorb all manner of painting mediums,
from tempera paint to oil paint to water-based paints. It could even be used
to prep surfaces for the application of gold leaf (which we do like). Today,
you can buy acrylic gesso at the store and save yourself a whole lot of
trouble. However, many traditionalists refuse to call this commercial product
gesso at all because of its nonabsorbency and incompatibility with egg
tempera and some oil paints. Sigh … artists, I swear…. J
Oooh visual perception. Gestalt theory comes to us from the world of
psychology. It was developed during the early 20th century as a way to better
make sense of how humans perceive our material reality and, ultimately, how
that affects our psychological realities. In the present day, Gestalt theory is a
fundamental concept taught in design courses.
The theory says that humans are more likely to understand an image as an
organized whole rather than as a sum of its parts. Therefore, the goal when
designing images using Gestalt theory is to create a cohesive, unified image
that the human brain can easily understand. The six Gestalt design principles
are: similarity, continuation, closure, proximity, figure/ground, and
You are likely to encounter examples of these principles all the time,
every single day of your life. Surely you’ve seen some version of Rubin’s
vase? This image shows two faces in profile, looking inward at each other.
The negative space between the two faces creates the image of a vase.
However, the human eye can only perceive one of these things at a time. This
is an example of figure/ground. We humans see foreground and background
as two different planes of focus. Therefore, when looking at this optical
illusion, we can only understand it as the unified image of two faces looking
at each other or as a vase, but we cannot perceive both simultaneously. C
See gold leaf.
Giorgiooo! The OG art historian.
Giorgio Vasari was an Italian 16th-century painter, architect, and
historian. He wrote The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors,
and Architects aka The Lives of the Artists aka The Lives—a series of
biographies of artists of the Italian Renaissance. The Lives is often deemed
the most influential book ever written on Renaissance art history and is
considered the foundational text for the discipline of art history as a whole.
Thanks, George. C
GLAZE (n./v.)
Another multipurpose word! To glaze is to overlay or cover something with a
smooth, shiny coating or varnish. In the world of ceramics, a glaze can be the
vitreous substance that is fused onto the surface of clay pottery through
firing, giving it a shiny, protective coating. You can also glaze a painting by
applying a thin topcoat of transparent paint to a work. This can modify the
tone of an underlying color, making it more vivid and shiny. The term “glaze”
can also refer to a loss of brightness or animation, as in “boy, my eyes are
starting to glaze over with boredom from reading this entry.” Sorry, folks,
they can’t all be bangers. J
“Globalization” is a term as broad and vast as the Earth herself, and there are
various debates about its positive and negative effects. With technology and
industrial growth, we are living in a world of increasing accessibility.
People are able to travel to more places than ever before, and we can now
access far reaches of the globe via technology.
A relatively new concept in the art world, globalization came into play in
the late 20th century. Artists and curators conscious of globalization often
think about global identities and how art can connect people all over the
world. Art production and sales have become far more international, as
opposed to being largely local. You can see examples of the globalizing art
market with various online art sales platforms that sell all over the world or
art fairs with venues in multiple international locations. The positive side of
globalization is that it breaks away from the Euro/Western-centric art canon,
celebrates art produced all over the world, and reckons with postcolonial
artistic identities. Artist Yinka Shonibare, for example, is a British-Nigerian
artist whose work visually questions what traditional art looks like in our
blended, global modern world.
But there are two sides to every coin, and there is also a side to
globalization that elicits fear and wariness. The phenomenon is viewed as
being fueled by corporate greed and billionaires who drive art sales to
specific regions that are already quite wealthy. When only a handful of big,
affluent cities are dubbed art centers, this excludes artists, art professionals,
and the art market from developing in smaller and/or less economically rich
places. In short, you shouldn’t have to move to a big city like London or New
York to get an art-related job, but oftentimes this is the reality.
Globalization gives us a lot to chew on, doesn’t it? G
It’s hard to resist the universal allure of gold. Artists are not immune so,
naturally, they figured out a way to paint with gold. You read that right. Not
using gold paint, but painting with actual gold. They use the material gold
leaf—actual gold that has been hammered down over and over until it’s
thinner than tissue paper. Artists apply gold leaf using glue, an action known
as gilding. Gold that’s hammered down, but not quite to the thinness of gold
leaf, is called gold foil. Because gold can be safely ingested, chefs even use
gold leaf to decorate fancy dishes. In the wise words of Minnesota-based rap
duo Atmosphere, “when life gives you lemons, you paint that shit gold”
(leaf). N
GOTHIC (n./adj.)
Hearing the term “Gothic” conjures up images of dark cathedrals with spires,
stained-glass windows, and kids wearing all black clothing and eyeliner. All
of which are technically correct. At some point, Gothic art got a bad rap—
probably around the same time people started referring to the Middle Ages
as the “Dark Ages.”
The word “Gothic” has a long history, beginning with the original Goths.
The Visigoths and the Ostrogoths were early East Germanic tribes who the
ancient Romans fought back in the 4th–6th centuries BCE. Romans considered
the Goths to be barbarians (a name they used liberally for pretty much anyone
“other”), but the Visigoths must’ve been pretty skilled warriors considering
they sacked Rome in 410 CE. We won’t go too far down that road, but it’s
important to note the source of the term to understand exactly the insult that
Renaissance historians were aiming to inflict when they named the recent
style of the Middle Ages: Gothic.
Gothic architecture was popularized in France beginning in the 12th
century. Unlike the other widespread medieval style, Romanesque, Gothic
pervaded popular culture. Architecture, books, and paintings appeared in the
Gothic style, but so did everyday items such as clothing, chairs, and spoons.
It also spread internationally, becoming a popular style across Europe.
The architectural trend began with Gothic cathedrals, but eventually
spread to secular buildings. Elements of Gothic architecture include spires,
pointed arches, flying buttresses, stained-glass and rose windows. The style
fell out of favor in the 16th century, with the beginning of the Renaissance
and a return to a more classical aesthetic. Then some architects in 19thcentury England decided to bring back the spires and a Gothic Revival
happened for a short while. There’s even a genre of literature dubbed Gothic
fiction, which centers on themes of darkness, romance, and melancholy. More
recently, the term “Gothic” is commonly used to describe post-punk rock
music, often stereotyped as people wearing black clothing with spikes—
which are basically just tiny spires. N
Gothic’s back baby! At least it was, for roughly 100 years starting in the late
Gothic Revival, also referred to as Victorian Gothic or neo-Gothic was a
popular architectural style of the 18th and 19th centuries that took inspiration
from the Gothic style of the Middle Ages.
The resurrection of Gothic style was, in many ways, a visual response to
Enlightenment thinking. Romanticism arose as a popular ideology, acting as
a counter-balance during the Age of Reason. This involved a harkening back
to the good ole days (the Middle Ages, according to Romantics). Romantics
found value in emotion and the mystical, and this challenged all the reason
and logic of the Enlightenment. And what’s more romantic than pointed
arches and flying buttresses??? No really, tell me. C
An effin’ rose window. That’s what. N
GRAFFITI (n./v.)
Graffiti is an artform as old as time. Since people have been able to write
their names, they have loved writing them on walls. There’s something
empowering about it—it says “I am here!” or perhaps, more accurately, “I
was here!” If you have a small child, you’ve likely experienced this
phenomenon firsthand. No matter how many times you tell them no, your
clean eggshell-white dining-room walls end up covered with crayon. And the
thing is, you can’t even be mad, because a blank wall is an objectively great
place to write!
While there are endless examples of graffiti throughout history, the
contemporary graffiti aesthetic is often characterized by the use of spray
paint or marker pens, and is commonly associated with hip-hop culture and
the anti-establishment punk movement. Several types of graffiti exist,
including tags, stencils, throw ups, posters, and stickers.
The word “graffiti” has long been used derogatorily to describe a
specific type of vandalism. In other words, if an artist tags a wall without
permission by the wall’s owner, there may be legal implications. The term
“street art,” on the other hand, is often used to describe commissioned
public art or that produced with permission from a building’s owner. The
line here gets real blurry. If a high-profile street artist tags a wall without
permission, it may receive acclaim from the art world, whereas the work of a
lesser-known artist is more likely to be removed or painted over.
The argument surrounding graffiti is a complicated one, and it’s obvious
why an artist may have a differing opinion than a police officer. Not saying I
support the destruction of property, but I do support art … and I am a bit of
an anarchist. C
Despite what the word “graphic” may imply, a graphic novel is not a sexy
sex book (although there are plenty of sexy graphic novels). In this instance,
the word “graphic” is referring to highly detailed, vivid pictures. A graphic
novel is a story presented like a comic strip—in a series of detailed
illustrations often with the help of captions or emotionally expressive thought
The difference between graphic novels and comic books is subtle. While
a comic book often tells a story in a periodical format released over several
issues (think of those classic superhero comic books they won’t stop making
movies about), a graphic novel is released in a longer book format and
finishes up the story in one or two books.
Sometimes graphic novelists work individually, creating the story and
designing the images. On other occasions a writer will pair up with an
illustrator to produce a graphic novel. For example, English writer Alan
Moore is widely considered to be one of the greatest in comic-book history,
having created classics such as V for Vendetta (1982–89). However, Moore
typically works with a creative team when producing these graphic novels. In
V for Vendetta, for example, the illustrator was David Lloyd.
Visual storytelling is the basis for a helluva lot of art throughout history.
Graphic novels are a contemporary example of the seamless connection
between books and art. C
Grotteschi is Italian for “grotesque” and, despite what we may associate
with the word, its origins are not, in fact, gross. Roman Emperor Nero was a
big A-hole, so after he died Romans left his half-constructed palace in ruins
and tried their best to forget about him. But Nero’s Golden House (Domus
Aurea, as it was known), was later discovered during the Italian
Renaissance buried underground in what was referred to as a grotto (cave or
hollow). Nero’s Golden House was full of sculptural and painted
decorations depicting mythical creatures that blended human, animal, and
plant forms together. Italian Renaissance artists were all about this style of
art, which they called “grotteschi” since it was discovered in a grotto. See?
Not grotesque at all. The style soon became the hippest form of decoration in
16th-century art. A few centuries later, the term “grotesque” expanded in
meaning to refer to figures that were somehow fantastical, weird, ugly, or
disgusting, and so on—closer to our perception of the grotesque today. Who
would have guessed that art in Nero’s buried palace would have inspired
such a fascinating art and etymological history? No one, that’s who. G
GUILD (n.)
Guilds developed during the Middle Ages as professional trade groups. As
towns and cities began to grow, guilds emerged in tandem with urban
development and helped regulate trade. There were guilds for painters,
sculptors, goldsmiths, carpenters, doctors, and merchants. You had to be a
member of a guild in your town or city in order to produce and sell whatever
your trade was. This meant that outside competition was limited, and there
was an emphasis on local professionals and the services they provided to
their area.
Guilds were typically religious organizations, often dedicated to a patron
saint. Saint Luke was both a painter and a doctor according to the Bible, so
he was a patron saint for both painter and medical guilds. These guilds
would organize feast days in Luke’s honor and commission or produce art
that hailed him. Guilds were all about working hard, sharing business with
your bros, giving back to the community, and repping your saint. G
A long, narrow, horizontal strip used in East Asian calligraphy or paintings,
a handscroll is read flat on a table, in sections beginning from the right and
working toward the left. It depicts a continuous narrative or journey.
Usually painted on paper with a protective and decorative silk backing, by
the Eastern Han period (20–220 CE) the handscroll became a standard format
for paintings in ancient China.
Poems, flowers, stories accompanied by bucolic scenery, and scenes
depicting aspects of life in the imperial court are all common subjects. A
famous example, titled Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies
(c. 5th–8th century), illustrates a poetic text written to provide advice to the
women in the imperial court. The scroll depicts images and stories of life in
the court, including exemplary behavior of historical palace ladies, and the
consequences of not following the advice of the author. In one scene, the
emperor rejects an imperial consort with a look of disdain. In the next scene,
the consort reflects on her conduct, probably regretting not checking herself
before she wrecked herself. J
An East Asian tradition (and not to be confused with a handscroll), this kind
of scroll hangs on a wall, in a similar fashion to a painted work in the
Western tradition. Not intended for permanent display, they are rotated
according to season or occasion. Both handscrolls and hanging scrolls are
works meant to be appreciated, contemplated, meditated upon, and then
eventually put away. J
Abstraction but e d g y. (So sorry for the awful dad joke.)
Hard-edge abstraction is geometric abstraction meets color-field
painting. In the late 1950s, a group of artists, largely based in California,
wanted to move away from the expressive, gestural style that was so popular
in contemporary abstraction. Instead, hard-edge abstraction focused on flat
shapes defined by hard, clean edges. This style was also commonly referred
to as “California Hard-edge” (which sounds more like the name of a 1990s
surf punk band) and was practiced by artists such as Karl Benjamin, June
Harwood, and Frederick Hammersley. C
The Harlem Renaissance was an arts explosion that arose in 1920s New
York and petered out during the Great Depression—because not having any
money can really hinder creativity (#supportartists). This Renaissance had
everything: poetry and literature, music, drama, dance, fashion, philosophy,
and visual art.
A dynamic self-expression of African-American culture and identity, the
movement marked the first time in modern American history that black artists
were celebrated on a large scale. It explored themes such as the “doubleconsciousness” of the African-American experience, celebration of African
cultural heritage, the experience of discrimination, challenging of
stereotypes, and performing black identity in a white world. In 1925,
philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke called for the development of a new phase
of distinctly African-American culture represented by an independent
community. Self-expression was to be a means of achieving personal
freedom and overcoming internalized beliefs caused by oppression.
The Harlem Renaissance was built by creatives of all kinds. Augusta
Savage was a sculptor, educator, and activist. In the 1930s, Augusta founded
the Savage School of Arts and Crafts and the Harlem Artists Guild to
continue fostering creativity during the difficult economic times of the Great
Depression and to support a second generation of Harlem artists. Even
though the depression negatively affected the momentum of the Harlem
Renaissance, and gentrification in Harlem has greatly altered the vibe of the
community in recent decades, the movement left behind it a legacy of
impactful work that remains integral to African American art history. C
A headdress, by definition, is any garment worn on a person’s head. While
this definition is broad enough to include trucker hats, visors and those hats
with cup holders and straws—I want to focus on the ceremonial headdress.
You know the one I’m referring to—often large, regal, and worn by leaders
across the world to represent power; the cousin to the crown.
Headdresses are the ultimate statement piece. Think about it … when
have you ever heard of a casual headdress? Never. Putting a fancy accessory
on your head to represent authority must be pretty universal, because rulers
from every country have had their own versions of the headdress.
Native American headdresses vary depending on tribe and are often
beautifully and delicately crafted. The Sioux tribe was one of the few who
wore large, feathered headdresses, or warbonnets. The feathers came from
golden eagles, each one earned through an act of bravery. Queen Nefertiti of
ancient Egypt had headdresses so epic, that Beyoncé TWICE wore replicas
of them during her 2018 Coachella performance to pay homage and draw on
some of those intensely powerful queen vibes. So, take it from Queen N &
Queen B: headdress = power. Disclaimer: that’s not permission for anyone to
wear native or native-inspired headdresses to music festivals (you know
who you are). N
The term “Hellenistic” refers to a historical period lasting around 300 years,
and during which ancient Greek culture was damn flourishing. The
Hellenistic period began after the death of Alexander the Great, lover to
many and conqueror of much land. The Greeks were expanding their empire,
and these ancient colonizers were everywhere, including parts of Africa,
Asia, the Middle East, and swaths of Europe—it was a big time for Greece.
As a result of their territorial expansion, other aspects of ancient Greek
culture also grew, including art production. The main artforms produced
during the Hellenistic period were sculpture, painting, mosaic, clay pottery,
and architecture. Because the Greeks were feeling themselves during this
Hellenistic period, there is a great deal of recorded history, both textually
and visually, of their antics—for example, sculptures depicting all the battles
the Greeks won. G
Hierarchical scale, sometimes referred to as hieratic scale, is an artistic
convention that uses size to convey the importance of a subject. For whatever
reason, humans tend to associate “huge” with “very important” (think
skyscrapers, monster trucks, and a certain part of the male anatomy).
Hierarchical scale was often used in ancient Egyptian art to depict power
and status. The most important person in the scene was really big, the least
important was really small. At least when it comes to hierarchical scale,
bigger is, in fact, better. C
Hieroglyphs (from the Greek hiero meaning “holy,” and glyph, meaning
“markings” or “writings”) were used as the ancient Egyptian alphabet, and
either worked phonetically or symbolically to represent the words they
depicted. For example, an image of an Egyptian vulture does not literally
represent a bird, but rather the letter “A” because of the sound it relates to.
That being said, the hieroglyph that represents the sun, looks like a sun and
does not have to do with the sound, so it’s kind of a mixed bag.
By the 5th century CE, hieroglyphs were no longer practiced in Egypt and
the ability to write and read them was lost, until they were decoded
approximately 1,400 years later. The eventual translation of hieroglyphs
came from a cultural battle of wits between the English and the French in the
18th century. Napoléon Bonaparte was campaigning in Egypt in order to gain
more territory in the East Mediterranean and press up on England’s control
over India. While preparing to lay the foundation of a fort, Napoléon’s army
discovered what is referred to as the Rosetta Stone, a decree made during the
reign of Ptolemy V. Inscribed into the stone are three languages: hieroglyphs,
demotic, and ancient Greek.
Both the French and English wanted to crack the code of the mysterious
hieroglyphs, but the stone ended up in British hands. Plot twist: Despite
British ownership of the stone, it was a Frenchman who realized hieroglyphs
were not solely ideographic (picture writing) but also related to the sound of
ancient Egyptian language. Jean-François Champollion announced his
findings to the world in 1822. G
First off, not a school. The Hudson River School was just a group of dudes in
the mid-19th century living and working in the Hudson River Valley of New
York who loved to paint landscapes. To be fair, many of them attended the
same school— The National Academy of Design, and even shared the same
studio space.
It all started with a meeting of the Bread and Cheese Club. This very
real, very elite club was made up of writers, scholars, and artists, such as
Hudson River School poster boy, Thomas Cole. The connections made
during these bread and cheese gatherings led to the unified style of American
art known as the Hudson River School.
The Hudson River School was greatly influenced by Transcendentalism
(You ever read Walden by Thoreau? The book about the guy who goes into
the woods for two years and thinks? That’s like the holy book of American
transcendentalism). Transcendentalists are all about nature—standing in it,
appreciating it, and painting it. The Hudson River School painters harnessed
this ethos to depict the beauty of the wild American landscape, unmarred by
The Hudson River School wanted to reject the influence of European art
and establish a national identity. However, the movement’s unofficial
founder, Thomas Cole didn’t agree with the fervent economic and industrial
expansion of the time. Not to mention, the paintings of the Hudson River
School are pretty in line with European Romanticism. Suffice it to say, the
works of the Hudson River School paint a complicated picture of westward
expansion. Images of individual explorers or small pioneer settlements are
set against glorious, awe-inspiring landscapes, yet the people are always
very small, to evoke a sense of the sublime. “You are tiny, nature is big and
powerful, bow to her beauty. And while you do that, I’ll be over here
manifesting destiny, no need to be concerned.” – The Hudson River School
(minus Tommy Cole maybe). C
Humanism is an “ism” that is all about humans—our agency, our value, and
our intellectual capability. It is a philosophical movement that emphasizes
individualism, human freedom, and education.
Elements of humanism have been around in one form or another since
ancient times, present in the philosophy of cultures from all over the world.
In art history, humanism is often discussed in terms of the Italian
Renaissance. In this case, it is aptly named “Renaissance Humanism.” This
is because the period was a hot time for the intellectual, and humanist ideals
were cleverly woven into Renaissance art. You may be, like, “Whaaat? I
thought Renaissance art was all about God and stuff.” Well, humanism, at
least in its early incarnations, didn’t reject religion. Instead, it emphasized
human power in the universe as an extension of God’s power. By
emphasizing individual ability, humanism preached that humans were not
meant just to obey some almighty power. Instead they were supposed to think
about stuff and learn things and create—just as the artists and scientists of the
Italian Renaissance did, who we still make such a big deal about today.
You can’t talk Renaissance Humanism without talking Raphael’s School
of Athens (1509–11). This fresco is wild with intellectualism. In this
painting, housed in the library of the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican, Rome,
Raphael painted every great classical thinker he could in that crowded
composition. We’ve got Plato and Aristotle in the center, surrounded by a
major “who’s who” of smart people from classical antiquity. Euclid,
Pythagoras, Ptolemy—they’re all there, holding books and chatting it up in a
glorious, barrel-vaulted, classically-inspired corridor. Raphael’s shout out to
human achievement, if you will. C
Historically, icons have been known to offend from time to time. Reasons
vary, but basically it boils down to believing that these symbols of the divine
can be more hurtful than helpful when it comes to worship. Now this
“problem” can be approached from either end: prohibit the creation of icons
(aniconism) or destroy already existing icons (iconoclasm).
In Islam, this manifests as aniconism, or the prohibition of representing
sentient beings (don’t represent them, just don’t). In part, this stems from the
belief that creating living beings is God’s prerogative. Additionally, there’s
concern that representing figures like prophets or the Big Man Himself leads
to idolatry—worshipping the image rather than the being it symbolizes.
Historically, fear of idolatry has served as a reason for implementing
iconoclasm—the systematic destruction or rejection of idols.
It’s important to underscore that not representing icons in the first place is
very different than destruction for the purpose of controlling a political or
religious narrative. In 2001, the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamyan in
Afghanistan. Tactics like this are designed to inflict fear and stamp out rival
belief systems—pretty lame. Instead, aniconism has led to alternative forms
of representation. People got creative and invented an entirely new Islamic
decorative style—pretty rad! N
Iconography is the study of images and their symbolic meaning. It can also
refer to a symbol or image itself, as the term comes from the Greek word for
image, ikon. Throughout the course of art history, artists have used specific
images to convey messages. Say you’re looking at a 17th-century Dutch still
life painting: there’s a beautiful arrangement of flowers, but some of the
blooms droop, browning with decay. It’s not like someone forgot to switch it
out with a fresh bouquet; this was intentional. The iconography suggests that
this is a reminder to viewers that life is fleeting and we’re all gonna die (see
memento mori, vanitas). Numerous examples of iconography exist in art.
This is because images contain symbols, and symbols have the ability to
visually communicate with humans in very powerful ways. G
Artistic idealization is just another form of representation. When art is
idealized, it means that the subject is represented in an ideal (rather than
real) way. Artists can romanticize people, places and things at their
discretion, and artistic idealization can range from subtle changes to extreme
ones—just think of it as the original Photoshop.
Ancient Greek sculpture is notoriously hot, but that doesn’t mean that
ancient Greeks were all walking around with perfectly chiseled muscles and
features. Certain civilizations practiced artistic idealization instead of
representing peoples’ likeness due to a belief that physical attributes
mirrored moral character (just imagine). With physical and internal beauty
being seen as one in the same, artists depicted people’s moral character over
their actual likeness, which explains the overabundance of hotness. The
ancient Romans used idealization for continuity. An idealized portrait of the
emperor was more easily reproducible and recognizable than a natural one,
and it was more important for citizens across the empire to see a consistent
image than a realistic one (see verism). N
Illuminated manuscripts are handwritten and decorated books, made before
the good ole printing press came along in the 15th century. Muslim and
Christian devotional books were popular in the Middle East and western
Europe. In order to make the text more alive, artists decorated letters,
designed intricate borders, and painted little scenes within the pages of
manuscripts. They are called “illuminated” because the painted decorations
inside appeared to light up the pages with vibrant colors and paints made
from precious metals such as gold and silver. Islamic illuminated
manuscripts featured beautiful and elaborate calligraphy. Artists painting
Christian illuminated manuscripts often included figurative scenes and
portraits. I love how detailed and intimate illuminated manuscripts are
because, unlike altarpieces, they were not painted on a large scale to be
viewed by a lot of people at once. Instead, they were made for a far more
personal purpose, such as reading the Koran or passages from the Bible.
Illuminated manuscripts are an early example of the vital and seamless
relationship between books and art. G
Illusionism happens when an artist wants to mimic the natural world through
painting. Skilled artists can use certain techniques to make 2D work appear
to be 3D.
Illusionistic art involves an unspoken agreement between artist and
viewer that the artist will do their very best to trick the viewer into a glimpse
of three-dimensional reality, or that the artwork is a continuation of the
natural world. In return, the viewer promises to play along. A suspension of
disbelief, if you will. While the natural world as we experience it plays a
role in illusionistic art, the understanding of illusion remains the most
important factor. An illusion of reality and actual reality are two very
different things. You wouldn’t go to see a horror film if you thought that
whatever terror chasing your protagonist could cross through the screen and
come for you next. In the same way, it’s extremely disappointing when an
illusion lacks conviction. We agree to the illusion of being terrified, only
when we can trust the effectiveness and safety of the illusion. Additionally,
“illusionism” as a term doesn’t cheapen the labor and skill that go into
planning and executing a painting with such lofty goals, while the consensual
deception allows for art to be experienced without discomfort. N
This is an illustrated book. While you’ve been reading along and chuckling at
our collective wit, you’ve also been looking at Carmen Casado’s stunning
An illustrator provides a visual interpretation of text. Illustrations are
powerful tools for bringing text to life through drawings or paintings. Images
and text have a harmonious relationship and illustrations can really enhance a
text, making for a more multisensory experience. However, illustrations are
not solely relegated to text, as they can also interpret more social constructs,
such as politics and pop culture. American comedian Abbi Jacobson, cocreator of the hilarious TV series “Broad City” (2014–19) is also an
illustrator and made a book illustrating what she imagines famous people
keep in their pockets and bags—brilliant. This is all to say that illustration
has personality. It’s an artform that can make us laugh, make us think, and
explain things to us: such as art terminology. *wink wink* G
Have you ever gotten up close to a painting, looked at it, and thought: “Those
brushstrokes are sensual as hell.”? That’s how I feel about impasto, a
painting style that involves applying thick, textured strokes of paint using a
brush or palette knife or other tool of your choice. It adds layers of texture
to create an additional dimension and sometimes even casts shadows. The
dry time for impasto varies, depending on the type and thickness of the paint
used. Old school oil paint takes days to weeks. Luckily, advances in paint
technology have yielded a magical gel. When applied to thick impasto, the
paint dries in a matter of hours.
Italian Renaissance and Baroque artists used impasto to represent small
sections of texture, such as folds in clothing, water droplets, or wrinkled
skin. With modern art, intentions became more emotive. Artists felt they
could convey emotion through the gesture of a brushstroke and that a painting
should be more than a smooth window into illusionism. Ultimately, impasto
adds dimension to the otherwise flat surface of a painting—literally and/or
metaphorically. N
Imperialism is when one nation decides to exert control over another nation.
Historically, this has largely been driven by military force and acts as a way
to spread one country’s culture and geographical territory into other places—
not unlike colonialism.
The word “imperialism” comes from the Latin word imperium, meaning
rule or sovereignty. Empires stretch far back into our collective human
history and have existed all over the world. The Roman Empire extensively
recorded and celebrated its imperial conquests through art that included
triumphal arches, columns, paintings, and mosaics. The ancient Romans
weren’t the only ones who made imperial art, but they do serve as a solid
example of imperial art and its impact.
In the late 1930s, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his fascist
goons invaded Ethiopia and claimed it as their own territory. Mussolini even
went so far as to say it marked the rebirth of the Roman Empire and likened
himself to the Roman Emperor Augustus … gross. He chose to commemorate
this expansion of imperialism by commissioning large mosaics depicting
Italy’s defeat of Ethiopia in an ancient Roman style. We all know how things
ended for Mussolini, but you can still see some of the mosaics today in
Rome, in an area Mussolini once dubbed “Imperial Square” (subtle). G
The style of painting known as Impressionism developed in 1860s France.
Largely considered one of the first truly modern art movements,
Impressionism was about capturing the visual impression of a moment. You
can also think of an impression as a sketch or preliminary drawing. French
Impressionist artists such as Claude Monet and Édouard Manet (yes, they are
two different dudes) used loose brushwork and lightened color palettes to
create a visual effect that evaded clarity of form and captured the quickly
shifting nature of light and color.
Looking at an Impressionist painting kind of reminds me of what happens
when I take off my thick-lensed, high-prescription glasses and gaze at the
world with my naturally poor eyesight. To be clear, I’m not throwing shade at
Impressionism. At times, I genuinely enjoy looking at the world through my
own blurry, blurry eyes. It can be a fun practice in shifting visual perception
and observing what happens as your eyes refocus. Something similar happens
when looking at an Impressionist painting—the image (or the impression of
the image) changes dramatically depending on the lighting and your proximity
to the work. This effect is expertly explained by the great Cher Horowitz of
Clueless fame: “She’s a full on Monet—from far away its okay, but up close
it’s a big ole mess.” C
Instagram art is not necessarily just posting art on Instagram, although that
can be an element of it. Instagram art involves using the social media
platform as a creative tool for expression (just like painting, sculpture,
video, or any other artform). This can include, but is not limited to: photo
editing, feed curation, use of visual narrative, designing aesthetically
interesting Instagram stories, meme creation, or posting poetic or thoughtprovoking captions. Instagram art is also inherently performative, as it
involves intentionally presenting an image of oneself to an audience—in
other words, performance art. Instagram art is essentially virtual mixed
The idea that Instagram can be considered art attracts a lot of haters (but
to be fair, whenever something or someone attracts haters it’s a good sign
they’re doing something interesting). Perhaps it’s because viewing Instagram
as an artform cuts out the museum or gallery as the middleman. I can open
up the app on my phone at any time, and not only look at the work of the
creatives I follow, but I can interact with it! Social media platforms such as
Instagram take accessibility to the next level. Creators have easier access to
an audience that may connect with their creative output, and this makes
establishing oneself as a professional artist much simpler.
It’s impossible to tell what the future holds for Instagram, and whether or
not Instagram art will stand the test of time. Right now, however, a whole lot
of people are using the platform as an artistic outlet, and many have made it
into a creative career for themselves. As someone who has spent several
years developing an Instagram presence, and is constantly learning and
experimenting with new and different ways to put the platform to creative
use, I can attest that it is, in fact, an artform. C
I work in an art gallery and one of my favorite gallery girl things to say is
“I’ve got an install tomorrow” or “I can’t hang out tonight, I’m exhausted
after my install.” I know it sounds pretentious, but it’s fun, just let me have it.
When I say these super cool phrases about my work, I’m talking about
installing a gallery exhibition. An installation involves getting works of art
ready to be displayed publicly in spaces such as museums and galleries. It’s
often a very physical process of hanging, moving, and arranging art.
Installation art refers to a single artwork that is often large-scale and
made specifically for a given site. Portuguese textile artist Vanessa
Barragão’s 20-foot-wide (6 meter) tapestry depicting the world in beautiful,
textural yarn at London’s Heathrow Airport is a great example of this.
Barragão was commissioned to make this piece and she designed it
specifically with the location in mind.
Just as the act of installing a surround-sound system in the living room is
hands on, art installations are very hands on, too. Even if you don’t work in a
gallery or museum, I encourage you to use my line, “I’m just so exhausted
after my install” to get out of obligations such as a Tinder date—they’ll be
confused sure, but they can’t really argue with you. G
Do you find yourself frustrated, angry, or just plain confused about the ways
in which the art world operates? Well never fear, institutional critique is here
to call out the bullshit. Artists working within the realm of institutional
critique make art that raises questions about how and why art institutions
operate in the way they do.
For example, conceptual performance artist Andrea Fraser’s 1989
performance Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk consisted of the artist
pretending to be a tour guide at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Fraser led a
tour group through the museum while bombastically describing not only the
art, but also the building’s toilets and closets. This work satirically brought
attention to the role of the museum docent, how the docent affects a
population of museumgoers, and how that affects cultural understanding as a
Institutional critique may challenge claims that the museum is a neutral
space, acknowledge the colonial history of object acquisitions (a lot of art
has been stolen in times of war and colonization), or bring to light how
venture capitalists control what art gets made, displayed, and sold. If a
particular artwork is addressing oppression, but is then placed in an
oppressive institution, what does that mean? A big complicated mess is what
that means, but hopefully one we can learn from. I’m not going to claim to
have the answers necessary to fix the deeply ingrained injustices of the art
world, but I will give a huge shout out to institutional critique artists—thanks
for doing the important work. Y’all are the real heroes. C
Let’s talk about text baby
Intertextuality is a literary device wherein an author uses another text to
shape their own text’s meaning. The most obvious and intentional forms of
this practice include the use of quotes, allusion, translation, or parody. One
text uses another, previous, text in order to create a connection, which then
affects the audience’s understanding of that text. Literature and visual art
operate in similar ways. They are both methods of sharing ideas and telling
stories, and they often interact with one another. So it’s fitting that the term
“intertextuality” made its way into the art world.
A straightforward example of intertextuality in art is the widespread
parody of graphic artist Shepard Fairey’s 2008 Hope poster designed for the
presidential campaign of Barack Obama. The iconic poster depicts a
stylized portrait of Obama rendered in blue, red, and beige. The word
“HOPE” is written across the bottom. Other artists have parodied this poster
endlessly, using portraits of such varied characters as Batman’s the Joker,
Mr. Peanutbutter from the “BoJack Horseman” adult animation series, and
former president, George W. Bush. Fairey’s original image is undeniably
powerful and intrinsically political. Any parody of the image is automatically
working with the work’s original context to create a new meaning. It’s
In the last half century or so, the term “intertextuality” has broadened in
meaning to describe the ways in which the whole of culture interacts—be it
text, art, music, theater, or cultural tradition. It is a massively important
concept in the postmodern world. This is because postmodernism brought to
light the idea that nothing is created in a vacuum and that nothing is truly
original. All art interacts and stems from that which came before it.
“Intertextuality” is also becoming an increasingly popular term in
academic circles, especially because interdisciplinary studies are so hot
right now. And the interaction of different disciplines involves the interaction
of …
… text, baby. C
The Islamic faith bars the use of traditional figural representation, so artists
got clever and crafted a new decorative style that worked with the
religiously sanctioned aniconism, rather than against it. Islamic decoration
falls into one of three categories: geometric, arabesque, and calligraphic.
The use of geometry symbolizes rationality and is often used to reference
important numbers in the Islamic faith. Arabesque decoration refers to the
interlaced patterns of forms and foliage that are commonly used motifs in
Islamic decoration. Arabic calligraphy replaces figures. Not only is it
beautiful, but it provides great clarity as to who is being represented—
assuming viewers can read Arabic (I am not one of those viewers). It’s not
uncommon to see a combination of these styles, as seen in the Great Mosque
of Selim II in Edirne, Turkey, with its elaborately decorated dome. Tilework
and mosaic often decorate Islamic structures as they complement all three
decorative styles. N
The Italian Renaissance is often considered one of the pillars of Western art
history—at least, so sayeth the Eurocentric lords of art history textbooks.
That being said, the Italian Renaissance was, undeniably, a huge time for art.
Roughly, it spanned the 14th to early 17th centuries, and produced such
notable artists as Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Donatello.
Painting, sculpture, architecture, and music all flourished. This period is
too massive to group all of the art into one clear style so scholars often
subcategorize the Renaissance by century.
Starting in the 14th century, Italian artists and intellectuals were getting
into humanism. It drove them to think up new ways of expressing themselves
and coincided with a renewed interest in antiquity. Italy was filled with art
and architecture left over by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and Italians
developed an interest in ancient culture, art, and mythology. Paintings and
sculptures often depicted scenes from classical mythology, even blending it
with Christianity in some cases. Who knew Bacchus, the Roman god of a
good time could be symbolically linked to Jesus because of the whole wine
thing? In conjunction with the interest in Greek and Roman antiquity, artists
worked to perfect their crafts and some even developed new groundbreaking
techniques that included linear perspective.
The Italian Renaissance continued to pick up speed over the centuries,
later influencing other countries in Europe to embark on their own
Renaissance journeys (see Northern Renaissance). There is A LOT of
artistic content to digest, so consider this just a lil' appetizer. G
In 1853, Japan reopened its ports to the West after more than 200 years of
national seclusion. A tidal wave of foreign imports flooded the European
shores. On the crest of that wave, the woodcut prints of Japanese ukiyo-e
masters became instant favorites. Impressionist and Postimpressionist
artists began to incorporate the color, stylization, iconography, flattened
shapes, and use of perspective found in Japanese art into their work. While
aspects of japonisme reflect an authentic influence of Japanese art on
Western art, it also reflects European problematic notions of Japanese
culture, such as exoticism (see Orientalism). J & C
Juxtaposition is a side-by-side comparison of subjects that emphasizes their
contrasting nature. While not exclusively an art history term,
“juxtaposition” is frequently used when discussing art. Colors, shapes, and
ideas can all be juxtaposed. Pop artists of the 1960s brought imagery of
everyday, banal items into the realm of high art through their use of
juxtaposition. Artist and Catholic nun, Corita Kent created brightly colored
prints with famous quotes, song lyrics, and bible verses. By juxtaposing a
graphic medium with morally and socially conscious messages, she
produced visually simple works that are loaded with meaning. N
I’m a millennial, which means I’m broke and I love irony. That is why the
majority of the artworks I have purchased in my lifetime have come from
thrift stores and garage sales. My personal favorite is the triptych of painted
cats in a bent metal frame that hangs above my doorway. I love it with my
whole heart.
In addition to being cute and a little creepy, this work is undeniably
kitschy. “Kitsch” is an uppity artworld term used to describe art that is tacky
or overly sentimental. Kitsch is art that is thought of as surface level. It’s not
controversial and it does not offend. The word “kitsch” is very often used
derogatorily to describe something that is believed to be in popular, but poor,
taste (as opposed to the refined tastes of the high-cultured elite).
For many years American artist Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s “Dogs
Playing Poker” series (1903) was a staple of the lower-middle-class
American home/local dive bar scene. It depicts a circle of
anthropomorphized dogs sitting at a table playing poker. It’s funny because
they are dogs. And they’re playing poker. Dogs aren’t supposed to be able to
play poker. This work, despite its immense popularity and instant
recognizability, is rarely discussed in relation to other artworks of the time
or displayed in museum or gallery settings. It is not associated with “high
art” and is often intentionally divorced from it. It is quintessential kitsch.
From a theoretical standpoint, kitsch poses many interesting art
historical questions regarding the purpose and value of art. Additionally,
kitsch aesthetics have been widely embraced and subverted in the
contemporary art world (check out the entry on camp). Plus, kitsch is a
topic that is sure to come up when discussing the merits of a particular
artwork at that high-profile gallery opening.
“I just adore the minimalist feline triptych over there.”
“I don’t know honey, don’t you find it a little kitsch?” C
A beautiful Greek hunk of man made out of marble? But wait, I’m at a
museum not on a beach in Mykonos … oh, I must be admiring a kouros!
In ancient Greek, kouros means “youth” or “youthful boy,” specifically a
youth who is pubescent and ready to join the ranks of the adult male
community. The ancient Greeks produced kouroi (plural for kouros)
abundantly during the Archaic era (600–480 BCE), and they are some of the
earliest examples of ancient Greek monumental figure sculptures.
These statues were almost always standing in the nude and are likely to
have been either votive or commemorative in nature. However, they do not
tend to have any distinguishing features, which begs the question: Who or
what is being commemorated here? One popular theory is that the kouros is
an ancient Greek sculptural type that celebrates the beauty of the (masculine)
youthful bod.
The kouros also has a female counterpart, the kore (pl. korai) which
means “maiden” in ancient Greek (shout out to Corrie, whose name is
derived from the kore!). Unlike the kouros, a kore is always clothed in thick,
sometimes elaborate drapery and tends to have an extended arm.
Unfortunately, these arms are mostly broken off, which leaves historians in
the dark as to what they may have been holding. This only deepens the
mystery as to who these figures were meant to represent. Perhaps the kouros
and kore are meant to embody archetypal Greek ideals of masculinity and
femininity? We really do not know, but we can glean from their slight little
smiles (called the “archaic smile”) that they hold a secret that has been lost
to time. J
See earth art.
LANDSCAPE (n./adj.)
We have been looking at land for all of human history, so it makes sense that
we would paint it at some point. The depiction of natural scenery, such as
mountains, valleys, trees, rivers, and forests in art is broadly referred to as
landscape art.
There is a major tradition of landscape painting in both Western and
Chinese art, and each goes back well over one thousand years. In the case of
East Asian art, landscape paintings draw upon Daoist philosophy and are
used as tools to aid meditation and contemplation of nature. In the Western
tradition, the grand Romanticist landscape becomes the pinnacle of a
tradition celebrating a sublime take on the great power of nature compared to
the power of man.
The term “landscape” is also used to refer to a genre of photography. The
notable American landscape photographer Ansel Adams captured
breathtaking black-and-white images of the American West in the mid-20th
century. His interest in documenting the grandeur of America’s untamed
wilderness would go on to make him one of the most important
environmental conservationists in United States’ history. So, not only did he
capture images of the landscape, he helped take care of it for future
generations to enjoy Thanks Ansel! J
There is a great deal of overlap between landscape architecture and
landscape design, so pay attention.
Landscape architecture is the intersection of architecture and nature
when the natural elements of an existing landscape are expanded upon. The
ratios of the various elements vary depending on the circumstances. For
example, some projects require more architecture than nature, and vice
versa. Landscape architecture often refers to urban planning in relation to
parks and civic landscapes—Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Hyde
Park in London being prime examples. Landscape architects often complete a
design and pass it off to contractors for completion.
Landscape design, on the other hand, generally refers to researching and
designing a horticulture composition—that is, a garden. Landscape designers
assess a space and map out the design, including all plant and architectural
French Impressionist Claude Monet famously created a large garden
near his home in Giverny, France. It was here that he painted some of his
most famous works, including his waterlilies. Monet purchased the land near
his home so he could begin constructing a giant garden of exotic and ordinary
plants, alike. He had man-made ponds and a Japanese walking bridge built
into the garden where he let his plants grow rather than keeping them pruned
and contained. By curating his garden, but also allowing the plants to grow
wildly, Monet was collaborating with nature in a way (shout out, chance
And you can rest assured that I’m qualified to explain these concepts
because Corrie and I were basically landscape architects for a summer (in
case you were wondering, no, art history podcasting does not pay the bills
… yet.) N
Lapis lazuli is a semiprecious stone found in Afghanistan. When ground
down to powder, it creates a blue pigment for paint. The use of lapis lazuli as
a decorative stone, and as a pigment, dates back centuries.
When painted with, lapis lazuli creates an iridescent pigment with lasting
vibrancy. Such a property was very desirable for artists back in the day, who
struggled to find a permanent, vibrant blue paint. As such, the pigment
became a big deal in the art world. During the Renaissance, when merchants
began importing pigment made from the stone into Europe, the demand for
lapis lazuli grew. Stones were mined, ground down, and transported from
Afghanistan to the Netherlands and Italy in order for artists to paint that rich
The color name “ultramarine” comes from the lapis lazuli pigment, as
Italians called the color azzurro oltramarino —“blue from overseas.” Since
European painters had no local access to lapis lazuli, the ultramarine pigment
was coveted and incredibly expensive. And since the pigment was so
expensive, and its color so unique at the time, artists often applied it to
important figures in their compositions, such as the Virgin Mary. When
looking at paintings of Mary from the Renaissance, she is often cloaked in a
lovely and expensive ultramarine: only the best for Mary. G
Light art is the use of light—artificial or otherwise—as the primary medium
in a work of art. This usually takes the form of a sculpture or an interaction
with space.
Experimentation with light as an artistic medium can be traced back to
the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that light art was considered a
legit art movement. In the early 1960s, American minimalist sculptor Dan
Flavin became known for creating sculptures and installations from storebought fluorescent lights. A few years later, in 1966, James Turrell began
experimenting with light and its relationship to space.
Turrell is known for his light tunnels, light projections, and skyspaces.
His light projections rely on artificial light to give a sense of weight to
objects and spaces. His skyspaces, on the other hand, use natural light to alter
the viewer’s perception of a space. He constructs architectural spaces that
allow in natural light in a way that visibly affects the viewers experience of
the space. This occurs through various openings in the structure, including an
oculus (hole in the roof). It’s a whole experience that will make you rethink
your relationship to time and space. Ten out of ten; would recommend. C
If you were anything like me and my friends in college, then you were stoked
to discover the term “liminal space,” and promptly used it to describe
anything vaguely transitory. Technically, that is what a liminal space is —a
place of transition, a space of waiting, and the mysterious unknown. The
liminal space is the space between (shout out, Dave Matthews Band).
The beauty of the liminal space is that it can be anything if you try hard
enough. Let’s start with the obvious liminal spaces: doorways, airports,
stairwells—these are very literal spaces between two destinations. Then
there are liminal spaces that hold more poetic imagery—empty lighthouses,
abandoned barns in the countryside, vacant grocery stores at 2 a.m. These
liminal spaces evoke feelings rather than act as a portal from one physical
point to another. Where things get really wild is when the liminal space is
more of a concept: divorce, joblessness, the place between sleep and awake
(shout out, Peter Pan), or being left alone in an unfamiliar basement at the frat
party your roommate dragged you to (Thanks, Karen). C
Linear perspective is a system used in drawing and painting that makes it
possible to create the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional surface. In many
ways, it hailed the shift between the Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance
—as far as art-making goes, anyway (see Italian Renaissance).
The 15th-century Italian architect and designer Filippo Brunelleschi is
often credited for the discovery of linear perspective. He observed that, with
a single, fixed point of view, parallel lines appear to converge at a single
point in the distance. In a famous experiment, Brunelleschi used mirrors to
sketch the Florence Baptistry in perfect perspective. He was able to
calculate the scale of objects mathematically within a painting, in order to
make them appear realistic. This was a huge deal, guys.
Soon, other artists began to use this technique in their work, and thus we
were catapulted out of the flat, two-dimensional world of the medieval era
into the three-dimensional world of the Renaissance. This new world gave us
paintings such as the Mona Lisa, whose subject serves us some sassy,
secretive vibes with a mysterious, but believably vast landscape stretching
out behind her.
Although Brunelleschi was certainly responsible for popularizing the
technique in Italy, it is important to note that artists and sculptors from the
ancient Mediterranean world were using spatial depth in art far before
Brunelleschi’s experiments. The ancient Greeks and Romans understood how
to create an image with convincing depth, and painted or sculpted works
from these times show an interest in creating the illusion of threedimensional space (just check out the Column of Trajan in Rome, or the
painted villas of Pompeii for evidence of this).
Brunelleschi, in true Renaissance form, helped reinvigorate the interest in
this method of art-making from antiquity. You have him to thank for adding
even more mystery to the enigmatic Mona and, by extension, to the smoking
Mona hanging out in text art. J
See bronze casting.
The shape of the universe remains an elusive and incomprehensible concept
for most of humanity, but that has not stopped us from attempting to map it. A
mandala, meaning “circle” in Sanskrit, is a spiritual and ritual Hindu and
Buddhist symbol representing the universe. Usually, these diagrams have a
radial balance, with four gates (representing the cardinal directions of North,
South, East, and West) surrounding a center point.
In common use, the term “mandala” has become a catchall term for any
diagram, chart, or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos,
metaphysically or symbolically, and is understood as a microcosm of the
universe. These diagrams are used as an aid to meditation, something to be
repeatedly contemplated to the point of saturation, such that the image of the
mandala becomes fully internalized in even the most minute detail. These
works are often believed to embody divine and cosmic geometries and help
to serve the human drive to understand our world, using them to chart,
organize, and make sense of the unpredictable and imperceptible universe. J
Mannerism is a stylistic term applied to art made after the Italian
Renaissance, and before the Baroque period. It’s derived from the Italian
word maniera meaning “style” and Mannerist artists aimed to make their
work more stylized and dramatic than the work of Renaissance artists who
preceded them. The thought being: sure, it’s all well and good to make
realistic and beautiful art like Raphael did, but why not make it extra? Throw
in some bright-ass colors, contort and elongate limbs, create some real
Italian painter Parmigianino was all about that body, elongating limbs to
highlight his skill at rendering detailed flesh, muscle, and bone. His painting
Vision of Saint Jerome (1526–27) shows St. Jerome kneeling in a sort of
frat-bro lunge, pointing his finger up toward baby Jesus and Mary at the top
of the composition. Jerome’s arm is longgg, and his pointed finger looks like
two of my pointer fingers combined. It’s not that Parmigianino didn’t know
what a real arm and finger looked like—rather, he wanted to exaggerate it for
dramatic and stylistic effect. Similarly, when young Parmi painted SelfPortrait in a Convex Mirror (c. 1524), rather than “normalize” what he saw
in the mirror, he represented the distortions created by the mirror in his
portrait. His oversized hand rests at the foreground of the painting, almost
inviting the viewer into the scene.
Mannerists pushed the boundaries of representation and began
experimenting with artificiality and absurdism in art. Their strange,
serpentine figures represented a shift in ideology from “Man is the center of
the universe.” to “The universe is big and mysterious and who the hell knows
what’s going on?” G & N
See Carrara Marble.
A masterpiece is a work of art that’s exceedingly impressive in its skill,
design, and craft: a perfect specimen. When the word originated during the
Middle Ages in Europe, it referred to a work of art created by a prospective
member of a guild, as an audition tape of sorts. If their masterpiece passed
the test, they would be dubbed a master, and both would be acquired by the
guild. Masterpieces could then be shown to customers to present what a guild
could do. Think of it as the dessert in the display case at a bakery—it
represents what the business has to offer you, so they’re going to show you
the crème de la crème.
Eventually, the aforementioned type of work would be called a reception
piece, and the word masterpiece instead came simply to mean a really
badass piece of art. Oftentimes a masterpiece is considered the most badass
of a creator’s entire oeuvre. It can get rather academic and elitist if you let it,
but the idea of a masterpiece can simply be about recognizing the
achievement of a creator and appreciating the countless hours that went into
mastery of their craft. It doesn’t have to be that serious.
French novellist Honoré de Balzac’s story The Unknown Masterpiece
was written in 1831 and demonstrates a brilliant but tortured artist going mad
during his quest to create his own masterpiece. Spoiler alert: he ends up
setting himself and all of his canvases on fire in a fit of passion. This story
reminds us of the intrinsic problems with aiming for perfection in artwork—
or anything really. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, create your
masterpiece if you want, but don’t let it ruin your life. N
Remember what I said about contemporary art? How we’ve gotten to a
place in art where much of it has become undefinable? One way that
contemporary artists distinguish between the various forms of contemporary
art-making is by focusing on the art practice itself. The terms “materialbased practice” and “research-based practice” help organize the vast
plethora of contemporary art practices that exist today.
Material-based practice prioritizes physical materials such as glass,
metals, textiles, paint, and so on. This may seem a bit obvious to you. What is
art making if not making art with materials? Well, we live in a postconceptual art world and there is now another approach called *drum roll*
research-based practice, which prioritizes the research element of an
artwork—that is, the ideas and information that comprise the work. Materialbased practiced is centered around the physical, while research-based is all
about the conceptual. Some artists spend a lot more time thinking about an
artwork and researching necessary ideas than they do with actual materials,
while others are much more concerned with the materiality of a work and
how those materials work together.
While both concepts are important to understanding the whole of a work
of art, I think approaching the idea as a binary is kinda lame. More likely
than not, the art that you are looking at incorporated both methodologies in
some way. C
See Middle Ages.
“Medium” refers to that which makes up a given artwork. This can mean the
material used, such as acrylic paint, or the form it takes, such as
performance. French sculptor Camille Claudel used the mediums of marble
and bronze, to create eerily romantic sculptures, while Dorothea Lange
preferred the newer medium of photography.
Artists like Cuban-American performance artist Ana Mendieta played
with varied mediums. While she worked with some conventional art
materials, such as film, photography, and painting, she also dabbled in less
commonly used materials that included earth, blood, and the human body. The
concept of what art can be has opened up so much in our contemporary
society, that really anything can be an art medium if you try hard enough. N
Big rock! C
MEME (n.)
On the surface, memes (internet memes, specifically) seem completely
frivolous and mostly asinine—and don’t get me wrong, they totally are—but
there is so much more going on here, people! A meme is an idea, behavior, or
style that spreads from person to person within a culture and conveys a theme
or meaning. A meme acts as a unit for carrying a cultural idea, symbol, or
practice, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing,
speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked
The word meme was coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard
Dawkins and is a shortening of the ancient Greek word mimeme, meaning
“imitated thing.” Dawkins posited that evolution depended not on the
particular chemical basis of genetics, but only on the existence of a selfreplicating unit of transmission—the gene (betcha didn’t think we were
gonna talk evolutionary biology in this entry, huh?). In terms of cultural
evolution, Dawkins theorized that the meme exemplified another selfreplicating unit with the potential to explain human behavior within the scope
of cultural development (whew, I am already winded).
So, if the meme acts as a unit of cultural transmission, what do you
suppose is the vehicle for this transmission? The kings of copycatting:
humans! That’s right, we evolved to be damn good at copying information
and behavior (monkey see, monkey do, remember?). But we aren’t perfect,
so memes modifiy and change over time, creating new memes in the
But wait, what about internet memes??? I’m getting there … WE LOVE
THEM! Internet memes are where we get to see this phenomenon in action on
a daily basis people! Even if you’ve avoided social media like the plague,
you have definitely seen an internet meme. Usually these feature an image or
scene from pop culture that is instantly recognizable and is accompanied by
some kind of humorous text. Said images are hugely exploitable, are easy to
modify, change, and send off into the vast internet social network where they
rapidly spread, change, and spread some more (like a virus, hence “going
Internet memes are not only fascinating, they’re also ART. We at the AHB
believe they have become the manifestations of some form of Neo-Dada.
Memes are geared toward the absurd (and the more absurd, the better). As
seen in times of great uncertainty, we turn toward the absurd when we can no
longer make sense of the world. We are currently in such a time in human
history, so next time you see a funny meme, recognize it as the art that it is,
and send it to your friends, because we all need a good laugh while we
watch the world burn. J
The Latin phrase memento mori—meaning “remember you will die”—
emerged as a philosophy and grew into a prominent motif in medieval
Christian art. It serves as a reminder of mortality, and artists can achieve this
goal through the inclusion of a multitude of motifs, depending on cultural,
generational, and contextual factors. Common memento mori symbols include
skulls, hourglasses, clocks, fruit, flowers, and burning candles. Basically,
anything that reminds us that time is moving, and we are not exempt from its
Of all the memento mori symbols, the skull is the most universal.
Pendant with Monk and Death (c. 1575–1675) is a French Baroque
example of memento mori. Half monk face, half skull, this pendant is carved
from ivory and represents the juxtaposition of life and death. The artist is
unknown, yet the message is clear and lasting: eventually, we are all going to
While you could interpret the idea of memento mori as morbid, it is
mortality that makes life precious. Without the possibility of death, life
wouldn’t be worth living—it’s the ultimate paradox. So, remember to
appreciate the life you have been given, my dudes. N
MFA (n.)
MFA stands for “mother f’ing artist”—kidding, it stands for “master of fine
arts,” and it is the highest academic standing for an artist in the United States
(so basically the same thing). There’s no such thing as a PhD of fine arts—
although how cool would that be … “paging, Dr. Artist.”?
It’s a graduate school program for those who have already received a
BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts), usually lasting between two and three years,
depending on the university you go to. Fun fact: the first school to admit a
student into an MFA program was the University of Iowa (the coasts are
seething right now). An MFA is not to be confused with an MA, which stands
for “Master of Arts” and is applied to disciplines under the umbrella of
Bachelor of Art degrees, such as art history.
Acquiring an MFA is required to teach art at the college level, but it’s
certainly not necessary to be an artist. With that in mind, if graduate school
isn’t on the cards for you right now, don’t let that stop you from making your
MF'ing art. N
Midcentury modern can refer to a kind of sleek, 1950s-era style of furniture,
but it can also be used as a blanket term, covering various mediums and
spanning multiple decades. I usually visualize midcentury modern design by
picturing scenes from the television series “Mad Men”: bold colors, sleek
lines, geometric forms, cigarettes, and sexism! Those last two don’t actually
have anything to do with midcentury modern, but you get the vibe.
Midcentury modern began around the early 1940s, as industrial
expansion and the influence of European movements such as the Bauhaus
impacted design in America. During this time, Americans began to favor
function over decoration and preferred more minimal designs. America’s
post World War II economy was big-time booming, which led to mass
construction of homes. And people had to fill up those homes with furniture
and art! With this growth and prosperity came the idea that design should be
beautiful but, perhaps more importantly, efficient and accessible. Midcentury
modern remains a lasting style, in large part because of the emphasis on
affordable, contemporary design. It’s definitely in right now, so maybe get
yourself a sleek midcentury modern coffee table. You can put this book on it.
The medieval era, often described as the “Dark Ages,” elicits images of
plague, stagnated technology, population decline, war, and overall human
suffering. But just how “dark” were the Dark Ages? While we can say this
certainly wasn’t the very silly world conjured up in Monty Python and the
Holy Grail, it also was not complete misery, either. In fact, this period was
marked by technological and agricultural innovations, flourishing trade
routes, and the founding of universities (the University of Oxford being a
notable example). Therefore, in an effort to move away from the whole lightversus-dark model, we now refer to this era of European history as the
Middle Ages.
Art of the Middle Ages—often called medieval in style—was produced
in many mediums ranging from sculpture, painting, illuminated
manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, and mosaics. This art grew out of
the artistic heritage of the Roman Empire and the iconographic traditions of
the early Christian Church, as well as the artistic culture of Northern
Germanic and Eastern European tribes (we no longer refer to these early
non-Christian groups as “barbarian”).
Detailed geometric designs, interlaced animal and vegetal decoration,
stylized figures, and largely two-dimensional compositions are all common
in the art of this period. There are few human figures, and the ones that do
appear are often so highly stylized that they appear crude.
However, the artists of the medieval era were well aware of human
proportions and illusionistic painting techniques. For these artists, the world
of the living was just less important than the world of spiritual and ethereal
forces. Hence, the lack of naturalistic, human, and animal bodies was less
about skill and more about a preoccupation with otherworldliness. J
MINIATURE (n./adj.)
As a child who grew up playing with Polly Pockets, Hit Clips, and Hot
Wheels (we 90s kids survived so many choking hazards), I fully understand
the appeal of a good miniature. Making an object that’s otherwise ordinary,
mini, has become a staple in our current culture, and the term “miniature” has
come to encompass anything made smaller than normal. Just think about it:
mini soda cans, mini muffins, sliders (clearly I’m hungry) … we’re kind of
obsessed with making things mini.
In art history terms, “miniature” usually refers to one of two separate
painting styles. The first began in 13th-century Persia and the second
originated in 16th-century Europe. Both traditions stemmed from illuminated
manuscripts. The paintings ranged roughly between 1 and 10 inches (3 and
25 cm) tall and were valued for their portability. Persian artists learned to
paint at miniature painting schools, where each school taught its own, unique
style of painting (and by this I do not mean a painting school for ants, but a
school that taught the miniature painting tradition). In Western traditions,
these paintings were generally portraits that would represent allegiances.
These miniatures could be carried in a special case, or even worn in a
pendant around the neck. So, by this logic, I was saying more than I intended
by wearing that Polly Pocket pendant as a child. N
1960s art movement rejecting excess of Ab-Ex. Denial of expression. Sleek.
Sparse. Lots of white. J
MIXED MEDIA (n./adj.)
When a piece of art is made using multiple mediums, it’s called a mixedmedia work. It’s as simple and expansive as that. What’s more, “multiple”
can mean two or 2,000. This all began around 1912, when collages were
having a moment in Cubist circles.
Collage, which began as the paper-on-paper technique, naturally evolved
to incorporate other materials. When there became too many and/or unknown
materials being used in artwork, things got confusing, so the work was
simply labeled “mixed media”.
Mixed media generally refers to three-dimensional pieces, but also
includes many two-dimensional works. It’s a pretty inclusive term. Not to
confuse you, but the phrase isn’t only used by necessity, but sometimes by
choice as well. Artists can use the term “mixed media” if they want to keep
their actual materials a secret (so mysterious). Or an artist/archivist could
simply be feeling lazy and write “mixed media” to avoid listing a bunch of
materials. It truly just depends. N
Modernity! What a giant, crazy, beautiful, industrial mess of a thing, all in the
name of progress.
It can be pretty tough to grasp the use of the word “modern” in reference
to art. This is because, in everyday English, the word means “relating to the
present or recent times.” However, “modernist” is the label given to a lot of
art created c. 1860 to 1970 (very rough timeline here). Right off the bat,
we’re in a confusing situation, just as we were with contemporary art.
“Modern” is supposed to mean “the now,” but “modern art” is used to
describe art from over a century ago, which is most certainly “the then.”
To better understand the use of this terminology, we gotta take a look at
modernity. The word “modernity” describes the modern era and the dominant
attitudes and cultural norms associated with it. The early modern period is
considered to have begun in the 17th century, with the gradual rise of
Enlightenment thinking. Some believe that modernity ended during World
War II, when it gave way to postmodernity. Scientific explanation,
rationalization, industrialization, urbanization, and just a general notion that
humanity is always progressing is what modernity is all about.
Modern art and the philosophy surrounding it (modernism) intersects
with this historical framework, but it is also its own thing. The term
“modernism” encompasses a variety of art movements, including
Impressionism, Cubism, Art Nouveau, Fauvism, and so. much. more. One
thing all these movements have in common is their rejection of tradition.
They all took long-established ideas about art and threw them in the trash.
Modern artists experimented with new materials and meanings, challenging
the conventional purposes of art.
So, to sum things up, modernity is a historical time frame, beginning with
the Renaissance (aka the early modern era) and coming to an end with World
War II. It is characterized by rational thinking, the rise of industrial
technology, and progress with a capital “P.” Modernism and modern art, on
the other hand, relate to art created from 1860 to 1970 that embraced the
world of modernity and challenged traditional modes of art-making. They
also tend to be caught up on the idea of progress.
That’s my time. Good luck everyone. C
A monument is an object erected in a public space to commemorate an event
or particular person. Monuments take on various forms—from sculptures to
architectural sites—and have an extensive history. They provide a lot of
insight into the historical period during which they were commissioned and
Monuments. Are. Everywhere. Egyptian pharaohs erected obelisks as big
ole monuments to their times as rulers. Monuments all over the world
memorialize wars and those who have died fighting in them. Monuments can
often be politically charged, and with the passing of time as well as societal
values, monuments can become quite contentious. Former president of Iraq,
Saddam Hussein erected a giant monument of his likeness, but a year later the
United States Marine Corps secured a chain around the statue, bringing it
down with a tank. Once the monument toppled, Iraqis decapitated it and
dragged the head through the streets. Suffice it to say, people felt some type
of way about it. Monuments are constructed with a certain ideal or message,
but there are no guarantees they will remain accepted over time.
I meant it when I said monuments are everywhere, yet we often overlook
them because they are so ubiquitous. Like all art, monuments carry messages,
whether you agree with them or not. Times change, and not all monuments
hold up …. G
A mosaic is an artwork made up of small pieces of colored glass, tile, stone,
or other materials (fun fact: these are called tesserae). Often, these works are
decorative and are used primarily as interior decoration in homes and
churches/temples/mosques. Mosaics have a long history, with some of the
earliest examples dating back to the 3rd millennium BCE in Mesopotamia.
Mosaics had become widespread by the classical times (ancient Greece and
Rome) and continued to flourish well into the 6th century CE with the
Byzantine Empire.
Some of my favorite examples come from the Byzantine Basilica di San
Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. The interior of the basilica is covered with dazzling
mosaics depicting many different biblical stories, as well as showcasing the
devoutness of the Orthodox Roman Emperor Justinian I and his wife, the
Empress Theodora, who were said to be great patrons of the arts. The
splendor of these mosaics has not been lost even though they are over a
thousand years old, speaking to the enduring quality of the mosaic format. J
Mosques are religious spaces for Muslim group worship. The name derives
from the Arabic word masjid, meaning “a place for bowing down.” Fitting,
considering prayer has a central role in the Islamic faith and Muslims are
expected to pray toward Mecca five times a day.
The religion of Islam began with the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th
century, and quickly spread in the centuries following. All mosques are
modeled after the prophet’s home in Medina, where the first ritual group
prayers took place. Before this, prayer was a deeply personal and private
act. Soon after, however, mosques were erected across the fertile crescent
including modern-day Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. The oldest, the Great Mosque
of Damascus, dates from 706 to 715 CE.
While they don’t all look exactly the same, there are certain features that
come standard in mosques. One such feature is the large, square, hypostyle
prayer hall featuring rows of columns and pointed arches, and in which the
congregation gathers for prayer. Said congregation is drawn to prayer via a
minaret (tower), where the muezzin (crier) calls the faithful to worship.
Inside the prayer hall, the quibla wall signifies the direction of Mecca, and
the mihrab–a niche or chamber–is often (but not always) built into the quibla
wall. This symbolizes where the Prophet Muhammad once stood.
As with cathedrals, temples, and synagogues, these spaces are
considered sacred and visitors must abide by a certain set of rules. Figural
representation, for example, is a big no-no. Instead, Muslims have
developed their own Islamic decorative style that beautifies a space without
disrespecting the divine. N
MOTIF (n.)
In art, a motif is an element of an image. Often, it is repeated in a pattern or
design many times. Examples of motifs can be seen in ornamental or
decorative art, and commonly include plant, animal, or geometric elements.
One of my favorite textile motifs is the Persian buta or boteh. You’ve seen it
before: it’s that almond or pine-cone-shaped motif with a sharp-curved upper
end that’s used in the paisley textile patterns that decorate everything from
dresses to bandanas to curtains. J
MULTIMEDIA (n./adj.)
The term “multimedia” is used to describe artworks that are made up of more
than one kind of medium. Multimedia art can use combinations of text, audio,
images, animations, video, painting, sculpture, interactive content, and more.
You might be thinking, “How is this different than mixed media?” I am glad
you asked, dear reader. Mixed-media art incorporates various visual art
mediums, while multimedia art can include any form of visual art, plus other
artforms such as dance, literature, performance, music, and sound, as well
as other nonvisual elements.
Because multimedia art combines so many different aspects of human
experience, it is capable of causing full-on sensory overload. The Argentine
multimedia artist Andres Paredes created a huge participative, immersive
installation involving all the senses for DIVERSEArtLA at the 2019 LA Art
Show. The work, titled Trashumant, can only be described as an
environment. Visitors walk into this installation and are transported to a rainforest landscape, with cut paper resembling foliage in a forest. Four different
dioramas invite viewers to peek inside, where they’ll see butterflies,
luminescent crystals, clay skulls, and … smell different scents? That’s right.
This work had scents. Paredes, who is interested in remembrance and
evoking memories of his past in his work, incorporated the sense of smell in
this multisensory work, as scent is thought to have a stronger link to memory
and emotion than any of the other senses. Now that’s what I call some damn
good multimedia art. J
MURAL (n.)
A mural is any piece of art painted or applied directly on a wall, ceiling, or
other permanent surface. Murals are distinguished from traditional painting in
the sense that the space onto which the work is painted is harmoniously
incorporated into the picture. With this basic definition in mind, we can date
mural art as far back as Upper Paleolithic times, and the cave art in Chauvet
Cave in southern France (painted c. 32,000 BCE). The murals on the ceiling
and walls of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, painted by Michelangelo, are
magnificent examples from the Italian Renaissance. In the 20th century—
around the end of the Mexican Revolution—Mexico’s newly appointed
secretary of education, José Vasconcelos, commissioned public art projects
on a massive scale to promote the ideals of the Mexican Revolution to the
largely illiterate masses. Mexico’s most talented painters—such as Diego
Rivera and José Clemente Orozco—were recruited to paint massive murals
on the walls of government buildings and palaces, leftovers from the long
period of colonial Spanish rule. They painted grand compositions rich with
the themes of mestizo (or mixed) national identity, technological
advancement, and overall hope for a bright Mexican future. J
A museum is an institution in which items deemed historically and culturally
important are stored and exhibited for public viewing. These institutions can
be specific—say, contemporary art museums and natural science museums
—or they can exhibit multiple disciplines within one building. The name
comes from the Greek word mouseion for “seat of the muses,” which is fun.
The muses, if you’re not familiar, come from Greek mythology and were
beautiful ladies who represented different branches of knowledge, including
art, literature, music, and science. Their purpose was to inspire men. I don’t
think I need to make any kind of cynical comment here, it’s implied.
Museums educate and inform us through the various collections and
exhibitions they host. There are many different kinds of museums, just
waiting for you to discover them: the Sex Machines Museum in Prague and
the Idaho Potato Museum in the US, to name a couple. G
You begin your day with an anticipatory glow over your upcoming museum
trip. You’re titillated with excitement over the possibilities; eager to see that
new, temporary exhibition. You patiently read through all the wall text,
looking at each artwork, each artifact under glass. But you’ve been
wandering [insert museum name here] for nearly two hours. Skimming has
replaced reading; glancing has replaced looking. You’re tired, your feet hurt,
and your head is spinning.
This is museum fatigue and it is real—that specific exhaustion that
happens when you’ve spent a solid chunk of time touring museums and it
happens to the best of us. N
Mysticism is a big mysterious spiritual topic. Loosely defined, mysticism is
about connecting to and accessing some spiritual higher power. This can be
done in a variety of ways, including meditating and holding séances. Since
art is often an exercise in expressing personal feelings and experiences, it
may not surprise you that mysticism often comes into play in art.
When we’re talking mysticism and art, I can’t not talk about Hilma af
Klint. Hilma was an artist born in Sweden in 1862. People in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries were pretty into mysticism—spirits and cool,
spooky stuff basically (also known as spiritualism). Along with four other
women, Hilma started conducting séances. During these séances she made
contact with a spiritual entity from another dimension she called Amaliel.
According to Hilma, she received a commission from Amaliel to paint “the
astral plane” and “the immortal aspects of man.” Whooaaa. I don’t even
know what all that means, but Hilma clearly got it. Per Amaliel’s request,
Hilma went on to paint numerous abstract compositions that predate major
abstract and Surrealist painters. Because of her unique approach to painting,
Hilma is often labeled a mystic painter. Along with séances, she practiced
automatic writing and drawing (where you write or draw without
consciously structuring the letters or planning out what you’re drawing).
Mysticism and art clearly have a fascinating creative exchange. Interest
in mysticism took a dip in the 20th century and there were fewer séance
parties, which was unfortunate. However, the 21st century has seen a cultural
rise of interest in the occult and mysticism, which is a big part of why a show
featuring Hilma’s work at the Guggenheim Museum in 2019 broke records
for the most visited exhibition in the museum’s history. G
2 There are many critiques about meme theory, from challenging the notion that academic study can
examine memes empirically, to the idea that meme theory poses a threat to the serious study of
cultural evolution, but we don’t have time for all of that.
If you have ever taken an introductory art history class, chances are you’ll
have seen the Narmer Palette (also known as the Palette of King Narmer).
Dating from the predynastic period of ancient Egypt (c. 3000 BCE) it
measures a little over 2 feet (60 centimeters) in height and is made of
grayish-green stone. Both sides are decorated with detailed low-relief. On
each side, a king, identified as Narmer, is depicted in a series of ambiguous
scenes that are difficult to interpret and have therefore been the subject of
much speculation since the palette’s discovery in 1898.
But why have we all had to look at this stone slab in our Art History 101
courses? What makes it so important? As you’ll soon learn, old Narmer’s
Palette packs a punch as far as being one of the most useful objects for
teaching basic art historical concepts.
First, it was one of very few such palettes found in a controlled
excavation. By 1898, archaeology was an established field, but they were
still working out the kinks to become more scientific and less Indiana Jones.
So, this was a huge find for the discipline as a whole. Second, a number of
formal and iconographic characteristics on the Narmer Palette went on to
become the standard in Egyptian two-dimensional art for the following three
millennia. These include the way the figures are represented, the scenes
being organized in regular horizontal zones known as registers, and the use of
hierarchical scale to indicate the relative importance of the individuals.
Besides being hugely important for our understanding of ancient Egyptian art,
the use of hierarchical scale and registers helps us make sense of a lot of
other ancient works from around the world that used the same iconographic
On the palette we see Narmer in various scenes of battle. On one side, he
is shown wearing the crown of Upper Egypt, and on the other he is wearing
the crown of Lower Egypt. Because of this, the leading interpretation of the
palette is that it depicts the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the
rule of Narmer. This explanation works out with the timing of the unification
of the region, so we generally go with it.
As far as the palette itself is concerned, the object was ceremonial in
nature and was probably used to grind up pigments for cosmetics. So, we
have a multipurpose object, full of didactic (instructional) imagery that lends
itself to trying out your visual analysis know-how. This makes for a great
teaching tool and is why I will probably be yapping about this palette in my
classes until the eventual heat death of the universe. J
A narrative scene tells a story. This can be depicted as anything from one
single moment in an ongoing story to a whole sequence of events that unfolds
over time. Humans have used images to tell stories since forever, and there’s
some pretty solid evidence to suggest that the earliest art was in fact
Before the development of writing, narrative art didn’t have a whole lot
of organization and images were often displayed in a simultaneous narrative
style. This means figures and objects weren’t organized in any particular
order, like the paintings seen in the inside of caves from the Paleolithic era
(over 30,000 years ago!).
With the advent of literacy around the world, narrative scenes became a
bit more ordered and featured many different visual aids to help “read” an
image. Characters were sometimes repeated multiple times within a single
frame to indicate the passage of time and changes to the story (see
continuous narrative).
Today, techniques include the use of multiple frames to break apart a
story, in order to depict a particular scene or moment in each frame. This is
most common in comics and graphic novels. Characters might even be
repeated multiple times in a single scene to convey that multiple actions are
taking place at once (which can make following the sequence of events kind
of tricky).
Because a lot of the work we see throughout art history would have been
displayed to largely illiterate groups of people, narrative scenes were a
super important tool for relaying important stories to communities. J
Needlework is pretty much any work of art that requires a needle to produce
it. No, I’m not including the healing art of acupuncture, although an argument
could be made for it. The term “needlework” is reserved for textile artforms
such as embroidery, tapestry, needlepoint, crochet, quilting, knitting, and
stitching. C
When there’s empty or blank space in the composition of an artwork, we call
this negative space. While technically nothingness, negative space is far from
useless. More often than not, including negative space in a composition is an
intentional choice and serves a purpose by creating a sense of depth with
atmosphere or by drawing attention somewhere else in the composition.
For example, American artist Kara Walker masterfully—and pretty much
always—uses negative space in her art. Through films, books, prints, and
more, Kara creates silhouettes that bring to mind shadow puppets in order to
create work that navigates through some really heavy themes such as gender,
race identity, and trauma. She’s able to use negative space as a medium in
and of itself and sometimes, negative space and subjects seamlessly
interchange in her work. Negative space becomes subject, and vice versa. N
Neo-Impressionism—not to be confused with Postimpressionism—was
established by the 1890s, as a style of painting that offered an alternative to
loose Impressionist brushstrokes. While Postimpressionism is often seen as a
continuation of Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism was an entirely new way
of painting. These artists preferred to paint in the Pointillist or divisionist
styles. Once apparently dubbed a “scientific Impressionism,” NeoImpressionism involved more calculated and precise strokes (sounds super
fun, right?). This involved painting “bricks” of pure color that would all
come together in the eye to shape the image. Shout out, visual perception!
Basically, it’s an optical illusion where everything blends from a distance
and creates a cohesive image (now that actually does sound fun). N
First, let’s break down the word “neuroaesthetics.” “Neuro” means relating
to the brain or nervous system. “Aesthetics” means flip back to shown here,
this is an art dictionary, after all.
Neuroaesthetics is a relatively new field of experimental science that
studies aesthetic perceptions. Those studying neuroaesthetics are trying to
understand the brain science behind beauty. How and why does art affect our
perceptions? Why do certain works of art illicit intense feelies? Why are
some works of art considered “universally” beautiful? For example, why is
the Mona Lisa such a big effing deal? Is there something about the way in
which the image interacts with the human brain that makes it so? To attempt
to answer these questions, the study of neuroaesthetics utilizes a number of
scientific technologies, such as brain-scanning and eye-tracking technology.
The study of neuroaesthetics is inherently interdisciplinary, attracting
neuroscientists, art historians, artists, philosophers, and psychologists alike.
Such varied perspectives are necessary when approaching some of the bigtime questions about humanity that neuroaesthetics explores, such as the
evolutionary purpose of beauty. I mean, woah. C
New Objectivity, or Neue Sachlichkeit, was a German art movement
founded in the aftermath of World War I. It emerged as a challenge to
German Expressionism, and as the name suggests, New Objectivity
championed a return to unsentimental reality and a focus on the objective
It was characterized by a realistic style combined with a cynical, socially
critical philosophy. This was in stark contrast to the abstract, romantic, and
idealistic tendencies of German Expressionism. The movement’s leaders,
Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz aggressively attacked and
satirized the evils of society and those in power, and demonstrated in the
harshest terms the devastating effects of World War I.
The New Objectivity artists focused on visual sobriety—meaning nothing
in the artwork is “extra” or focused on emotional elements. The artists paid
special attention to the outlines of objects. Images were mostly static and
banal, lacking any of the dynamic energy seen in their Expressionist
counterparts. Often the subject of the work was isolated from any contextual
relationship, thereby calling its very identity into question.
The German artist Kathe Kollwitz exemplifies the tenets of New
Objectivity. The loss of her son during World War I led to a lifelong
exploration of the subject of mourning. Her works, mostly black-and-white
prints, depict images of bereaved mothers, ailing, fatherless children,
anguished parents, and general suffering and death. In a woodcut titled The
Widow II (Die Witwe II), from her 1921–22 print cycle “War,” Kollwitz
depicts the body of a distressed mother lying flat on the ground. The mother
holds her limp child, and both appear to be dead. A solid black background
surrounds the woman, completely devoid of human contact. Kollwitz
captures the horrors of death, war, and isolation in this simple yet devastating
work, and epitomizes the aesthetic pursuits of the New Objectivity artists. J
The Italians were not the only ones who had a Renaissance. Running
simultaneously with the Italian Renaissance, the Northern Renaissance
lasted from about the 15th through 17th centuries. Italy’s fervor for ancient
Greek and Roman art and culture became very popular, impacting artists and
artistic tastes in European countries north of Italy, such as the Netherlands,
Germany, Belgium, France, and England. Likewise, the Northern
Renaissance produced artists who were driving forward new artistic tastes
and techniques.
Many Northern Renaissance artists took an interest in painting more
illusionistically and subject matter was more focused on parables and scenes
from daily life. Take one of the period’s grandfathers, Jan van Eyck, for
example, who painted in what has become known as the Early Netherlandish
style. Look at any of his paintings closely and you’ll be amazed at the level
of detail in items such as fabric and jewelry. Van Eyck took painstaking
efforts to make his paintings look as realistic and detailed as possible, and
for that we raise a glass to you, Jan.
Dutch/Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch made wonderfully weird
paintings, such as The Garden of Earthly Delights (1495–1505). This
triptych depicts the Garden of Eden and Last Judgment and it is so wild and
fun—seriously, zoom in on an image of this painting, there’s a birdman eating
a lil' naked dude who has birds flying out of his butt and that’s only one of
many figures in the work.
The Northern Renaissance also saw advancements in printmaking
techniques, and was overall a hot time for print production. Our guy Albrecht
Dürer was one of the most prolific printmakers during the Northern
Renaissance and Italian Renaissance. That man got around. The Northern
Renaissance often doesn’t get as much attention as the Italian Renaissance,
but it was definitely a huge period of artistic production and innovation. G
The word “obelisk” derives from the Greek obeliskos, meaning “little spit”
or “skewer” and refers to its long shape that tapers to a point at the top.
Obelisks originated in ancient Egypt as monuments of power commissioned
by pharaohs. A pharaoh ordered the construction of an obelisk, which was
carved from one piece of stone (usually granite) and decorated with tales of
that pharaoh’s reign.
Obelisks in Egypt were huge and completely solid so they were crazy
heavy. But size and weight never held the ancient Egyptians back. They
frequently moved and erected obelisks in front of important structures, such
as temples and tombs. An obelisk physically marked a place of power and a
pharaoh’s right to rule through its sheer size. The ancient Egyptians believed
their pharaohs to be divine rulers on Earth and obelisks acted as a sort of
bridgeway between heaven and Earth: no average person could consider
commissioning or erecting an obelisk.
After the fall of the Egyptian Empire, Roman Emperor Augustus returned
from Egypt to Rome with various treasures; one such treasure was an
obelisk. These monuments have since spread throughout the world—those
from ancient Egypt, as well as those created since the fall of babe Cleopatra.
Now I will say something here that I did not say in my thesis: obelisks are
very phallic. Meaning an obelisk looks like a penis. It’s no secret that
buildings and monuments relating to power often look phallic, and if you
haven’t noticed that before, now you will—you’re welcome. G
Let’s start by defining the term “agency.” Agency is typically used in
reference to a human person and their ability to act on their own behalf. This
can also be thought of as one’s personal power and acts of exerting it.
In the world of art, object agency is the idea that an object has its own
power. This concept is kind of heady and, therefore, widely debated. Some
think about object agency as separate from cultural context or the personal
agency of the object’s creator. Others believe that an object’s agency comes
entirely from the object’s creator. If you’re on an archaeological dig and you
stumble upon a small stone figurine, does that lil' guy have agency? And if so,
is it because of the cultural and historical meaning we place on it? Or did it
have agency all by itself? Does our little stone friend have agency because of
the creator’s intentions? Or does it have agency because of its effect on the
Just another example of the fun, unanswerable questions art historians
think about all day. C
The word “oculus,” (Latin for “eye”), likely conjures images of people
wearing VR headsets, interacting in a virtual world created by a multibillion-dollar tech company in Silicon Valley, California. However, we at
The Art History Babes studied, well, art history, so we are referring to the
term that describes a round or eye-like opening or design, such as a circular
window or opening at the apex of a dome.
The oculus was first used in antiquity by the ancient Romans, one of the
most famous examples being that of the dome of the Pantheon in Rome,
finished in 125 CE. This oculus—an impressive 27 feet (8 meters) in
diameter—provides the only source of natural light to the interior of the
Pantheon. The oculus also helps lighten the load of a dome, which is weakest
and most vulnerable to collapse at its highest point.
The opening at the top of the dome blurs the boundary between outside
and inside, and allows for the elements, such as rain, to come through as
well. The interior is illuminated by the single beam of light that comes
through the roof of the dome, which creates an otherworldly sensation fitting
for a temple dedicated to all the gods of Rome. How epic is that? Because of
the oculus’s functionality in creating such impactful effects, it featured again
and again in later revivals of classical architecture. J
“Oeuvre” is a mildly pretentious way to say an artist’s entire body of
artwork. It means “work” in French and can be applied to any artistic
discipline. N
It seems like everything you see in a museum is “oil on canvas” or “oil on
wood panel,” but have you ever wondered what that even means? Well, if
you have, today is your lucky day. Oil paint is a type of slow-drying paint
that consists of particles of pigment suspended in a drying oil. Traditionally
linseed oil is used, although other oils, such as poppyseed, walnut, and
safflower oil can also be used.
The use of oil paint dates back to the 5th century CE in works from the
Middle East, but it wasn’t until the 15th century that it became the principal
medium for creating artworks. Giorgio Vasari credited the Northern
Renaissance painters, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the “invention” of
painting with oil mediums. Even though we know this isn’t necessarily true,
it is accurate that the Northern Renaissance painters championed the use of
oil paint, and it became the preferred medium among painters for centuries to
Oil paint is notable for its ability to hold pigment, resulting in vibrant and
lasting colors that can be mixed easily with one another to create even more
colors. Oil paint gives paintings a luminescent quality because of the nature
of the oil itself. When the paint dries, the pigments pop and appear fresh and
wet, even though they are not. Because of its popularity during the
Renaissance, considered the pinnacle of Western art, oil paint has held a
special place in the world of fine-art making. J
“Old Master” is a funny term when you think about it. I’ve been indoctrinated
in the art history cult for so long it’s never really stood out to me as strange,
but now that I’m writing this, it hits me: “old” and “master” is an odd
combination of words. The Old Masters are “old” because they’re artists
ranging roughly from the Renaissance (see Italian Renaissance and
Northern Renaissance) through the 18th century (Michelangelo, Rembrandt,
and Jacques-Louis David are all considered Old Masters). They’re called
“masters” because art historians have hailed them as the most notable and
talented European artists of all.
The term is very Eurocentric and favors male artists from art history.
Compared to men, women artists have not been labeled or thought of as
“masters,” which is dumb. The Art History Babes all have master’s degrees
and you bet we refer to ourselves as “masters” on the reg. Nonetheless, you
probably won’t be shocked to hear the goofy term “Old Masters” is still
widely used in the art world today, because art history just loves its old
white-guy artists. G
An “opening” is gallery lingo for an opening reception for an exhibition—a
special occasion on which people come to view the work for the first time.
Openings often have organized talks by the artist(s) and/or the show’s
curator, to provide context for the exhibition. Attendees receive invitations
and range from friends of the artist(s), to collectors, to people who like to
graze free cheese and crackers. G
Don’t fret—you’re not about to get lectured on what type of produce you
should buy (but since we’re already on the subject—shop sustainably and
buy local when possible). In art, shapes found in nature are labeled “organic
forms,” and they’re often discussed in contrast to geometric forms. All
forms can be categorized as either organic (natural) or geometric (humanmade). Basically, it’s any shape that occurs naturally, such as water droplets,
rocks, or apples (organic or not). N
Orientalism comes from the word Orient, which broadly refers to the Eastern
part of the world. Orientalism as an artistic style became popular in the 19th
century when Western artists began to paint Eastern subjects and scenes.
There was some interest in Asian and Middle Eastern art, but Orientalist
artists largely painted exoticized and fetishized subjects in works that
depicted the East as “other” to, or oppositional to the West. Orientalism was
particularly popular in 19th-century France, as evidenced in paintings of
naked women in harem settings that include Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’
Grand Odalisque (1814) and Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Slave Market
(1866). Many Orientalist paintings were undeniably sexual and made by
European men to be viewed by other European men.
Orientalism was most popular in countries that colonized various regions
in the Middle East and Asia. Depicting sexualized and exoticized scenes
visually marked the Orient as “other” from the Western countries that found
them fascinating and alluring, but ultimately viewed them as less than, and
distinctly separate from, their own cultures. Orientalism was a tool Western
countries used to depict and define those they colonized in the name of
power. The concept of the Orient itself is a Western construct, a term to
group large expanses of land and create cultural borders. Orientalist artists
did not give their subjects agency, but created painted worlds and people that
projected Western ideals and beliefs, instead of representing real places and
It took a long time for Western culture to accept criticism of Orientalism.
Literature professor Edward Said wrote the book Orientalism in 1978,
breaking down all the ways in which Orientalism was problematic. I’m
going to go against the rule my professors ingrained in me and end this entry
with a quote (deal with it). Edward Said wrote, “One ought never to assume
that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or
myths which were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow
away.”3 G
In the scope of art and art history, orientation refers to the way a work is
meant to be viewed. There are generally two ways to orient a work: portrait
and landscape. Portrait orientation is when a work is taller (vertical) than it
is wide (horizontal). This is based on how we usually perceive people: up
and down. In landscape orientation, we look at the image side to side
(horizontally) and conceive of landscapes as being vast and wide. That being
said, the content of a painting doesn’t dictate the orientation. Portraits can
have landscape orientation; landscapes can be portrait. The difference is the
idea that one is better suited than the other for composition. So, when you are
making some art, don’t feel confined to these rules—just know that typically
one is more appropriate than the other, but whichever you choose isn’t
wrong. Go nuts. J
Orphism was an early 1900s art movement spearheaded by art power couple,
Sonia and Robert Delaunay. (Well, Orphism is the name that art critic
Guillaume Apollinaire gave the movement. Robert himself preferred
Simultanism or “simultaneous contrast.”) Orphism was inspired by modern
art styles that included Symbolism, Cubism, and Fauvism. The couple saw
what the Cubists were doing and they were, like, “Hey! that fragmentation of
geometric shapes, that’s good stuff.” But then they looked at the Fauvists and
they were, like, “Oh but these colors! They make me feel things.” So they
mixed the two and out popped Orphism.
Orphism sought to infuse Cubist techniques with a little feeling. Instead
of giving precedence to recognizable objects, Orphists explored states of
being using form and color. They engaged with scientific color theory and
played with what could happen when light and color are not bound to an
object. For example, Sonia’s Electric Prisms (1913) is an abstract
composition inspired by the newly installed street lights on a boulevard in
Paris. The glow of the lights is segmented into loosely geometric shapes
(shout out, Cubism), but the range of colors and their relationships to one
another is certainly the focus of the painting. It's like when you’re lying on the
floor and you stare directly into the ceiling lamp for too long and patches of
color start to emerge from the light’s source.
No? Just me? Cool. Cool cool cool. C
3 Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Brantford, Ont.: W. Ross MacDonald School, Resource Services
Library, 2006.
An artist’s palette is nearly inextricable from our image of the artist. Whether
you first saw one in the hand of Artemisia Gentileschi, Diego Velázquez, or
Bob Ross, you know that trusty slab made for mixing paint. As I write, I’m
looking across the room at my own paint-covered palette sitting atop my
bookshelf. Mine is the old cliché that’s shaped like a big, wooden lily pad
with a thumb hole, but nowadays palettes come in all shapes and sizes. In
high school, I—and every other art student—used round, plastic palettes with
individual craters around the edge to mix paint in. They even make special
palettes now, to keep your paint wet between painting sessions—now that’s
what I call technological advancement. N
Palette knives and palettes go together like Bob Ross and Peapod the
squirrel. Size and shape vary, but all of them have a flexible metal blade with
a handle. Some have a blunt tip for mixing paint, while others have a sharp
tip, for applying paint to canvas. Artists often have a whole slew of palette
knives in different shapes and sizes, and they achieve some pretty amazing
effects using them—just take it from our boy Bob: “All you need to paint is a
few tools, a little instruction, and a vision in your mind.” N
A paradigm is an established and accepted set of ideas. It is commonly used
in the context of a paradigm shift—a big schism or transformational shift in
the way of doing things. For example, the Protestant Reformation marked a
paradigm shift in established Christianity.
Art is largely about pushing boundaries, and so paradigm shifts are fairly
constant. Even though this has been happening since the beginning of
creativity, artists who challenge paradigms still experience a great deal of
pushback from self-appointed guardians of culture and taste.
The advent of abstraction was a mega-mondo-monster paradigm shift in
art history. In the mid-1800s various artists gradually began exploring
abstraction in their works—simplifying forms and withdrawing from the
established norm of producing visual representations of objective reality.
This paradigm shift ruffled feathers to the point where one dispute over
aesthetic taste even ended up in court.
In 1875, James Abbott McNeill Whistler painted Nocturne in Black and
Gold, The Falling Rocket. The painting represents a burst of fireworks over
the Thames River in London. An atmospheric and abstracted rendering of
the event, it is painted in shades of dark blue and golden yellow, with falling
speckles of gold to represent the fireworks. Prominent art critic John Ruskin
did not care for it. Not one bit. Ruskin wrote a scathing review of the work
and Whistler countered by suing Ruskin for libel. The argument was whether
or not Nocturne in Black and Gold was a legitimate or worthy work of art.
A full-blown court case ensued, with plenty of press coverage and a
courtroom full of spectators. Seems like a pretty frivolous thing to bother
with today but, to be fair, what better place to debate and decide on an
established set of rules than a court of law? C
Participatory art engages the viewer in such a way that they become part of
the art-making process. Artists have gotten really creative over the years,
devising different ways to break down the dichotomy of viewer and viewed.
Fluxus artist and honorary art babe Yoko Ono has mastered viewer
participation. The concept behind her “Wish Tree” series began sometime
after her husband’s death in 1981. It’s a relatively simple idea that has
inspired Wish Trees to pop up all over the world. According to Yoko, anyone
can create one by finding a tree on which to post her downloadable sign that
reads (in Yoko’s handwriting, of course): “WISH TREE by Yoko Ono. Make
a wish. Write it on a piece of paper. Fold it and tie it around a branch of a
wish tree. Ask your friend to do the same. Keep wishing. Until the branches
are covered with wishes.” People were then instructed to mail the wishes to
the “Imagine Peace Tower” in Finland, where they will be collected to
eventually become a giant tower, filled with the world’s wishes. With these
short and simple instructions, Yoko is inspiring viewers to check in
emotionally, and conjure up their strongest desires to create a lasting
connection through a collaborative, participatory work. How beautiful is
that? N
The word “patron” derives from the Latin word patronas. Yes, Harry Potter
heads: “Expecto Patronum!” Patronas in Latin refers to someone who
supports and provides benefits to someone else. Luckily for us, patrons have
long since gravitated to the arts. Patronage of the arts goes back centuries and
a patron can wield a considerable amount of influence.
The 17th-century Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini had a handful of
powerful patrons in Rome over the course of his artistic career. Not only did
his patrons grant him prestigious commissions, they protected him. When
Bernini tried to murder his brother (upon discovering his brother was
sleeping with his mistress), Bernini was slapped with a large fine. Luckily
for him, he had friends in high places—in fact the highest place one could
have a friend in Rome: the Vatican. Pope Urban absolved Bernini, waived
the fee, and continued to grant him favors in the form of commissions.
While contemporary art patrons do not necessarily have the same
motivations for hiring artists as popes once did, they still carry great
influence in the art world. One of the greatest contemporary patrons of the
arts, collector Peggy Guggenheim helped launch the careers of Man Ray and
Mark Rothko, among others. Many successful artists, from Bernini to Rothko,
owe a large part of their success to their patrons. G
In art, a pattern is a repeated decorative design, made up of smaller units
called motifs. A pattern can also mean a model for creating things, such as
the pattern a dressmaker uses for reference when making clothing. Nature
herself makes patterns all the time—spirals, meanders, waves, foams, tilings,
cracks, and those created by symmetries of rotation and reflection. You can
even observe patterns in chance configurations, which can be really exciting
because we begin to wonder: is there a natural order to things in the
universe? We are attracted to patterns because they satisfy our need for
regularity in the world; apparently, predictably repeating patterns soothe our
chaotic monkey brains. J
Performance art is any art that is centered on an action carried out or
orchestrated by an artist, sometimes in collaboration with others. This can
include dance and theater. If that seems way too vague, that’s because it
totally is. Very few guidelines help determine what is and is not performance
art, but there are some common characteristics. A big one is that performance
art is time-based rather than a permanent artistic gesture. Documentation of
the performance might live on forever, from photos and artifacts to a full
video recording, but the performance itself is ephemeral. It is worth noting
that a piece sometimes requires audience participation, but a lack of
audience does not stop a work being performance art. It is the act itself that
matters, even if no one witnessed it except the artist.
Performance art took off in earnest in the 1950s and 1960s with Fluxus
“happenings,” but its roots can be traced all the way back to the Futurists
and Dadaists of the early 20th century, when it played a big role in the
development of the avant-garde. Perhaps the most moving example of
performance art that I have seen is The Lovers (1988) by Serbian artist
Marina Abramović, who regularly collaborated with her then partner, Ulay.
They hatched a plan to walk the Great Wall of China, each starting at
opposite ends. When they met in the middle, they would marry. The project
stalled for years as the couple sought authorization from the Chinese
government. By the time they could carry out their plan, their 12-year
relationship had crumbled (oh man, I’m getting misty). Still, they went to
China, began at opposite ends of the wall, and planned to meet in the middle
(three months later!). But instead of getting married, the couple ended their
relationship and went their separate ways. Breakups suck, but to be able to
turn the experience into something so tragically beautiful highlights the
powerful possibilities of performance art. J
A petroglyph is an image created by removing part of a rock surface by
incising, picking, carving, or scraping. Petroglyphs are found worldwide,
and are often associated with prehistoric peoples. Some of the oldest
examples date back to around 40,000 BCE. There are many theories about
what these images could mean, ranging from astronomical markers, to maps,
to other forms of symbolic communication, including a form of proto writing.
The fact that petroglyphs from different continents show similarities has been
the subject of much speculation. One of my favorite explanations is that the
similarity of petroglyphs (and other atavistic or archetypal symbols) from
different cultures and continents could be a result of the genetically inherited
structure of the human brain. This theory reinforces the idea that we’re all
connected through some primordial ancestor, and I like to get real groovy
with that kind of thought. J
When artists are able to achieve photographic naturalism in any other
medium, we call it photorealism. And, boy, do people go nuts over this stuff.
Also known as hyperrealism or superrealism, most photorealist works are
two-dimensional (just like drawings and paintings), but the same principles
can also be applied to sculpture—check out the work of Australian sculptor
Ron Mueck.
Since the invention of film photography, many artists have had a
complicated relationship with the medium. Painters were especially reluctant
to admit any reliance on photography, and some went as far as to consider
using photographs cheating. Photorealists, in contrast, think that’s a load of
BS and lean into the photographic aesthetic. Rather than feeling insecure
about their use of reproducible images, photorealist artists use strategies to
help create depth in a scene—for example, by introducing blurred areas that
mimic camera focus. They work closely from photographs, some even
painting over the top of printed photos to achieve maximum accuracy, like
one of my all-time favorites—Austrian-born Gottfried Helnwein. Other
techniques for achieving the correct perspective include mapping it out on a
grid, or tracing the photograph using a projector or lightbox. N
Imagine you’re at a bed and breakfast in some quaint little town, looking out
your window at a lovely scene of snow-dusted trees, a barn, and a walking
bridge just beyond it. It’s charming. Looking at it makes you feel nice. You
could describe this view as “picturesque.” Picturesque is an adjective often
used to describe a beautiful scene in real life that looks like it could be a
work of art, or a view that’s so lovely it should be translated into a
composition. Picturesque art primarily describes landscapes, where some
element of nature is incorporated within the scene.
The term originated with 18th-century British artist William Gilpin, who
defined picturesque as a kind of beauty that would be pleasing in a picture.
Gilpin later expanded on his definition of picturesque art, claiming it also
needed to incorporate the sublime qualities of nature. He stated that the
picturesque was both a mental practice of finding and observing picturesque
views, as well as an artistic pursuit of recreating those views. Picturesque
continues to be a popular theme in art (bet you could Google a painting
similar to my earlier description in under two minutes, probably a Bob
Ross). G
In art, plurality or pluralism refers to art that is diverse and inclusive of
various experiences and contexts. A pluralistic approach is characteristic of
postmodernism and contemporary art. Contemporary art is hard to define
and categorize, remember? And that is exactly what plurality wants.
Plurality in art is largely socially and politically responsive, which is
why the idea first gained attention in the politically charged 1960s. In many
ways, plurality challenges the very idea of artistic movements. It evades easy
definition and commonality and instead relishes the ways in which people
(and art) are dissimilar. C
See divisionism.
See diptych.
POP ART (n.)
WHAAM! POW! POP! Campbell’s soup cans! Elvis! You’re probably
wondering, has she had too much coffee? The answer is yes, of course, but
also, I’m talking about pop art!
Pop art is an art movement that drew upon popular and commercial
culture in the 1950s and 1960s in the U.S. and Britain. The name derives
from “popular” and began as a revolt against the academic (and elitist)
approach to modern art that came to dominate the scene by the 1950s. For
many young artists, modern art had become stale, so rather than looking to the
art world for inspiration they turned to sources such as Hollywood movies,
advertising, product packaging, pop music, and comic books for their
imagery. Among others, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy
Warhol began to reinterpret, repackage and resell commercial images as art.
Critics were horrified by their use of “low” subject matter and their
supposedly uncritical treatment of it. I think the English artist Richard
Hamilton put it best when he listed the “characteristics of pop art” in a letter
to his friends: “Pop art is: Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient
(short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Massproduced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big
Ultimately, like most anti-establishment movements, pop art became
mainstream and was ingrained into the modernist canon. Today, Warhols and
Lichensteins sell for hundreds of millions of dollars and pop art has become
a major moment in the history of Western art. Pow! for effort, though. J
PORTRAIT (n./adj.)
Portraits are works of art in which a figure is the central subject. If this
definition feels broad, that’s because it is. A portrait can be—and likely has
been—created in every medium known to man. Prehistoric people encrusted
actual human skulls with decorations to make them look like the living (eat
your heart out, Damien Hirst). Hell, us humans have even carved portraits
into mountain sides (honestly, Mount Rushmore is so strange).
Portraits can be naturalistic—representing someone as they are, or
idealized—making someone look slightly to majorly hotter than they actually
are. One benefit of the idealized portrait (other than looking hotter) is the
subject likely wouldn’t have to pose too long. Before photography, people
who wanted their likeness represented by a professional artist, had to “sit”
for a long-ass time. I use quotes here because, depending on the composition,
some portraits required them to stand or hold an obscure pose for a long-ass
Some artists make a living from portraits alone, but the advent of the
camera has enabled anyone to be a portrait artist in seconds (shout out,
portrait mode). When someone creates a portrait of themselves, we call this
a self-portrait. Which leads me to our favorite 21st-century portrait: the
selfie. But for that, I’ve got to pass you along to Corrie. N
If you’re looking for the simplest and oldest way to construct an opening,
then post and lintel is the way to go. Two vertical elements (the posts) are
used to support a horizontal element (the lintel), creating a covered space.
Sounds simple enough, right? That’s not a trick question. It really is that
simple. That is not to say that post-and-lintel construction is boring, however.
In fact, one of the most famous examples of post-and-lintel building in the
world attracts nearly one million visitors every year—I’m talking about
Stonehenge, baby! Built sometime around 2500 BCE using stones weighing
upward of 25 tons, Stonehenge is the most epic example of the old idiom “if
it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” J
Postcolonialism refers to a critical analysis of the cultural legacy of
European imperial power, focusing on the human consequences of the control
and exploitation of colonized people and their lands. The term is modeled on
postmodernism because it is thought of as a reaction to, or departure from,
colonialism in the same way postmodernism is a reaction to modernism.
Defining the term is difficult, because the prefix post- implies that the term is
temporal, denoting the immediate time after colonialism. This is a problem
because it implies that colonialism is over, and we are now postcolonial
(which is just flat out untrue).
In order to understand postcolonialism it helps to think of colonialism
beyond just a system of government and consider the ideology and
worldview that underlies that system. Postcolonialism, then, represents an
ideological response to colonialist thought and examines the social and
political power relationships that sustain colonialism (and neocolonialism,
for that matter). Postcolonialism examines the social, political, and cultural
narratives surrounding the colonizer and the colonized, and tries to
understand colonial life from the point of view of the colonized. This is
really important! Have you ever heard the old saying, “History is written by
the victors”? Putting aside the fact that the phrase is horribly disrespectful to
colonized peoples (so, what, they’re the losers? Are you for real?), the point
that systems of knowledge are put in place by the dominant culture is true.
This is because the purposeful systematic destruction of non-Western forms
of knowledge played a big role in colonialism. When the Spanish arrived in
Mexico in 1519, one of the first things they did was burn as many books as
they could get their hands on. This has been common practice throughout the
long, brutal history of colonial rule.
Postcolonial theory seeks to give colonized people the space to speak for
themselves, to reclaim their histories, and to produce cultural discourses of
philosophy, language, society, and economy outside of the dominant system of
colonial power. Postcolonial theory is super complex, and this little entry
can’t really do it justice. If you are interested in this kind of thing, check out
some literature from Edward Said, Homi K. Bhabha, Walter Mignolo, and
Dipesh Chakrabarty. J
The poster is often overlooked in the art world—the thought being it’s
something for students to tape on the walls of their dorm rooms. The history
and impact of the poster is bigger than dorm-room decoration, however. (Not
to discount the dorm-room poster. I taped plenty of them onto my grim cement
walls in college and they really helped liven the place up.)
Posters first appeared in the 19th century, as a form of advertisement. As
the name suggests, they were (and still are) “posted” in public places—
perfect for marketing to the masses. Nineteenth-century posters were often
designed by notable artists of the time. The French artist Henri de ToulouseLautrec famously made lithographic posters advertising the Moulin Rouge,
for example (voulez-vous coucher avec moi).
Posters are visual communicators, and because of this their scope is
actually much broader than marketing alone. Posters have also had a
considerable role in politics—promoting as well as attacking policies,
politicians, and campaigns. Posters have been a staple of propaganda art for
centuries and serves as a powerful tool of political persuasion.
Band posters are also a big cultural and artistic phenomenon. And I don’t
mean just a photo of Led Zeppelin in front of a private jet. I’m talking band
posters designed by artists! Illustrators and graphic designers have made
incredible artwork for musical artists all over the world. Creating posters for
musicians allows artists to make money and to produce printed material that
is easily accessed by the public. Music, art, accessibility—you gotta love all
that. G
The movement that followed Impressionism was dubbed Postimpressionism.
As you can tell, someone got really creative during the naming process.
French artist Paul Cézanne is known as “the father of Postimpressionism”—
which is especially fitting considering the movement consisted mostly of
men. They held on to some elements of Impressionist style, but played more
with bold outlines and unnatural color.
Postimpressionism acts as a bridge between Impressionism and
Expressionism. Rather than following a natural progression, however,
Postimpressionists reacted against Impressionism, which they believed
lacked spiritual connection. As with many artistic movements, it’s a little
tricky to define exactly, but Postimpressionist work remains largely unified
by its rejection of Impressionist ideals while still using some Impressionist
techniques. *In rebellious teenage voice*: “Shut up, Impressionism! I’m not
following your GD rules anymore!” N
Skeptical, anti-authority, and ironic to the max. “Postmodernism” is the term
used to describe a broad movement of ideas in philosophy and the arts that
developed in the mid-to-late 20th century. More broadly, this term applies to
the historical period that followed modernism. Postmodernism is broad as
hell, but one unifying idea is that it challenges some of the more dominant
ideas touted by modernism, particularly the grand narrative of Western
progress (the idea that life is always moving in the “right” direction,
improving and advancing toward an ideal world).
There’s been a consistent struggle to understand postmodernism in
relation to modernism. Is it a reaction? Is it a continuation? Is it an anti
movement? As such, there are plenty of 20th-century art movements that can
be, and are, defined as both modern and postmodern. The modern movements
pop art, neo-pop, neo-dada, conceptual art, performance art, installation
art, and institutional critique are all sometimes considered postmodern art
movements. Postmodern art often represents and embraces concepts such as
pluralism, conflation of high and low culture, appropriation,
deconstruction, self-awareness, and kitsch.
This is usually where I’d give you all a specific example of postmodern
art, but the concept is big and rife with debate. I’m trying to come up with
something that truly and fully represents the movement, but I’m coming up
empty. Perhaps because the word “postmodern” is merely a human attempt at
categorizing a whole bunch of ideas and creative output in terms of the
progression of chronological history (see, this is me being very postmodern).
Postmodernism casts aside unrealistic idealism in favor of embracing the
big mess of being a human, living in a society. “There is no such thing as
universal truth. Embrace the endless contradictions maaan. But also, please
appreciate me for the genius I am for recognizing that.” – A bunch of
postmodern artists, probably. C
Postwar art refers to art made in Europe between 1945 and 1970, in the
wake of World War II. The atrocities witnessed during the conflict caused a
monumental paradigm shift. Previous generations couldn’t have fathomed the
destruction brought on by the two world wars, including mass genocide and
the dropping of atomic bombs. Those who lived through it were
understandably deeply affected.
This mass tragedy impacted many aspects of culture, including art.
European nations were concerned with rebuilding their cultural identities
after experiencing so much loss and destruction. Movements that began in
this period include Capitalist Realism, Nouveau Réalisme, Fluxus, and Arte
Povera. French artist Yves Klein (you know, with all the ultramarine blue)
was a pioneer of the Nouveau Réalisme movement, which began in France in
1960 as a response to the American movements Neo-Dada and pop art.
Even in his short life, Klein anticipated conceptual art, performance art,
and laid much of the groundwork for what would become minimalism. He
even patented a color, and I’ve got to say, I’m a sucker for “International
Klein Blue.” Artist Gerhard Richter grew up in East Germany after the war,
and combined socialist realism with new techniques in abstraction. His
blurred photographs exaggerate what he perceived as the already ambiguous
effect of photography. For example, newspapers could easily use
photographs out of their original context for the purpose of manipulating the
Art historians tend to identify American postwar art as separate from the
aforementioned examples. This is because the country was relatively
unscathed by the war, which wasn’t fought on American soil. America had
taken in many European artists, and with the American economy on the rise,
new art movements were flourishing in the states. While Europe was
recovering from their collective trauma, the United States was feeling
somewhat triumphant. In retrospect the juxtaposition is definitely cringey. N
The Precisionists were not a formal group of artists in an established sense
(no manifesto, no Precisionist bread and cheese parties). They were a varied
group of American artists working in a similar visual style and dealing with
similar themes in the 1920s. The term “Precisionism” comes from their use
of precise and simple lines and forms, clear outlines, and smooth surfaces.
At the end of the 1920s, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art
(MoMA), Alfred H. Barr, decided that they were the Precisionists and that
was that.
The group’s members drew inspiration from the popular European
artistic styles of the time, such as Cubism and Futurism. However, they
hoped to create a separate and distinctly American style (national identity
and whatnot). Much like the Futurists, Precisionists were often concerned
with technological development. These artists focused on imagery depicting
American industry, such as steel mills, bridges, and skyscrapers, and they
were influenced by the modern medium of photography.
Besides artists such as Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth, our girl
Georgia O’Keeffe was lumped into the grouping with all her distinctly
regional imagery of New York skyscrapers and Arizona desert flowers.
Although, she most likely didn’t care to be defined that way. C
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and it was a goddamn disaster.
The pre-Columbian era literally refers to the time preceding the arrival
of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, so pre-Columbian art is art made
before this initial European contact. Alternative terms are precolonial,
precontact, and pre-Hispanic. Pre-Columbian art thrived throughout the
Americas, from at least 13,000 BCE to the European conquests and, in some
cases, continued for some time after. Many pre-Columbian cultures did not
have writing systems, so they used visual art to express their cosmologies,
worldviews, religions, and philosophies. Because the written records that
did exist were deemed pagan sacrileges, the Catholic Europeans
intentionally destroyed most of them, making the surviving visual art all the
more valuable today.
Pre-Columbian art encompassed several different mediums including
textiles, ceramics, sculpture, murals, wood panel, jewelry, and monumental
architecture. Pre-Columbian figurative art ranged from highly stylized,
abstracted figures to incredibly naturalistic portraiture. This range of styles
and approaches to art-making tells us that the pre-Columbian world was not
homogenous and, in fact, was made up of several different complex cultures,
just as diverse and inspired as their European counterparts.
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to consider pre-Columbian art
without the shadow of colonialism looming overhead. The very name itself—
pre-Columbian—situates all of the art and cultures of these civilizations as
existing before the arrival of the West, lumping them all together as one kind
of art. It is important to remember that these groups were all independent,
with their own complex societal structures, ideologies, and visions of the
world, and we do them a huge disservice if we reduce them to something that
happened before Columbo came and wrecked the place. J
Prehistoric art refers to art made a real long time ago. More specifically, it
defines art made before there was a written record. Surviving examples are
grouped into the Paleolithic era (beginning of time to around 8000 BCE) and
the Neolithic era (around 10,000–4500 BCE). The art typically falls into one
of two categories: mobiliary/portable art and parietal art (permanent art that
cannot be taken on the move). Prehistoric art takes many different forms and
can be representational (people, animals, and so on), decorative (symbols
or patterns), or serve a utilitarian or symbolic function (think Stonehenge).
Cave art is perhaps the best-known form of prehistoric art. Paleolithic
and Neolithic people drew and painted on the inside walls of caves.
Evidence of this is still being discovered around the world today, some
20,000–30,000 years after they were made. That’s pretty damn cool.
Prehistoric sculpture is also a big topic of scholarship. Ever heard of the
Venus of Willendorf? She’s a lil' statue with a curvy figure who is thought to
represent and celebrate female fertility. And don’t forget about the
People have made art since the beginning of humankind and because
much of it was made so long ago, there is a certain level of mystery to
prehistoric art. We don’t always know how a piece was made, or why it was
made in the first place. What we do know, is that humans have been
expressing themselves through art for millennia. G
The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of radical Victorian artists who sought to
challenge the artistic establishment of their day. The group, led by William
Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was a bunch
of twenty-something British men born in the 19th century, so obviously they
referred to themselves as a “brotherhood.” The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood,
colloquially known as the PRB, rejected the prevailing artistic style of the
time, which emphasized elegance and classical compositions.
Despite what their name implies, the Pre-Raphaelites didn’t have any
beef with the Renaissance master Raphael, but they were very much over his
followers. And, like all good radicals, they had serious issues with authority.
“Why should the composition be always apexed in pyramids? Why should
the highest light always be on the principal figure? Why make one corner of
the picture always in the shade?” argued Hunt, and his PRB bros backed him
up, developing compositions that were detail oriented and intensely colored.
All the while, the critics viewed them as nothing more than youthful
troublemakers with no regard for art and taste.
It is likely that your 21st-century eyes don’t see anything shocking or
radical about the luxuriously detailed paintings of long-haired women
commonly associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. It was their early paintings
that really worked prominent critics into a tizzy. The PRB depicted sacred
scenes with an uncomfortable realism and brought attention to the harsh
details of everyday life in Victorian London. Additionally, they portrayed
those luxuriously long-haired women in a manner that was much more
nuanced than had been seen in typical representations of women to date.
The PRB often explored some of the more complicated aspects of
womanhood at the time, such as dependence on marriage, female sexuality,
and the experience of sex workers. “You’re telling me women have complex
psychological experiences? Say whaaat???” – An angry Victorian critic,
probably. C
Primitivism is problematic as hell—both as a concept and as a word. In fact,
it was our very own Corrie who once said, “the term ‘primitivism’ should
only be used when talking about how problematic it is.”
The name alone is messed up: all of these aspects of non-Western art are
primitive, meaning they are unarticulated, uncivilized, and crude. It reflects
the European fascination with what was then called “primitive art”—
basically any art that is non-European, including works from Africa, the
South Pacific, Indonesia, and the Americas. European artists were taken by
the “purity” of these works, so untouched were they by the rigors of
industrialized European society, so untamed, so naïve (ugh). They therefore
sought to include stylistic elements of non-Western artforms in works of their
own, which they then called “modern” and “avant-garde.” Such pieces then
went on to become canonized in the history of modern art (I’m looking at you,
Pablo Picasso).
Primitivism was not so much an aesthetic movement in the way that
Impressionism and Cubism were. Rather, it was a sensibility or cultural
attitude that influenced many diverse aspects of modern art. We can trace the
roots of primitivism back to the late-19th century Romantics whose
fascination with foreign civilizations led to them producing their own breed
of problematic paintings, which fall under the label of Orientalism.
While the Orientalists were essentially playing dress up and make
believe, with their scenes of turban-wearing ladies, hazy harems, and opium
dens, primitivism took things a step further by using the forms and styles of
non-Western cultures intentionally in Western works. Picasso’s Les
Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) is a prime example of this phenomenon. His
nude ladies of the night boast full-on African masks (see cultural
appropriation), evoking all of the unhinged eroticism and “otherness” that
Europeans attributed to the arts of Africa. Here, Picasso used primitivism to
highlight the terror of the unrepressed sexuality of the ladies (sex workers) of
the brothel of Avignon. That’s real problematic, Picasso. We do not stan. J
I have taken a total of one beginner printmaking class, so obviously I’m very
qualified to explain this to you all. Printmakers are artists who specialize in
print media—including screen printing, wood blocks, drypoint, lithographs,
linoleum blocks, etching, engraving, monotypes and letter press … as rapper
Soulja Boy would say, “prints on prints on prints.”
To break it down a little, all of those styles of prints I just listed can be
categorized into four main printing techniques: intaglio, relief, serigraphy,
and planographic. Intaglio was invented in the 15th century and involved
carving into a metal plate (commonly copper), before filling the grooves with
ink and printing onto a surface—producing the reverse of what’s on the plate.
Relief, instead, involves cutting away areas of your block or plate before
applying ink to the remaining surface, and pressing that image into paper. The
actual printing can be achieved by your own brute strength, or by using a
printing press. Screen printing—also called serigraphy—is a technique
whereby ink is pushed through mesh screens that have been sectioned off to
create the desired image using tape, glue, paper or stencils. Screen printing
can be applied to paper and canvas, but also works really well on textiles so
many designers use screen printing to print onto clothing. Lithography is a
form of planographic printing that was invented in the 18th century and artists
use a special crayon to draw (rather than carving) their print images.
Monotypes are another form of planographic print which are “one of a kind”
prints (mono, get it?). They’re not as common, but worth noting because most
print media yield multiple copies, which is part of the appeal. At the same
time, the exclusivity of having the only one in the whole world would
certainly appeal to those who find value in the unique nature of an “original.”
So, in summary, a printmaker participates in printmaking to produce
prints (kind of fell down the alliteration rabbit hole there). N
A private collection describes any number of artworks belonging to one
individual. In a museum or art gallery context, the term signifies that a
certain work is not owned by the institution in which the work is on display,
but is on loan from an individual or organization, either for temporary
exhibition or for the long term.
Private collections have been around since people started accumulating
art in the ancient world—both in Europe and East Asia. During the
Renaissance, art collecting became a favorite hobby of the wealthy merchant
class. Nowadays, rich people are still out there buying all the art and
amassing works in their private collections.
Because we now live in an era of the super-mega-wealthy (I’m talking
billionaires), and the art world has become an outrageous and unregulated
speculative market, the cost of fine artworks has skyrocketed in recent
decades. This makes a lot of people think that collecting original art is
unattainable and goes some way to explaining why they don’t give art and art
history a great deal of attention.
That is not to say you can’t collect art! You, too, can start your own
private collection. There are many ways in which to become involved in the
world of collecting. You can buy art from independent artists at small
galleries, art-school shows, and even online (I love me some Etsy). If you
have a savvy eye and a few extra dollars, who says you can’t be a collector?
The most basic definition of problematic is “something that constitutes a
problem or difficulty.” But this is our book, and despite what any negative
reviews may say, we are anything but basic. For much of the millennial
population, “problematic” has evolved to describe something that does harm,
far beyond just presenting a problem. Because the word has evolved, and
because we hear it being thrown around so much nowadays, the abundant use
of the word “problematic” has become, well, problematic.
We tend to use the word to describe comments, actions, literature, media,
or anything that causes harm or oppresses a group of people. There are many
examples of problematic moments in art (see primitivism, Orientalism, preColumbian art, and cultural appropriation for some examples). We call
these moments and works problematic because they represent times where
minority groups have been disrespected, oppressed, and belittled by the
dominant powers that be. The problem with problematic is that when you
encounter something that represents a moment where this is happening, and
you just call it problematic and move on, you’re brushing past the issue. By
overly relying on the word to describe something you find offensive or
harmful, you are undercutting the critique.
“Problematic” puts distance between the critic and the argument, placing
the problem—racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on—in the issue itself,
rather than accounting for the subjective reasons why the critic thinks harm is
being done. Don’t get me wrong: we love saying “problematic” (and
honestly, life in general is problematic), but without follow-up nothing is
being done for social and cultural critique (which is part of what we are
trying to do with this book, to tell you why and create a discourse). So, if you
think something is problematic, ask why, and then try to answer those
questions. J
You know the old inspirational adage, “life is about the journey, not the
destination”? Process art is really into that idea. Not only does process art
place a lot of emphasis on the journey, it also puts that journey on display for
all to see.
With process art, the process of making (the journey) takes priority over
the finished piece (the destination). The concept hit the art scene in the late
1960s as a development of, and also a challenge to, minimalism. While
minimalist artists were striving for a purity that left no trace of the artist’s
hand, process artists wanted you to notice their hand—and everything else
that went into making a work of art what it was.
The term “process art” casts a wide net and encompasses several
approaches to contemporary art-making, such as action painting, land art,
and chance aesthetics. For example, the work of sculptor Lynda Benglis
deals heavily with process and materiality. She is well known for creating
brightly colored sculptures out of poured latex. For her 1969 work
Quartered Meteor, Benglis slowly poured polyurethane (a type of plastic)
foam into the corner of a room. The foam dried into a form similar to that of
hot lava after a volcanic eruption (the corner is lava!). The work was then
cast in lead as a way to capture the journey that the materials went on to
become the final work. C
Propaganda art has been around a long, long time. Coins with the profiles of
ancient emperors on them? Propaganda art. Emotive posters calling men to
war? Propaganda art. Paintings of political leaders looming large, taking on
the appearance of actual divine beings? Propaganda art!
Propaganda is a form of communicating information—or misinformation
—that supports a particular idea that is often ideological and/or political in
nature. Propaganda wants to influence you; its aim is to get you on its side
and behind its message. There are many different forms and styles of
propaganda art and they’ve been made and circulated all over the globe.
I’m going to tell you about one of the most ridiculous propaganda posters
ever, because I truly cannot stop myself. Beginning in the 1940s, there was a
growing fear about venereal diseases (what we commonly refer to as
sexually transmitted diseases or STDs today). There was a trend for
propaganda art warning men, and soldiers in particular, to beware of “loose”
women who could give them gonorrhea or syphilis. A poster from around
this time, made by the United States government, depicts a gal with big boobs
and a lot of makeup chatting with a smiling soldier. Above her are the words
“BOOBY TRAP” in big letters and smaller text reading “Syphilis and
Gonorrhea” at the bottom. Booby Trap?? It’s obviously misogynistic as hell,
but honestly it makes me laugh out loud. This is so overt, so extreme, and so
corny. But it gets its propagandistic message across clearly and memorably,
which for propaganda art is a mark of success.
A closing word of advice: you need not beware of the “booby trap,” but
you should be wary of propaganda art itself and whatever it is trying to
convince you of. G
Protest art is art that is produced with the purpose of communicating an
ideology that serves to bolster activist protest. Works cross the boundaries of
all art genres, mediums, and disciplines, and can take many forms, including
street art, fine art, mural painting, poster art, sculpture, zines, and even
performance art.
Protest art is an important tool to form social consciousness and create
networks and accessibility. Social movements produce works such as signs,
banners, posters, and other printed materials—mediums that are usually costeffective. Often, such art draws attention to a given cause during a
demonstration or an act of civil disobedience. The vast majority of these
works are ephemeral, characterized by their portability and disposability,
and are frequently not authored or owned by any one person. Peace symbols,
raised fists, and images of congregating masses are popular motifs, but
protest art also can be much more elaborate.
In 1989, the Guerrilla Girls—an anonymous group of feminist, female
activist artists dedicated to fighting sexism and racism in the art world—
undertook a major project titled Do women have to be naked to get into the
Met. Museum? The title kind of says it all: the work protested the lack of
female artists in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, while
highlighting the abundance of female nudes. The image was based on French
painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ famous work, Grande Odalisque
(1814). In the case of the Guerrilla Girls’ work, the nude has a gorilla head,
transforming this refined symbol of feminine sensuality into a hybrid monster
that seems to roar out the title question. The image was displayed on the
sides of buses in New York City, in the spaces traditionally reserved for
announcements of upcoming exhibitions. By using humor, shock, and clever
advertising, the Guerilla Girls created an iconic piece of protest art that
ruffled quite a few academic feathers. J
Provenance is the history of ownership of a work of art and it is incredibly
important in determining authenticity and legal ownership. Want an example?
Here you go: a museumgoer at the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in
Madrid was checking out the artwork on view when they happened upon one
in particular that gave them pause: Rue Saint-Honoré, Après-midi, Effet de
Pluie from 1897 by Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. The painting’s
composition, while lovely, was not what caused this reaction. Rather this
museum visitor was a family friend to the Cassirer family who had been
forced to give the painting up to the Nazis before fleeing Germany in 1939
and had been trying to find the painting ever since.
The provenance of the Pissarro painting is as follows: Lilly Cassirer was
a Jewish art collector who the Nazis forced into selling her painting for a
greatly undervalued rate. After World War II, the painting went missing,
before eventually being purchased by the Spanish government and arriving at
the Madrid museum. What ensued was a long and complex legal battle that
ended in favor of the museum. The point is, provenance is important! Art can
change hands many times and knowing all the ownerships of a work of art
can help art institutions avoid cases like the stolen Pissarro, as well as sniff
out potential forgeries. In short, do your research and keep the receipts, my
friends. G
Psychedelic art is art inspired by psychedelic experiences. Technically
speaking, psychedelic experiences are drug-induced hallucinations that
follow the ingestion of psychedelic chemical compounds, such as those found
in acid, shrooms, mescaline, or DMT. However, similar altered states of
consciousness can occur during other practices, such as meditation,
breathwork, fasting, or hopping into a float tank.
The production of psychedelic art doesn’t necessarily require the use of
psychedelics. In fact, as some of you (groovy) readers may be aware, the use
of psychedelics can impair motor function, making it difficult to engage in
tasks that require fine motor skills, such as drawing or painting. However,
psychedelic art is inspired by these altered states of consciousness and tries
to capture the visual effects of such experiences.
The term “psychedelic art” is often used to define the creative output of
1960s counterculture (when LSD was all the rage). It engages a variety of
media including psychedelic rock music, light shows, video, and twodimensional art and design. Characteristics of psychedelic art include:
metaphysical and surrealist subject matter, vibrant colors, kaleidoscopic
patterns, phosphenes, fractals, spirals, and warping of images and spaces.
The trippy posters used to advertise concerts for 1960s musical icons such
as Janis Joplin and The Doors are prime examples of psychedelic visual art
from this period.
Since we’re talking about profound, life-altering drugs, it seems fitting to
see how far the rabbit hole goes. The word “psychedelic” means “mind
manifesting.” In this sense, any attempt to depict one’s inner world (or
psyche) through art could be considered psychedelic art. It’s really not that
wild of an idea—engaging in a psychedelic experience and engaging in artmaking are both paths of self-exploration. While the term “psychedelic art”
has been somewhat sanitized over the years, to simply describe (and often
dismiss) the use of drugs, as well as the value of the art inspired by such
states, psychedelic art may be able to tell us something more profound about
the nature of our reality.
P.S. Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell
(1954) are must reads if you’re into drugs and art. C
Public art is any art that is made with the intention of being staged or
exhibited in the physical public domain. The work’s location is almost
always a very important aspect of public art, and site specificity plays a
significant role in understanding the content of a work. Having said that, in
most instances, the relationship between the content of a piece and its
audience—that is, what the art is saying, and to whom—is just as important,
if not more so, than the work’s physical location.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is an example of public art that is
impactful, both for its location (in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital) and
for its ability to allow viewers to interact with the work. Created by the
American sculptor and architect, Maya Lin, the memorial consists of two
246-foot,9-inch (75.21-meter) long, black granite walls, polished to a high
finish and etched with the names of the 58,318 servicemen who gave their
lives in the Vietnam War. Visitors to the memorial can locate the names of
their lost loved ones through a directory at the entry to the monument. As
they walk the length of the walls, visitors are impacted by the gravity of the
human loss of life represented by the sheer volume of names recorded there.
The memorial is individualized and personal because it gives space to each
soldier’s name, rather than representing the sacrifice they made
metaphorically through the use of figurative subject matter.
As with many examples of public art that also serve as a monument or
memorial, this work garnered controversy. Some people thought it was too
morbid, too severe, or just too plain ugly. To appease those who protested
the memorial, a bronze statue named The Three Servicemen (sometimes
called The Three Soldiers) was erected a short distance away from Lin’s
memorial. In their final arrangement, the statue and the wall appear to
interact with one another, with the soldiers looking on in solemn tribute at the
names of their fallen comrades. A compromise we can all agree on. J
PUTTI (n.)
Little, naked babies … with wings! No doubt you’ve seen them in various
formats—perhaps as little sculpted figurines in your grandmother’s house or
emblazoned across Valentine’s Day cards. These chubby guys are frequently
referred to as “cupids” and “cherubs,” but throughout art history, they are
commonly referred to as “putti.”
Putti is an Italian word and, boy, did Italian Renaissance artists love to
feature plump little angel boys in their works. Putti is plural, putto singular;
both terms are masculine, as there are no female putti.
These nude, infant boys originated in Greco-Roman mythology, serving
as little helpers to the god of love and desire, Eros (in Greek mythology) and
Cupid (in Roman mythology). Greco-Roman culture was very on trend during
the Renaissance, so artists would have seen these figures in art from
antiquity and knew about their role in mythology. Because of their origin,
putti are often associated with love and romance in art. However, they also
came to serve as Christian symbols, as they were often depicted as winged,
baby angels surrounding figures such as the Virgin Mary. The layered
symbolism of putti is vast. If you’d like to learn more, check out our podcast
episode “Weird Putti” because, yes, there’s enough to say about them to fill
an entire episode, if not several. G
QI (n.)
In traditional Chinese culture, qi (pronounced, and sometimes spelled,
“ch’i”) is believed to be a vital force or energy that is a part of every living
thing. Qi translates literally as “air,” but figuratively as “energy flow” or
“life force.” According to tradition, qi is in all humans, animals, and plants.
It is what grants life to everything in nature, everything in the universe. Qi is
the underlying principle of most traditional Chinese philosophical thought,
with the ultimate goal being to keep qi balanced and flowing harmoniously.
So how does this figure into art? For millennia, it was the Chinese
artist’s responsibility to communicate the living energy, the qi, of what they
were painting. Active in the early 900s, Chinese landscape painter Jing Hao
remarked that “it is vital energy (qi) that gives authenticity to the likeness of
form and shape of a painting. Without such authenticity the image dies.”
According to Jing Hao, qi is the most important principle of all Chinese
aesthetics. His most celebrated work, Mount Lu, exemplifies this principle:
jagged mountain peaks fill over ninety percent of the painting, communicating
the vital force of the monumental mountains. By contrast, buildings and
humans are tiny as hell, and almost go unnoticed. This image reflects the
natural balance of nature: humans and human-made objects are merely dots
on the face of the Earth; the mountain was there long before us, and the
mountain will be there long after we are gone. All is balanced as it should
be, and the vital qi imbued in the grandeur of nature is given center stage. J
Once upon a time, a French artist by the name of Marcel Duchamp purchased
an unused urinal. He inscribed that urinal with the moniker R. Mutt and sent
it away to be displayed at a very fancy art show. The fancy people in charge
of the fancy art show found this in poor taste and promptly rejected the work.
Titled Fountain (1917), this work is one of the most widely known examples
of a readymade. The term “readymade” was coined by Duchamp to describe
works of art made from recognizable, manufactured, everyday objects.
Readymades are simply objects that exist already, but are given a new
purpose as art. Once they become art, they often have an incredible ability to
make people angry. In the case of Fountain, Duchamp and his absurdist
Dada pals had this to say in the work’s defence: “Whether Mr. Mutt with his
own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He
took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance
disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought
for that object.” In other words, even though Duchamp didn’t make the
object, he gave it the purpose of being art. In doing so, he transformed the
definition of what art could be.
So, when you find yourself in the kitchenware section of Target,
CHOOSING between twelve different models of blender, remind yourself
that this is in fact an artistic act. And after much deliberation, you can pick up
that Vitamix, head to the checkout, and tell the cashier about all the brilliant
ideas concerning the functionality of objects and the nature of art that you are
expressing with this very purchase. Then you, my friend, have your very own
readymade. C
The ancient Greeks loved their vases, man, and the art history world can’t
shut up about them. The terms “red-figure” and “black-figure” refer to
methods of vase painting that the Greeks developed and perfected between
the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. Black-figure vase painting involved the
application of figural and ornamental motifs using a slip (liquid clay) that
turned black during firing, while the background was left the color of the
clay. The potter incised the slip or added white and purple enhancements
(mixtures of pigment and clay) to add detail. In contrast, the decorative
motifs on red-figure vases remained the color of the clay and the background,
filled in with slip, turned black.
The red-figure technique emerged around 530 BCE, possibly when the
potter Andokides and his workshop realized, “hey, uh, it’s way easier to
draw on this vase with slip than to carve out forms.” Red-figure work
gradually replaced the black-figure technique, as the use of a brush in the
red-figure technique was better suited to the naturalistic representation of
anatomy, garments, and emotions.
Favorite subjects for red- and black-figure vases included stories of
Greek heroes and mythology—in particular (appropriately) the Greek god of
wine, Dionysus. Old Dio was often featured on a krater, a vase used for the
mixing of wine with water, the traditional drink of the Greek symposia, or
male drinking parties. The presence of Dionysus on the krater symbolized his
blessing over the symposium, guaranteeing that everyone would have a great
time and get rip-roaringly drunk. J
RELIC (n.)
In the broadest sense, a relic is an object that has survived from an earlier
time and has some deep historical or sentimental value. In a narrower, more
art historical sense, a relic is part of a deceased holy person’s belongings or
body that is kept as an object of reverence. Such an object usually resides in
an elaborately decorated vessel called a reliquary.
The practice of keeping the bones, teeth, or other body parts of a
deceased holy person dates back thousands of years and has manifested in
many religions, from Christianity to Buddhism to Islam. Aside from being
totally metal, this practice has led to the creation of some beautiful
architecture to house the reliquary that houses the relic—acting like a
massive morbid nesting doll, if you will (if nesting dolls had finger bones in
them). J
Relief is a sculptural technique in which sculpted elements—that is, the
subject matter—are raised above the background plane of the material from
which they are sculpted, usually stone or marble. There are two main kinds
of relief sculpture: bas-relief and high relief. The former refers to relief
sculpture where the figures emerge only slightly from the surface of the work.
This type of relief (also called low relief) was very popular in the ancient
world, with some of the best examples hailing from Mesopotamia and Egypt.
In high relief, sculpted figures project almost in the round from the surface of
the work. The classical Greek Elgin Marbles are a great example of highrelief sculpture and display the medium’s great potential for depicting action
and drama. Aren’t you “relief-ed” that you know about this now? J
In art history, “religious icon” isn’t a reference to Jesus Christ’s celebrity,
but instead alludes to representations of spiritual “celebrities,” so-to-speak,
painted onto small surfaces. Such an object becomes somewhat sacred in its
own right. The tradition is associated with orthodox Christian and Catholic
faiths, where popular subjects include Christ, Mary, and the many saints. The
intention is for the paintings to symbolize their subjects so that viewers can
pray through the icon, to the being it represents. While religious icons were
überpopular during the early Byzantine era, they became a source of
controversy when iconoclasts decided the icons themselves were being
worshipped instead of the beings represented (“Sacrilege!” they cried in
unison). It probably didn’t help that many believers associated icons with
Acheiropoieta—translating as “icons made without hands”—are icons
thought to have come about through divine intervention. The enduring image
of La Virgen de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe) is a prime example,
and happens to be a story my Nana told me as a child. As the story goes, the
virgin appeared multiple times as an apparition before indigenous Mexican
peasant Juan Diego in 1531. She requested that a church be built, and when
the archbishop didn’t believe sweet Juan, Our Lady hooked him up with
some roses in his cloak to present as evidence. Bless Juan for having some
faith, because when he dropped the roses at the archbishop’s feet, an image
of La Virgen de Guadalupe, just as Juan had seen her, was there on the
interior of his cloak. On top of her icon’s miraculous origin story, Our Lady
is also said to bring about miracles, including curing the terminally ill. Some
people are overly concerned with the authenticity of this story, while for
many, the symbolic meaning is enough. Her image appears on candles, shirts,
and pendants—including the one my sweet Nana gifted me. Thanks, Nan. N
A reliquary is a container designed to hold a relic, be it the finger bone of a
saint, the beard clippings of Muhammad, or a piece of the cross on which
Christ was crucified. Because of the value placed on relics—based on the
belief that they carry spiritual power—they often have their very own fancy
containers to keep them safe.
A reliquary’s primary function is to protect a relic, but it may also be a
work of art in its own right, crafted by artisans from such rich materials as
gold, ivory, and precious stones. The reliquary of Sainte Foy is one of the
most famous: a small wooden statue containing the remains of the Christian
saint, it is covered in gold, silver, and gems. You can’t actually see the
remains inside (some reliquaries allow a peek through little glass peep-holes
or feature compartments that open) but the decoration tells you that you’re
looking at something very special. Go ahead, make a bejeweled box to hold
your baby teeth, and just like Sainte Foy, you can have your own precious
reliquary. G
The term “representation” refers broadly to the depiction of something else,
and it’s constantly happening in art (seriously, I feel like it has been used A
LOT in this book). Representation in art and media is important, because the
messages that are being sent help to form our perceptions of people,
concepts, social constructs, and so on. A photograph of “Queer Eye’s”
Jonathan Van Ness, the cartoon of Jonathan Van Ness drawn for the series
“Big Mouth,” and me writing his name out here all count as representations
of JVN (the initials count too). It’s also notable that Jonathan does the voice
over for his “Big Mouth” character—meaning he gets to represent himself
through his own voice. This is a more authentic representation because JVN
has a hand in how he is represented—this is what I call “responsible
representation.” N
Not the kind of reproduction you learned about in your sex-education class,
reproduction in art is when a copy is made of an original, and relates
primarily to paintings, prints, and drawings. Most often, reproductions are
reprinted photographs of an original work of art.
A reproduction is made with permission from the artist (or their estate if
they’re no longer alive), therefore one made without permission is a fake or
forgery. Reproductions make art accessible to a wider audience and far
more affordable for art lovers. I cannot afford the 1909 painting Girl Under
a Japanese Umbrella by German Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig
Kirchner, but I can afford the reproduction of this painting that is printed on
canvas and hangs in my bedroom. I love her as much as the real deal. G
See material-based practice.
RESIN (n.)
Resin is freakin’ cool. This super versatile medium has become very
popular with sculptors and painters alike. Resin can be either natural or
synthetic. Natural resins derive from plants and insects, whereas synthetic
resins (for example, alkyd and acrylic) are manufactured industrially. While
the compound is traditionally used in polishes and varnishes, many
contemporary artists and designers are finding new and inventive ways to
work resin into their practice. It’s lightweight, durable, and pretty cheap.
Resin-casting offers a popular way to work with resin, and is used in the
production of collectible toys, models, and figures, as well as in small-scale
jewelry production. The maker fills a mold with a liquid synthetic resin,
which then hardens. The method is great for producing objects in bulk.
In the 1960s, many artists experimented with industrial materials in their
works, and resin became a favorite. The French-born American artist known
as Arman used polyester resin in one of his most popular works, Bluebeard’s
Wife (1969). He molded the torso of a woman and filled the mold with resin
and shaving brushes. When the resin hardened, the brushes stayed suspended
in the material, creating an unusual work of contradictions: the female nude
torso combined with the common implements of male grooming, and the body
reminiscent of classical sculpture but made of mass-produced materials and
It is possible to paint with resin and some artists have fun playing with
tinted resin in their practice. They can dye resin and pour it onto panel to
create very colorful and shiny paintings. These are damn impressive because
the artist has to actively control the poured resin, which can be a long and
manually intensive process. J
Have we mentioned that we love Marcel Duchamp? This is another term that
invokes that awesome weirdo, and in fact is a term he coined himself. For
Duchamp, “retinal art” is art that appeals exclusively to the eye, rather than
to the mind. Duchamp, who found success as a young painter in Paris, had
grown tired of the constraints of easel painting. He soon abandoned painting
almost entirely and spent the majority of his life attempting to defy so-called
retinal art. From presenting objects themselves as art with his famous
readymades, to investigating the possibilities of chance aesthetics,
Duchamp never stopped trying to challenge the limits of retinal art, and his
experiments paved the way for generations of conceptual artists after him. J
See AI art.
ROCOCO (n./adj.)
Rococo gets a bad rep for being a frivolous and corny style, which, to be
honest, it can be. But this is frivolity with purpose (or at least some think so).
Rococo began in 18th-century France and, as in the Baroque period that
preceded it, Rococo art and architecture was hyperaware of the impact it
had on its viewers. Drama, elaborate decoration, and sensuous curves—this
is evocative stuff—and that was the point! The term “Rococo” derives from
the French rocaille for “rock” or “rubble,” and stems from a trend for garden
grottos in France, which were decorated with artfully manufactured rock and
shell forms.
Rococo art was born in the homes of the wealthy French, as a form of
décor that was whimsical, pretty, and didn’t get too deep. Unlike Baroque
art, the Rococo style was not overly concerned with messages of religion or
mortality, but instead focused on romantic tales and pastoral or exotic
imagery. Likewise, Rococo architecture was meant to entertain and be
visually pleasing. Paintings of couples kissing in lush gardens and thoroughly
decorated exterior and interior spaces were on brand. Is it whimsical,
decorous, and a bit shallow? Yes. But that’s what the French elite wanted in
the 18th century! Rococo is a reflection of the wealthy culture that drove
artistic tastes at the time—that is, until the French revolutionaries came in
and shut aaall that shit down. G
ROMANESQUE (n./adj.)
Like many people who have gone through a rough breakup, Europe had a
hard time letting Rome go. We get it, it can be difficult to move on, and we
all cope in different ways—from listening to sad music and writing letters
we don’t send, to developing an entire architectural style. And this is exactly
what Charlemagne did following his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in
800 CE. Around this time, Europe was in the beginning stages of moving out
of the Dark Ages (see Middle Ages), and ruins of Roman architecture
littered the continent. Legends of the great Roman Empire had passed down
through the generations since the fall of Rome in the 5th century, and rather
than putting all of Rome’s things in a box and forgetting about them,
Charlemagne instead decided to build churches in the Romanesque style in an
effort to unite his empire and validate his reign with the glory of the ancient
empire that had preceded him.
Romanesque buildings look just how they sound—kinda Roman. They
were conceived with fundamental Roman architectural elements in mind, so
expect a lot of rounded arches. In fact, the arch is the main element of most
Romanesque buildings, many of which take the form of a giant extended arch
(called a barrel vault). This simple construction allowed for the creation of
immense and weighty structures with very simple decoration. Most early
Romanesque buildings had a wooden roof, as the barrel vault couldn’t quite
support a stone one. This all changed around the 12th century, when barrel
vaults fell out of favor to groin vaults (essentially, two arches that cross) and
load-bearing walls could be lighter and more ornate. This eventually lead
Europe to dump the Romanesque for the Gothic. We’re proud of you for
moving on, Euro-babe, you do you, boo boo. J
The word “romantic” is likely to conjure up a scene of red rose petals, a
candlelit dinner, and some sexy jams by the Prince of Motown, Marvin Gaye.
Of course, this is the contemporary notion of romantic love, and it is the way
the term is most commonly used.
Romanticism is certainly related to what we think of as romantic love,
and the Romantics likely would have approved of the sensual night you have
planned with your boo. This is because Romanticism and romantic love are
similar in so far as they both prioritize intense emotion. But the term
“Romanticism” refers to a much larger worldview, one that embraces the
subjective experience of the individual and glorifies sentimentality and
Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement that emerged in
Europe toward the end of the 18th century. The Romantics were pretty much
over the Industrial Revolution and Age of Enlightenment with all their coldhearted over-rationalization. The Romantics wanted to feel. And feel they
In visual art, this manifested in a number of ways, including the creation
of awe-inspiring landscape paintings and ornate Gothic architecture. The
Romantics sought sublime experience in life and in art. Some Romantic
artists, such my boy the English poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake,
got real mystical with it, viewing poetry and art as a means of expressing
some pretty intense and trippy spiritual experiences. When the industrial
world seemed harsh and unfeeling, the Romantics went inward to honor their
personal experience. C
Rose—or wheel—window is the name given to a large, circular, stainedglass window made up of radiating geometric patterns of smaller windows.
It symbolizes that many parts make up a whole. Rose windows were a
popular stained-glass motif during the Gothic period and their name alludes
to the patterns which resemble the spokes of a wheel, or the petals of a
rather geometric rose. My 21st-century eyes want to call it a kaleidoscope
window, but I don’t think we need to keep piling on names.
Rose windows were especially popular in 12th- through 16th-century
France and feature prominently on the front of Amiens, Reims, and NotreDame (Paris) cathedrals. But the French weren’t the only ones getting down
with the rose window; it also appeared on cathedrals in Italy, Germany, and
Although they are sometimes situated on the sides of a cathedral—on
what’s called the transept walls—the majorly sweet ones are located on the
prominent West end of the nave. If you recall from whatever version of
Scouts you participated in, the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. This
means that, when the sun is setting, light floods in through the rose window,
shining a colorful projection down the nave that eventually lands on the altar
before disappearing with the sun. Depending on your beliefs, you can take
this to be a message straight from the divine, or simply the result of a giant,
man-made kaleidoscope. Either way—pretty damn impressive. N
“Voluptuous” is a lovely word; it evokes sensual imagery and rolls off the
tongue easily. “Rubenesque,” by comparison, is not a word that sounds like a
caress when you say it. Believe it or not, voluptuous and Rubenesque both
describe a similar physique. Both adjectives are typically used to describe a
woman’s body, and history has shown us that men have long occupied
themselves with describing and depicting women’s bodies … often in the
The etymology of Rubenesque derives from the paintings of Peter Paul
Rubens, a Flemish Baroque painter who depicted many full-figured ladies in
his compositions (and some thick boys, too). Like many of his peers, Rubens
painted largely religious and mythological scenes in which human figures
were the stars. Greatly influenced by ancient Greek and Roman art, he
believed the bodies portrayed in art from antiquity were ideal and beautiful.
Unlike the gaunt or paunchy Euro bods of his day, Rubens’ heroes sported
bulging muscles. His goddesses had curving waists and powerful legs. His
intention was not to fetishize bigger women but, in many ways, to show off
his painterly skills: the rendering of dimpled flesh above a butt, the rolls of a
back as it turns in quarter profile, the hips that swell before tapering down
toward the knees. In fact, the women in Rubens’ paintings weren’t much
different from the naked male bodies he painted. It's just that people seem to
notice nude women more than nude men. G
The Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Royal Academy of
Painting and Sculpture) in Paris had a salon. It was the 17th century and all
the French artists had their hair styled in elaborate curls on-site at the
académie. Kidding. It was the 17th century, but the salon in this context was
an exhibition space for the academy’s artists, not a hair salon. Each year,
artists at the Royal Academy would hang their best paintings and display
their best sculptures in the salon for all to see.
It was from this tradition, that the salon-style method of hanging works of
art was born. In order to display as many artworks as possible, the Royal
Academy covered its walls with paintings, hanging them from floor to
ceiling. By maximizing the height of the walls, salon-style hanging allowed
for many artworks to be displayed at once. In its original context, a salonstyle hang placed the largest paintings at the top of a wall (typically
historical or religious in context) and the smaller, more intimate paintings,
such as still lifes and portraits toward eye level.
Hanging artwork salon-style is still in practice today, both for public
exhibitions and in private interior spaces. These days, it’s defined more as an
arrangement of multiple artworks on a wall, and is commonly referred to as a
“gallery-wall” hang in modern interior design speak. A salon-style
arrangement of various works over your couch could look real cool, but a
word to the wise: it’s tricky to get things just right and can potentially result
in a lot of holes in your wall. G
Sculptures are three-dimensional representations made via many techniques
and out of various materials. Artists who sculpt are dubbed sculptors, and
they carve, mold, cast, or assemble their sculptures. Sculpting dates back to
prehistoric times, and the methods of creating sculpture evolved alongside
Bronze casting developed in ancient Greece and was a popular
technique for its reproducibility. Marble carving also had its heyday in
antiquity and remained a popular medium in Italy through the Baroque. For
example, Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini had mastered the art of
making marble appear as soft, indent-able flesh. While some contemporary
artists do still work with marble, I’d venture to say it’s much more
commonly found on 21st-century countertops than in artists’ studios.
Conventional sculpting materials—bronze, marble, and clay—have given
way to everyday items and industrial materials in postmodern art.
Readymade sculptures have become increasingly popular, as have works
such as YBA artist Michael Landy’s Sculpture (2007). Sculpture is a large
metal box that Landy has painted white. On its face are listed the series name
“No Frills,” title (Sculpture), medium (paint on metal), and proportions—all
painted in simple, black text. The work reduces sculpture to the bare
minimum consumer product and, in doing so, reduces the artist to a brand
name. Sorry if this feels a little bleak, but that’s postmodernism for you. N
When an artist creates a portrait of themselves, it is called a self-portrait.
A self-portrait can take any number of forms including a drawing,
painting, sculpture, photograph, video, or even a mixed-media
A self-portrait is an opportunity for an artist to represent the subject they
know best: themselves. In doing so, the artist makes a series of intentional
choices that depicts themselves in a certain light (literally and figuratively).
Our favorite sad boy Vincent van Gogh painted several self-portraits, one of
them right after the infamous ear incident in 1889. In Self-Portrait with a
Bandaged Ear, van Gogh paints himself in his studio. He looks cold and
melancholic (fitting, considering the events that had recently transpired in his
life) and the large bandage covering his mutilated ear is a focal point in the
composition, basically saying to the viewer: “Hey! this thing happened to my
ear! It was important and also I feel some type a’ way about it.”
There is a contemporary trend that is a whole lot like the self-portrait: the
#selfie. By now I think we all know that there is an art to the selfie, so can
we please just stop pretending otherwise? In the same way a self-portrait is
crafted through a series of choices made by the artist, a selfie is often
meticulously planned, framed, and chosen to convey something about the
person taking it. Maybe a pensive pose and a black-and-white filter means
the selfie-taker has been deep in thought lately, or perhaps the artist in
question wants to show the world how quirky and fashionable they are, so
they choose an angle that highlights their vintage thrift store earrings. A selfie
is a self-portrait, which is a self-created artistic representation. C
When something is described as “serpentine,” it means it resembles the
shape or movement of a serpent, or snake. The term describes sinuous shapes
and lines. A serpentine road, for instance, winds and curves, turning one way
and another (the kind of road that might make you barf if you get travel sick).
This is a great descriptive word to use for visual analysis, because many
examples of serpentine shapes exist throughout art history. Rococo
decoration was full of serpentine design work; metalwork and manuscripts
from the Middle Ages feature tons of twisty, serpentine, animal forms and
geometric designs. The Italian phrase figura serpentinata literally translates
as “serpentine figure,” and was used to describe a human figure that spirals
around a central axis, so that the lower limbs face one direction and the torso
faces the opposite direction—a popular pose in Mannerist art.
Why the serpent? Well, the serpent features largely throughout the history
of mankind. Serpents appear in belief systems all over the world, sometimes
representing water or vitality, and other times representing cunning and evil
(the serpent is a great example of the nature of duality, good vs. evil, and all
that). Because serpents are wiggly, fast, and sometimes deadly, our monkey
brains evolved to fear them. But we are also fascinated by their shape and
movements. It makes sense, then, that we’ve been incorporating their shape
into our visual art for millennia. J
Sfumato is an Italian word for when oil paint creates an effect that is hazy,
smoky, and soft. The term was coined in the Italian Renaissance, and
originates from the also-Italian word fumo for smoke. Renaissance golden
boy, Leonardo da Vinci particularly favored this technique. He blended and
softened oil paint, removing lines, and dulling vibrant colors to create an
effect that looked like a fine layer of smoke covering the distant landscape.
Just take a close peep at da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (well, not literally, you won’t
have much luck getting through the crowds and rope at the Louvre), where
there’s a fun landscape stretching behind her: you can sense the distance of
the land because it has a hazy atmosphere, just as things in the distance
appear in real life. Sfumato became a popular technique in Renaissance art
since lots of artists wanted to be cool, like da Vinci. G
A silhouette is the image of a person, animal, object, or scene represented
as a solid shape of a single color—usually black—with its edges matching
the outline of the subject. This is different from an outline, because in a
silhouette, the image appears as a solid shape, often contrasted by the
background to create a dramatic effect. Silhouettes can be incorporated
successfully in a variety of media, such as cut-paper portraits and
illustrations, photography, graphic design, architecture, and film. They lend
themselves especially well to shadow theater, where shadow puppets are
backlit through a screen to an audience, a popular form of traditional
entertainment in Indonesia. You see silhouettes all around, from the mudflap
girl seen on the backs of trucks to the iPod commercials of the early 2000s
and even in our Art History Babes logo (drawn by yours truly) of our
original bunny mascot, Bumblebee (RIP).
In the 19th century, silhouette portraits were extremely popular in
Europe, and later became fashionable in America. The tradition is associated
with wealthy Victorians, and conjures images of powdered wigs, dainty
bows, and big ole bustles (the bigger the better, baby).
Much later, American artist Kara Walker flipped this tradition on its
head. She is best known for her panoramic friezes of cut-paper silhouettes,
usually black figures against a white wall, that address the history of
American slavery and racism through violent and unsettling imagery. Here,
the forms of the silhouettes themselves become a powerful story-telling tool,
illustrating shockingly recognizable subject matter while also concealing the
details and leaving much to our imaginations. It is powerful stuff, made all
the more impactful by the dramatic silhouettes telling the story. J
A site-specific artwork is a work designed for a particular space. Site
specificity is often a central characteristic of installation art and earth art,
however, it can play a role in many types of art.
The extent to which an artwork is site specific usually depends on the
extent to which the work relies on the space. A good way to determine a
work’s level of site specificity is to ask the question “If I placed this work in
my backyard, would it change the work’s meaning?”
A prime example of this is the tale of American artist Richard Serra and
his Titled Arc, created in 1981. The work, a 120 foot long, 12 foot high (36.6
x 3.7 meter), sheet of rusted steel was commissioned and created
specifically for a public plaza in Manhattan. It ran right through the middle of
the space, blocking certain views and pathways. Serra created the arc with
the intention of getting in the way. And it sure did get in the way. Have you
ever accidentally gotten in the way of a commuting New Yorker during rush
hour (“HEY, I’m walking heah!!!”)? I don’t recommend it. People rushing
about, to and from their jobs, lunch dates, and other important business
engagements had to navigate around the arc. Ideally, the arc would cause
them to take time to consider themselves and their movement throughout the
space. However, the project didn’t exactly pan out that way. The work
received a great deal of backlash and, in 1989, Titled Arc was removed.
Serra chose not to reinstall the work in another location because, according
to him, “to remove the work is to destroy the work.” In this case, Tilted Arc
could only ever truly exist in the environment for which it was created. It
was wholly site specific. C
Full disclosure, I have never seen an episode of “Jersey Shore,” but I always
thought “The Situation” was a dope nickname. Think about it. A situation is
not a particular thing or characteristic, it is a whole set of circumstances in
which one finds themselves. It encompasses so much. Man, if it wasn’t
already taken, I’d wanna be called The Situation.
A mid-20th-century group of European artists and thinkers known as the
Situationist International (SI) was also intrigued by the concept of the
situation, so much so that they believed it to be the antidote to many of our
capitalist woes. Basically, the SI mixed together Marxism and surrealism to
form its own unique critique of capitalism. In 1967, founding member Guy
Debord wrote The Society of Spectacle in which he called out the
“spectacle” as central to all the problems with capitalism, society, and
modern life. The spectacle, in this context, is the idea that the experience of
everyday life has been commodified and people have downgraded from
being to having. To counteract the spectacle, the SI constructed situations!
One such example is the dérive. The dérive is an unmapped journey, often
through an urban landscape. The person engaged in the dérive is encouraged
to drop everyday associations and ignore typical cues of how to traverse a
landscape (so roads, paths, signage, and so on). Instead, they are supposed to
simply let themselves relate to the space in whatever way they wish. So
wandering … but make it art.
The ultimate goal of the SI was to reinvigorate the personal human
experience and to make cultural production (making art) less of a commodity
and more a part of everyday life. This shifts our experience from having to
being. Hallelujah! That is what I’m talking about, Guy. Corrie "The Situation"
Sketch—a word for both loose drawing and questionable behavior. Artists
use a sketchbook to keep track of and work through their ideas. Sketching
feels like the obvious thing to do, but you can also write, make a collage,
whatever your little heart desires! It’s a place to house preliminary drawings,
concepts, and any other inspiring ephemera. Sketchbooks come in a wide
array of shapes and sizes—lined, unlined, even graph paper if you want to be
a control freak about it. Because sketchbooks can become as personal as
diaries, many artists have multiple volumes so they can have private and
public sketchbooks. Whether they’re meant for sharing or not, sketchbooks
and the ways in which they’re used depend entirely on the owner and their
personal preference. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, and if anyone
tries to tell you otherwise … pretty sketch. N
Sound art is pretty much what it sounds like (ha!)—art made from, and about,
sound. If an artwork is labeled “sound art” then sound is either a primary
component of the work, or the work is exploring something about the nature
of sound.
One of the first established sound artists was Italian Futurist artist Luigi
Russolo. Russolo wrote a manifesto called The Art of Noises (1913), and is
known for his noise performance concerts and “noise machines.” Inspired
by the clangor of factory machinery and the unsettling crack of World War I
weaponry, these performances explored the common sounds of the modern
era. At the opposite end of the spectrum is American composer John Cage’s
controversial and equally influential 4’33’’. This 1952 musical work
composed by Cage consisted of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of
silence. So, I guess the absence of sound is on the table too.
Russolo and Cage are considered some of the earliest and most important
artists to work with noise experimentation, which means you have them to
thank for that obscure lo-fi glitch metal band that you’ve been really into
lately. C
What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the
If you guessed, Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he
walks on two legs; and in old age, he uses a walking stick, then you are safe!
Otherwise, the terrible sphinx would have eaten you alive. This was the great
challenge facing the tragic Greek hero Oedipus, who had to solve the
sphinx’s riddle before he was allowed entry into the city of Thebes.
The sphinx is a fun hybrid monster and is usually associated with
guarding an entrance or pathway (like a troll). In order to go through, one
must appease the wishes of the creature. In the case of the great Egyptian
sphinx, we see a beast with the head of a man and the body of a lion guarding
the entrance to the Giza necropolis. In the Greek myth, however, the monster
is usually portrayed with the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, a serpentheaded tail, and, you guessed it, the head of a woman! If you’re wondering
why this might be, there’s a whole branch of “monster theory” called “the
monstrous feminine” that explores the history of turning women into
monsters. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so damn sexist. J
The first time I walked into a cathedral that had stained-glass windows, I
was immediately struck by a feeling of otherworldliness. At one point, I
realized I was whispering and almost tiptoeing around, trying to be as quiet
as possible. Now, I was an eight-year-old in the 1990s, so dazzling, colorful
special effects were not new to me. But the effect nevertheless instilled me
with awe.
Now, imagine being that child, but in the Middle Ages, and you are
walking into a Gothic cathedral for the first time. The light immediately
changes, and you are cast into a dark space illuminated by the jewel-toned
light coming through enormous stained-glass windows. It is now abundantly
clear that you just walked into God’s house, and you bet your ass you’re
going to be on your best behavior and be fully present to receive the majesty
of God himself.
As a material, stained glass is glass that is colored by adding metallic
salts, while in its molten state. The glass is then crafted into windows. The
maker arranges small pieces of glass to form patterns or pictures, held
together, traditionally, using strips of lead and supported by a rigid frame.
Traditionally, the designs of these windows featured narratives from the
Bible or they represented saints and patrons or used symbolic motifs. This
is because the typical congregation at a Gothic church was mostly illiterate,
so these images were crucial for spreading the stories in the Bible. Episodes
from the life of Christ were favorite subjects for these designs, however,
stained-glass windows could also be heavily abstracted, with recognizable
figures secondary to the overall design.
Stained glass is fundamental to the mysterious quality we’ve come to
associate with the Gothic. Next time you walk into a cathedral with stainedglass windows, check to see if you are whispering, because you probably
will be. J
STENCIL (n./v.)
Even if art isn’t your specialty, you’re likely familiar with the idea of the
stencil. It’s a fairly universal tool that’s used by preschoolers and architects
alike. Stencils are templates, essentially, pieces of two-dimensional material
with shapes, letters, or patterns cut out of them so that you can draw or paint
through the holes. A stencil provides consistency and uniformity, which is
enormously useful in many artistic endeavors. As far as materials go,
although I’m not a huge fan of plastic (it’s so bad for the environment,
people), it does hold up a lot better than cardboard and provides more
flexibility than metal.
Screen printers often use stencils, sometimes several at once, in order to
achieve various shapes and colors. Street artists also use them to quickly
throw up a work, or to create a motif that helps to build their notoriety and
recognition. Street-art stencils come in the form of text and/or images and can
range in size from inches to covering the sides of buildings.
Stencils are eternally useful items and I don’t see them disappearing from
artists’ toolkits or kindergarten classrooms anytime soon. N
If you’ve ever taken an introductory drawing or painting class, chances are
you’ve made a still life. A still life is a work of art in which inanimate
objects such as flowers, fruits, and tableware are the primary subject of the
composition. It may seem simple or dull, but a still life is a valuable genre of
study when learning how to draw and/or paint. A still life can invite you to
celebrate the good things in life, such as food and wine, or it can get fairly
deep in terms of symbolic content, reminding you of the fragility of your own
The term “still life” comes from the Dutch word stilleven which makes
sooo much sense because the Dutch were truly crushing it in the still life
painting game from the 16th through 18th centuries. In fact, the term “Dutch
still life” is regularly used in reference to the genre. While still life as a term
originated in 16th-century Holland, the practice of depicting still life scenes
can be traced back to ancient Rome, and it continues to be a popular genre in
contemporary art—including those introductory art classes. G
“Street art” is an all-encompassing term for artwork created in urban areas,
usually without permission. People tend to think of graffiti when they hear
the term “street art,” but I’m here to tell you that graffiti is only one of the
many forms of street art. As it has become a more commonly accepted form
of art, street art has expanded to include stenciling, paste-ups, and even yarn
bombing. It’s become so widely accepted in the twenty-first century, that
street art has even started to show up on the art market (which really
messes with its street cred).
Street art has really taken off in recent years, and never has this been
more apparent than when the Babes did Berlin. Because of its recent,
turbulent history, Germany’s capital city has many thriving counterculture
communities, including a vibrant population of street artists. The buildings
and streets of Berlin are covered in graffiti, murals, and posters—the city is
an absolute treat for the eyes.
Street artist El Bocho, originally from Spain, is well known in Berlin for
working with the city’s architecture and pasting his work up rather than
painting directly onto surfaces. Artists like El Bocho rely on motifs to keep
their work recognizable. One of his most popular motifs is a paste-up
character dubbed Little Lucy. Lucy has hair reminiscent of a mushroom with
big, wide eyes, and she’s constantly thinking up new ways to kill her pet cat,
Kitti (went from cute to morbid real fast there). This juxtaposition of sweet
and sinister might be what makes Berliners love Little Lucy. This admiration,
coupled with the portability of his work, means that often a Little Lucy paste
up is taken down shortly after it goes up. While Little Lucy is native to
Berlin, according to El Bocho, she and her Kitti enjoy traveling, so keep an
eye out for her in your own major cities in years to come. N
For many millennials, hearing the word “studio” elicits images of a 200square- foot (20-square-meter) apartment with a bare lightbulb hanging from
the ceiling, a bathroom with a door that doesn’t quite close, single-pane
windows, and warped “wood” floors, all for the “low” monthly rent of
$1,200! For artists and designers, however, the studio is a workroom
essential for the creative process. In an artist’s studio, you will not only find
all manner of art supplies, books, reference materials, drafting tables, and
easels, you will also find pretty much anything that the artist could consider
inspirational. Everyday objects, leaves, twigs, pamphlets—literally anything
that catches the artist’s eye finds a place to live in their studio. So, if you
ever want to get a good look at the inner world of an artist, peep their studio.
STUPA (n.)
A stupa is a dome-shaped structure that acts as a Buddhist shrine. These
structures typically hold the relics of Buddhist monks or nuns—with several
that are said to hold relics of the Buddha himself— and are used as places of
meditation. Stupas became popular in India after the Emperor Ashoka (r. 273
—232 BCE) recovered the relics of the Buddha. According to legend, Ashoka
erected 84,000 stupas during his rule to distribute the relics all across India.
This is definitely an exaggeration, but it is true that Ashoka was instrumental
to the spread of Buddhism throughout the region, and the stupa was a huge
part of that.
The stupa’s dome-shape makes it especially suited to achieve its ultimate
function—to act as a mandala, or symbol, of the universe. At the top of stupa
is a yasti, or spire, which symbolizes the axis mundi (a line through the
earth’s center around which the universe is thought to revolve). The axis
symbolizes the center of the cosmos partitioning the world into the four
cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west (you can remember this by
the fun mnemonic “Never Eat Soggy Waffles”). Then add two more points in
there: the nadir and the zenith, or the highest and lowest points, above and
You do not enter the stupa itself, but instead practice circumambulation,
which is a fancy word for walking around a sacred object or idol. This is
called pradakhshina in Buddhism and has been an important ritual since
early times. Sacred structures such as stupas always have a pradakhshina
path around them. You walk the sacred path in a clockwise direction with the
goal of unburdening yourself from worldly stressors, connecting to the
positive energy of the temple, and symbolically walking through the different
challenges presented to the Buddha on his path to enlightenment. By walking
this path, you bring yourself one step closer to enlightenment (see what I did
there?). J
STYLIZED (adj./v.)
When a form is stylized, that means it was not made with the intention to
look naturalistic, or true to reality. This is evident in the artworks of peoples
from ancient Andean civilizations, who created figures with unrealistic
human proportions (usually very large heads and small bodies) and often
forms rendered in a geometric style. This isn’t to say that the ancients didn’t
understand how to depict humans naturalistically, but rather their use of
stylized figures tells us that their interest was in the concept behind the
image, usually spiritual in nature.
A more recent example would be the elongated figures of the Italian
artist, Amedeo Modigliani, who became known for his paintings of women
with real long necks. They didn’t actually look like that (medically, I think
it’s impossible) but by stylizing their bodies, the artist managed to convey
their delicate elegance. J
Sublime is not just an early 1990s California ska punk band known for
bangers such as What I Got. The Sublime is a weighty concept developed
under the umbrella of aesthetic philosophy. It refers to the idea of greatness
beyond all possibility of calculation, and has roots going as far back as the
1st century ce.
The Anglo-Irish philosopher Edmund Burke developed the theory in
terms of art. In 1757, Burke published A Philosophical Enquiry into the
Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He defined the Sublime as
the artistic result of the strongest emotion a human is capable of feeling. In
his opinion, that emotion was terror. Eighteenth-century Romantics, such as
JMW Turner and Caspar David Friedrich attempted to capture this
experience through painting landscapes. Turner was known for painting
powerful sea storms, which certainly illicit great beauty and great terror.
Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea and Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog are widely
referenced in discussions of the Sublime. Both detail a human figure standing
with their back to the viewer, facing out to sea; this allows the viewer to
transport themselves to the subject’s position. Each figure confronts the
“sublime” characteristics of open water; the wanderer confronts the sea’s
power, while the monk confronts its expanse.
If you’ve ever stood before the open ocean, you may be able to relate to
this experience. The ocean is beautiful, but is also overwhelming—too much
to fully comprehend. It can be meditative, it can be joyful, and it can also be
fear-inducing. But by standing in that space, you understand that you are
experiencing something far greater than yourself. That’s the Sublime! It’s
intense and mystical and scary and you kind of feel like you’re on the edge of
a precipice, about to be swallowed by an endless abyss … but you’re like,
into it. C
Suprematism is an artistic style that Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir
Malevich created in 1913. Malevich wanted to break free from traditional,
representational styles in art and found the square to be the best subject for
doing just that. He called it the “suprematist square” because, in his opinion,
it claimed supremacy over organic forms. All hail the square! Soon
Malevich began painting other colorful geometric shapes that appeared to
float over white backgrounds. Space, color, and form are all key components
of Suprematism.
Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly) for Malevich, communist officials did
not dig Suprematism and Malevich had to resort to painting in the Socialist
Realist style toward the end of his life. That hurts my heart. Live your truth,
Malevich! However, Suprematism impacted other artists in Russia and later
inspired Constructivism besides a host of contemporary abstract artists. And
that warms my heart. G
It is a well-known, yet barely understood fact that every night human beings
fall asleep and proceed to hallucinate wildly in the form of dreams. The
chaotic dream state, a product of the unconscious mind, often feels entirely
rational, yet wholly irrational at the same time. Dreaming is a completely
bizarre human behavior and no one truly understands it.
In 1920s Europe, a cultural movement arose that tried to understand. The
Surrealists were a group of artists, writers, and thinkers who sought to
explore dream states, the unconscious mind, and their relationship to reality.
In his 1924 Manifeste du surréalisme, French poet André Breton established
Surrealism as an attempt to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions
of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality.” He suggested
that this be done through the practices of free association, dream analysis,
and automatism. It was thought that these practices could illuminate
unconscious knowledge and desires. When this information was fused with
conscious understanding it would give rise to the great reality, the ultimate
reality, the reality to end all realities—super-reality.
If you are shaking your head in utter confusion right now, you are not
alone. The idea of a reality more real than actual reality is not a particularly
easy concept to grasp (nor a particularly easy state to access). Surrealist
artists, such as Salvador Dalí and his infamous Melting Clocks (The
Persistence of Memory, 1931) expressed this super-reality through visual
art. While there wasn’t much stylistic unity within the movement, a surrealist
work of art can be characterized by dream-like imagery (obvi), heavy use of
symbolism, randomness or chaos, amplification of the bizarre, and illogical
juxtaposition. In the case of the Melting Clocks, Dalí paints three clocks
liquifying as though they were made from a gooey, viscous substance. The
clocks are set against a relatively natural landscape that is intersected by
geometric shapes. In the center is an indistinguishable monstrous, fish-like
being that is intended to represent the artist. This work has been interpreted
as a commentary on Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, the nature of time
and space, and the collapse of cosmic order. Dalí himself claimed the clocks
were inspired by some cheese he watched melt in the sun. C
Symbols are all about representation. They are things that stand for, or
represent, other things. In art, symbols are often material or everyday objects
that convey more complex, abstract concepts. Symbolism in art is a big deal.
Throughout art history, artists have aimed to convey certain messages in
their artwork, and symbols act as valuable tools for hinting at, or expressing,
something without literally depicting it.
Nature is neat, and because of that undeniable fact, artists often
incorporate symbolic images from nature into their work. For example, an
image of the laurel can convey an array of meanings from victory, to
education, to eternal life. Furthermore, symbolic meaning in art can vary
widely depending on the historical and cultural context in which it was made.
Take the bat. In Western visual culture, the bat is often linked with the
devil, darkness, evil, vampires, and overall spooky stuff. The bat in Chinese
art, however, has a totally different symbolic message. The word “bat” in
Chinese has the same pronunciation as “blessing.” So, bats are viewed as
auspicious winged creatures that are common motifs throughout Chinese art
and decoration (most commonly on household objects such as vases and
plates). I relate to this symbol of the bat so much more. Just because bats are
nocturnal (and okay, vampire bats are not ideal, but that’s just one species of
bats) does not mean they’re evil. Bats are our greatest nocturnal pollinators
and we need those lil' guys. Long story short, I love bats and symbolism is
complicated. G
TAG (n./v.)
A tag is as basic as it gets in the world of graffiti—think of it as a signature.
The practice of tagging is when a graffiti artist tags their name onto a public
space. Now, this can be their literal name, or a moniker created by the artist.
Commonly used tagging mediums are spray paints and marker pens. Tags
themselves are generally stylized, which sometimes makes them hard to
read. Essential to the tagging process is keeping it simple and doing it as
quickly as possible—the vast majority of tagging is done without asking for
permission, which is technically vandalism. Even as street art becomes
increasingly commercially popular, tagging is still often considered attentionseeking behavior rather than art. Natalie was here
A tapestry is a woven or embroidered fabric, often used as a wall hanging
or a furniture covering. As an artform, the tapestry has a long and varied
history. The ancient Egyptians would shroud their dead in woven tapestries,
while the ancient Greeks used them as wall coverings for municipal
buildings. In the 1400s, Flemish weavers introduced an innovation to
tapestry weaving, developing techniques that allowed them to reproduce
painterly effects into a design using a loom. In Renaissance Europe,
tapestries often represented highly detailed, realistic portrayals of narrative
The tapestry is a beautifully rich example of textile art. As an artform it
is often overlooked in favor of painting and sculpture. Like painting,
however, the arts of weaving and embroidery require a specific set of
creative skills. Furthermore, as a visual artform the tapestry has operated in a
very similar way to painting throughout history. In fact, the visual tapestry
style of a given culture and time period often reflects the corresponding
painting style. For example, Chinese silk tapestries depicting landscapes
reflect the style of landscape painting that was popular at the time.
When I think of the word “tapestry,” my mind is hit with images of
colorful hanging wall tapestries displaying decorative mandalas or
psychedelic geometric designs, which served as the backdrop to many a
basement smoke circle during college. While the word “tapestry” was
originally designated for a piece of thick woven or embroidered fabric, the
advent of print technology has led to the inclusion of mass-produced wall
hangings. In recent years, companies such as Society6 and Redbubble have
made it super easy (perhaps too easy?) to create, sell, and purchase printed
tapestries, so your college weed den can have the authentic heady vibe it
deserves. C
Tempera paint—sometimes called egg tempera—has been around in Europe
since the 12th century and was the preferred medium of painters through the
Italian Renaissance. Early on, artists made it by mixing water, oil, and
pigment into a paste-like texture. The egg tempera formula was developed
sometime during the 15th century and is made by suspending color pigments
in egg yolk, which helps to create a rich finish.
The paint is pretty tempera-mental and artists need to become masters of
the technique, learning all the necessary steps for success, such as priming
the canvas with gesso and applying several layers to achieve the desired
results. Even with the invention of new paints, this tediousness didn’t deter
painters, as it was used to paint such masterpieces as Sandro Botticelli’s
Primavera (1485) and Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World (1948). N
A temple is a building devoted to the worship of a god or multiple gods. In
this sense, you could call pretty much any church, mosque, cathedral,
basilica, synagogue, or *ahem* my body a temple. Typically, though, the
word “temple” is used for religious buildings in the Hindu, Buddhist, and
Jain religions, as well as those of ancient civilizations.
The forms and functions of temples vary, though they are often
considered by believers to be in some sense the house of one or more deities.
Usually, offerings of some sort are made to the deity, rituals are enacted, and
a special group of people—called the clergy—maintain and operate the
temple. The degree to which the entire population of believers can access the
building varies significantly; often parts, or even all of the main building can
only be accessed by the clergy.
Temples are often a part of a larger precinct (called a temple complex),
which may contain many other buildings that aren’t explicitly religious in
nature, such as administrative centers for an elite priest class or royalty.
Examples of temples and temple complexes are seen all over the world and
speak to the shared human impetus to construct the fanciest homes possible
for the gods, so that, in turn, they will bestow their blessings upon us. And if
you are a ruler trying to show off your power and devoutness to the masses, it
doesn’t hurt to build a lavish temple to dazzle the populace. J
Tenebrism takes chiaroscuro and turns it up to eleven. While chiaroscuro
presents a gentle gradation from dark to light values, tenebrism slaps you in
the face with super dramatic (one could even say violent) contrasts between
light and dark. Taken from the Italian word tenebroso—meaning “dark,
gloomy, mysterious”—tenebrism is a style of painting that certainly conveys
all three. Sometimes areas of the painting were kept completely black, with
only a couple of small areas left strongly illuminated. These pictures were
sometimes referred to as night pictures, or as being painted in the dark
manner. It makes so much sense, then, that the technique became popular in
Baroque painting, and that it was especially a favorite of that old vagabond,
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Baroque (along with Caravaggio) was
known for being very dramatic, therefore Caravaggio is often credited as
being the tenebrist extraordinaire. J
Terra cotta is Italian for “baked earth,” although the medium is way older
than the Italian language. Terra cotta starts out as clay, and clay is from the
earth, and the earth is old. People have been baking earth and transforming it
into sculpture, vessels, and architecture for thousands of years. It is still
valued for its durability and low economic cost today.
Terra cotta is made from porous clay that, once formed into the desired
shape, is dried out and fired in a kiln. It can be glazed or unglazed. There are
many examples of terra cotta in art, but one of the most famous is that of the
Terra-cotta Warriors from China—life-sized statues that occupy the tomb
complex of Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang in Shaanxi province. The
statues, which number more than 8,000 in total, stood in the tomb for more
than 2,000 years, guarding the resting place of their emperor, before being
accidentally discovered by farmers in 1974. Because of the moldability of
terra cotta, each sculpture is incredibly detailed with textured armor and
unique facial features. The fact that we can observe these details in the
warriors thousands of years later speaks to the durability of the medium.
Terra cotta is an enduring and magically pliable resource from our planet—
thank you, Mama Earth. G
You got your primaries (red, blue, yellow), you got your secondaries
(orange, green, purple) and then you got your tertiaries! Tertiary colors are
made up of combinations of the primary and secondary colors. These
combinations are red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green,
blue-purple, and red-purple. If you want to have fun with it, you can call
these colors vermillion, amber, chartreuse, teal, violet, and magenta,
These colors are all based on a traditional RYB (that’s red-yellow-blue)
color wheel. Some critics say this model is outdated, and that the whole
primary, secondary, tertiary color model is reductive and limiting. However,
I’m gonna leave that one up to the color theorists. J
Text art, also called ASCII (American Standard Code for Information
Interchange) art, is what we call the copy-and-paste artform seen above. The
objective is to create an image entirely out of text symbols. It’s the opposite
of typography in that the text is the medium. This interesting form of digital
art can be used to create a wide range of images from animals, to cartoon
characters, to designs of a more graphic nature. Text artists are often credited
by whichever website displays their work, and some artists include their
initials embedded in, or around, the image as a signature. Text art like the
Cigar Smoking Mona above is made for reproduction by way of typing
ctrl+c and ctrl+v, making it accessible to anyone with internet access and a
Oh, and it really helps if you squint. You’re welcome :) N
Text-based art is where language and visual literacy come together—and,
boy, is it magical. Text-based artists employ any conventional artform—
painting, drawing, collage, and so on—to make work in which text plays a
prominent role. This is not to be confused (as we first did) with text art,
which is a digital artform.
The style began in the 1950s, as a response to the high art movement of
Abstract Expressionism. Text-based artists felt that the Abstract
Expressionists were missing out on some really important stuff by attempting
to omit all representation, so they began reintroducing content a little at a
time in the form of text.
Artists like Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Deborah Kass all create
work with text to varying degrees. Kass borrows from her pop-art
“daddies’” (her word, not mine) aesthetic to create her own work. Her 2015
OY/YO sculpture takes inspiration from fellow text-based artist Ed Ruscha’s
painting, OOF (1962). Kass’s freestanding sculpture stands at 8 feet (2.4
meters) tall and is painted the same bold yellow of Ruscha’s letters in OOF.
The sculpture was placed in Kass’s hometown of Brooklyn, New York. “Oy”
is a Yiddish word to express annoyance, while “yo” has the dual meanings of
“I am” in Spanish, and a way to greet someone in slang–together, the three
represent the diverse community they represent. Kass’s text-based work
reclaims the aesthetic of successful 20th century male artists as her own,
playing with appropriation and adding herself to the canon brazenly—hell
yeah, Deb. N
At its most basic definition, a textile is a type of cloth or woven fabric. This
fabric consists of a network of natural or artificial fibers called yarn. Yarn is
produced by spinning raw fibers of wool, flax, cotton, hemp, or other
materials to produce long strands. Textiles are then formed by weaving,
knitting, crocheting, knotting or tatting, felting, or braiding the yarn.
Textiles have a rich history: pretty much every major civilization created
and used textiles. These range from decorative works called tapestries that
are hung on walls, to garments designed for wearing. These works depict
many different kinds of subject matter, from geometric patterns to full on
didactic scenes.
The Inca Empire—which reigned over the territory that makes up
modern-day Peru in the 1400s—considered textiles more precious than gold.
The Inca used fine textiles to cement imperial alliances, to celebrate their
bravest soldiers, and to communicate status (such as marriage and class) to
others within the community. Textiles still play a huge role in human
civilization, with the textile industries making up a sizeable portion of the
GDP of many countries. We spend a lot of money on textiles and what we
buy dictates the direction of fashions, so just keep in mind: every time you
buy a shirt or some pants, you are directly affecting the future of textile art
(no pressure). J
TOMB (n.)
A tomb is a structure to house the dead. Tombs take many forms, ranging
from massive structures, such as pyramids with cavernous underground
spaces, to small vaults just big enough for one.
A tomb can tell us much about the person/people buried within and what
they valued in life (and in death). I bet you’ve heard of the Egyptian pharaoh
Tutankhamen, commonly nicknamed King Tut. Most of what we know about
Tutankhamen, and how he was prepared for the Egyptian afterlife, comes
from what was discovered in his tomb, such as stories from his reign, his
worldly treasures, and his actual remains.
It’s important to remember tombs are the resting places of people who
were once alive. It can be easy to disassociate from humans who have been
dead for thousands of years. Something about our relationship with time can
prevent us from going into the tomb of someone who died say 100–200 years
before us, but the longer the person in that tomb has been dead, the more chill
we are about digging it up. People in archaeological and anthropological
fields are still debating what we excavate, what belongs in exhibitions, and
how we treat those human remains and objects once they’re removed from
their tombs. I often wonder if King Tut would be pissed about his body and
treasures being exhibited all over the world, or if he would be pleased with
his enduring fame. I really do think about that … like a lot. G
Tribal art is the name given to art made by indigenous communities. It’s
painting with a broad brush, but since the field of art history has been built
on Eurocentrism, it’s not uncommon for large and disparate groups to get
lumped together into one homogenous “other.”
Tribal art encompasses indigenous art from every corner of the earth,
including Africa, the Pacific Islands, India, and the Americas. Much of what
we know as tribal art is utilitarian in purpose—there is much clay pottery,
clothing, statues, and masks. In addition to everyday objects, many of items
are created for ceremonial use, like the early-to-mid 20th century Female
Ancestor Figure Used in the Yam Harvest Festival (Noukwi) from the
Kwoma people in Papua New Guinea. Traditionally, viewing rights for this
figure would be very exclusive, but it now lives proudly on display at the
Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California—for all to see! Another
example is the Kòmò Helmet Mask (Kòmòkun) (19th–mid-20th century) from
the Komo society in Bamana and throughout Mandé-speaking regions of West
Africa. This particular mask has long tusks, a domed head, and an open
mouth. It’s made from wood and various animal parts that include antelope
tusks, a bird skull, and porcupine quills, which were all chosen for their
symbolic meanings. Members of the Komo association are responsible for
enforcing community laws, therefore their headdress is meant to visually
intimidate viewers. This mask was made and used by a Komo society
member, and when he wore it to meetings, I bet it elicited some damn
African tribal art is often treated as a single style of art, but as you
probably know, Africa is a huuuge continent made up of many countries, not
to mention regions and tribes. The term tribal art is used pretty frequently
and can be helpful in categorizing art, but the term itself is quite vague and
can be problematic. N
See diptych.
TYPOGRAPHY! Typography is the visual display of text. It is the design
and placement of text in places where we can see them—for example, in
books or on posters and, more recently, on TV and computer screens. With
the advent of printmaking, civilizations around the world figured out how to
design and reprint letters.
From a contemporary standpoint, the term “typography” relates to a
typeface—that is, style of font—that is designed in a cohesive style and can
be replicated and printed easily. A quick typography history lesson: typeface
designer (cool job, right?) Max Miedinger created what is now called the
Helvetica font in 1957 and that font is still dominant in the typography world
(for real, they made a whole documentary about it). If you learn how to spot
Helvetica, you will see it all over the place. That’s the quiet power of
typography, it’s literally everywhere you look.
Typography itself is an artform, but it can also be incorporated into art
compositions. American artist Barbara Kruger is famous for creating blackand-white collages overlaid with red text strips with white Helvetica font
(told you it’s everywhere!) that comment on issues such as women’s civil
rights. Kruger’s use of typography is so cool and distinct that clothing brand
Supreme 100% ripped it off for their logos—same white font with red
overlay and everything (don’t try and deny it, we have eyes).
Remember when I said typography is everywhere? This text you’re
reading right this second is typography—BOOM. G
UKIYO-E (n.)
Beautiful ladies, kabuki actors, epic landscapes, sumo wrestlers, people
navigating city streets, and sex stuff! These are some of the common subjects
of ukiyo-e art produced in Japan during the Edo period (1603–1868).
Ukiyo-e is Japanese for “pictures of the floating world,” that world being
pleasure districts in cities. In the floating world you could leisurely drink tea,
see a live performance, visit a sex worker, stroll over an idyllic bridge, eat
some good food—you know, have a pleasurable time.
Ukiyo-e also refers to paintings and prints depicting such scenes. Instead
of going out into the floating world, the pleasures of the floating world came
to people buying this art. The genre is largely comprised of paintings and
prints, with woodcuts being the most popular and prolific artform of the
period. Japanese trade with European countries helped spread ukiyo-e
throughout the world, and ukiyo-e prints particularly inspired Impressionist
artists such as American artist Mary Cassatt and sweet, sad Vincent van
Perhaps you’ve met someone with a Japanese woodblock tattoo? No
doubt you’ve seen ukiyo-e woodblock king Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great
Wave off Kanagawa (c. 1829–33) reprinted on a coffee mug, or a T-shirt, or
a notebook, or something right? You’ve seen it, I know you have. The appeal
of ukiyo-e is still very real because scenes of people enjoying themselves
and romantic vistas are subjects a lot of people connect to—because who
doesn’t want to have a good time? G
Flowers, skulls, glasses of wine, and food all speak to me on a personal
level, so I’ve always loved vanitas. Vanitas is a specific genre of still life
painting, popularized in northern Europe in the 16th century. Related to the
concept of memento mori, vanitas paintings are packed with symbols that
remind viewers of the ephemerality of life. Taking it one step further, vanitas
art also incorporates symbols to represent greed and vanity (hence the name,
ya dig?). A vanitas still life painter would incorporate expensive food items,
such as unpeeled citrus fruits and shrimp, to symbolize wealth. Enjoy your
lemons and your imported wine, fools—they won’t go with you when you
die! A barely touched loaf of bread next to remnants of meat could signify the
neglect of Christian communion in favor of earthly, fleeting pleasures. In this
way vanitas conveyed key messages through symbolism: be a good Christian,
vanity is bad, and death is imminent. Despite the foreboding tone, vanitas
paintings are stunning and I covet many of them—even if I can’t take them
with me to the afterlife. G
The Venice Biennale is a big deal. This event takes place every two years
(biennale is Italian for “every other year”) and features contemporary art,
usually linked by a common curatorial theme and created by artists from
various countries. The theme provides a framework for exploring social,
economic, and political ideas in an international context. The biennial is
different than a regular exhibition because it uses multiple venues and is
quite large in scale. It is also different from an art fair because the artworks
are not for sale.
The Venice Biennale has a long history, with the first exhibition
(originally called the Venice International Art Exhibition) taking place in
1895. Two years earlier, the Mayor of Venice, Riccardo Selvatico, proposed
a major art exhibition to coincide with the silver wedding anniversary of
Italy’s King Umberto and Queen Margherita (talk about anniversary goals). It
was held at the Palazzo dell’Esposizione, located in a public garden known
as the Giardini on the Riva degli Schiavoni and featured a mix of Italian and
European artists. This first exhibition was a big hit, attracting more than
224,000 visitors, so they decided to keep doing it.
Over time, the event became larger and more international. At first, the
biennials displayed only one or two artworks by each artist, arranged along
the lines of a salon-style hang, and with no overarching theme or concept
linking the works. Eventually this changed to presenting solo exhibitions of
an artist’s work, and curating thematic group shows. Themes have varied
greatly over the years and have included, “Think with the Senses—Feel with
the Mind” (2007) and “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico”/“The Encyclopedic
Palace” (2013). As you have probably gathered, these themes are a little
open ended and allow room for artistic interpretation. This partly explains
why the Venice Biennale figures so prominently in the art world. It acts as a
snapshot of contemporary art, capturing the zeitgeist of the broader issues
that are playing out in the world of art. Today, these biennials attract over
500,000 visitors. Maybe they’ll have room for four more prominent guests at
the next one (wink wink, nudge nudge). J
Verism is the adherence to strict naturalism when depicting everyday subjects
in art. This is seen most specifically in portraiture and first appeared as an
artistic preference of the ancient Romans during the late Roman Republic
(147–30 BCE). Verism is a fancy name for “warts and all”—truly, in the case
of ancient Rome. Physical imperfections such as warts, wrinkles, furrows,
scars, and asymmetries were not only captured but, in some cases, even
highlighted and exaggerated. Such imperfections and signs of age signified
wisdom and authority during the Late Republic and were synonymous with
power. One of the few ways to gain authority in Roman society was to be
part of the Senate. However, to be in the Senate, a Roman patrician had to be
at least forty-two years of age, which, in ancient times, was considered a
mature stage of life. With this in mind, it is debated whether these veristic
portraits depict the actual features of the sitter or if they were heavily
exaggerated to express aspects of a person’s personality or virtues—say,
whether they were wise and authoritative enough to be in the Senate.
In any case, when the Emperor Augustus came to power, he basically
said, “uh, girl, no, I need all the filters.” Verism and all of its warts quickly
faded into obscurity in favor of idealized portraits depicting “eternal youth”
and perfect proportions, modeled after Greek classical sculpture. No longer
was there a need to emphasize age and imperfection in order to justify
power; the emperor’s power couldn’t be challenged. Therefore, it was much
more useful to depict him as forever young and sexy as hell in order to stress
the everlasting glory of the Roman Empire. J
The word “video” refers to moving images recorded via a video camera.
This can include everything from home movies, to your favorite reality TV
show, to this week’s hottest horror flick. “Video art,” however, is a term
designated for something else. Don’t get me wrong, the line between movies
and the “something else” that constitutes video art is certainly blurry and
getting blurrier. The ability to use video as a creative medium is now widely
accessible (have I mentioned the Art History Babes have a YouTube
channel?? Like, comment, subscribe, baby).
Buuut for the purposes of art history yadda yadda yadda … video art is
art that employs the use of video. It is distinguished from theatrical cinema
because it does not necessarily rely on the same conventions as your favorite
rom-com. In other words, video art has a lot of artistic freedom, and utilizes
it generously. For example, two of the early pioneers of video art,
Vietnamese-American Nam June Paik and Japanese Shigeko Kubota used
video to expand the boundaries of art in a number of ways. In the 1960s and
1970s, Kubota created autobiographical videos with distorted and abstracted
images and colors. Nam June Paik’s 1965 Zen For Film took a minimalist
approach, projecting thirty minutes of unprocessed film onto a screen.
The incorporation of video into art has allowed for a number of
advancements in art production. For example, a fleeting act of performance
art can now be captured for future viewing. But this begs the question, what
is the difference between an artist recording their avant-garde performance
in a modern art museum and Joss Whedon directing Avengers 12: Return of
the Avenged?
Yes, I too am so damn sick of these superhero movies, but still, think
about it. C
Videography has to be one of the trendiest mediums right now. I’d even go so
far as to say every millennial has a friend who does videography (hey,
Zacky!). Technological advances in video cameras, drones, and editing
software have allowed for more people than ever to identify as
videographers, while platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo, and Instagram have
made sharing videos much easier.
Whether it involves a team of videographers using multiple camera
angles or a single person with a smartphone—capturing video, editing said
video, and creating a shareable final product are the basic components of this
genre. Within those components, there is scope for great creativity, both
during the shooting of a video and in post-production (meaning after the
video has been shot).
Videography has become a common medium for advertisements,
promotional videos, wedding videos, or to capture your weekend trip to
Yosemite. The general accessibility as a medium creates a lot of room for
professional and amateur videographers alike. N
Visual analysis—or VA in the biz—is a writing style common in art history
for its emphasis on description. Really that’s all it is: describing, plain and
simple. While uncomplicated in theory, writing pure visual analysis can be
tricky because people love to advance into other, sexy topics, like
symbolism. Good visual analysis starts with just looking. You really
shouldn’t start writing at all until you’ve spent a solid chunk of time just
looking at a work. From there, you write about the formal elements—color,
shape, line, figures, composition, and so on. When analyzing, only focus on
things that you get from looking at the piece of art. I encourage you to tap into
the visual experience of a work and all the sensuality and emotion that comes
with it. Resist with all your might, the urge to discuss historical context. I
know this part is difficult because you’re full of information and you want
your reader to know, but have patience, child—there will be time for that
later on. N
Art, architecture, advertisements, fashion, film, video games—anything you
encounter visually in your life is an aspect of visual culture. By examining
the ways in which different cultures represent such concepts, we are better
able to understand what makes those cultures distinct. As an example,
consider the Kawaii culture in Japan, which celebrates all things cute and
lovable. You could check out some of Kawaii’s visual culture (which I highly
recommend) by scrolling “#kawaii” on Instagram, and looking at apparel,
accessories, art, and advertisements. The visual culture of Kawaii is
generally cute as hell, because that’s a driving force in that culture.
Visual culture is an interdisciplinary approach that can incorporate the
arts, humanities, and social and physical sciences. We live in an incredibly
optical world, perhaps more so now than ever before, with the growing role
technology plays in peoples’ lives. Visual culture considers and
encompasses the many different kinds of visual stimuli various cultures
create and consume. It’s a fascinating and all-encompassing topic that
encourages you to step outside of the exclusive “high” art box and consider
all cultural visual materials. G
This is a dictionary. Its purpose is to help you build your verbal vocabulary
so that, not only will you sound smart at dinner parties, but you will also
expand your understanding of the world. Visual vocabulary is all about
building your knowledge base of images in the same way that you build a
knowledge base of words.
Anyone can build a visual vocabulary, for any purpose. For example, it is
a common method for note-taking. If you can connect a concept not only to
words, but images as well, you are more likely to be able to recall that
information and get an A on the final exam. This is because a word is a
symbol the same way an image is a symbol. For example, you can use the
words “cute panda” to tell a story about a panda. You can also use a cute lil'
cartoon image of a panda to tell a story about a panda. Both the words and
the image add to your holistic understanding of the concept “cute panda.”
Establishing a visual vocabulary is a necessary skill for artists. For
example, cartoonists use and enhance their visual vocabulary constantly.
Cartoons are made of repeated images of the same characters in different
scenarios. Therefore, it is necessary for a cartoonist to simplify the
characters that they use, and practice drawing them in a variety of scenarios.
They must master a visual vocabulary.
Expanding visual vocabulary is just as valuable as expanding verbal
vocabulary. It requires you to engage visually with the world around you. It
causes your brain to think differently about the person, place, thing, or
concept in question. This builds more neural connections and, with them,
more creativity. Plus, you’ll dominate at Pictionary. C
A votive is an object left as an offering to a deity. The practice of making
votive offerings has been made in the name of polytheistic and monotheistic
gods across the world for millennia—everybody’s doin’ it. Votives can be a
whole range of items, such as candles, food, jewelry, paintings, and
sculpture. Ancient Mesopotamians left wee statues in temples to stand in for
the real-life donor when they could not be physically present. The ancient
Greeks built statues of life-sized sexy bronze men as votive offerings for
gods and goddesses to ogle at. Practitioners of witchcraft have created and
left votive offerings on altars and out in nature for centuries. Votives have
taken, and continue to take, many different forms, depending on the religious
context and specific intent of the votive. Because votives are meant to honor
a divine figure, oftentimes they are works of art in and of themselves—
created and designed by skilled craftsmen and artists. Due to the endurance
of religions across the globe, votives are likely to be around long after I’m
gone from this earth and chilling on a pyramid on a moonbeam somewhere. G
The word “voyeur” is used interchangeably with the phrase “Peeping Tom.”
And this would be correct. A Peeping Tom is a type of voyeur, and as such,
is associated with invasions of privacy, often of a sexual nature. However,
voyeurism can involve taking pleasure in watching any scene or activity that
may not be intended for public viewing, or in which the agency of the person
being watched is not respected. In this context, the key characteristics are that
the watched subject is unaware that they are being watched and the watcher,
or voyeur, gains pleasure from watching.
Now, the art history part. This concept plays heavily into art theory
because studying art requires the act of looking at, and examining, visual
material. This visual material typically has a subject, and that subject is often
a human person. There is a voyeuristic gaze at play in the making and
enjoyment of many of these images. This has been widely discussed in terms
of the “male gaze.” This term, first coined by feminist film theorist Laura
Mulvey, refers to the sexual objectification of women by men. Throughout
history, an inordinate number of images have been created by, and for, the
male gaze (think of the countless paintings of sexy naked ladies
commissioned by rich powerful men). However, men are not the only ones
with gazes. There is also the feminine gaze, the imperial gaze, the
postcolonial gaze, and the oppositional gaze. The notion of the gaze is pretty
fundamental to understanding how we look at artistic portrayals of humans,
and therefore, how we look at actual humans.
Many artists have explored and subverted the gaze with their work.
American figurative painter Jordan Casteel reverses the gaze in her 2019
exhibition “Returning the Gaze.” Many of Casteel’s portraits depict black
men living and working in Harlem. She paints these men with honest
emotionality and direct eye contact, in a space of the subject’s own choosing.
Casteel’s work creates an exchange between the viewer and the viewed that
fully humanizes the subject. When the gaze is returned, there is a sense of
knowing and awareness, the viewed have agency and the voyeurism of the
viewer is challenged. C
If you’ve ever been told “the writing’s on the wall,” either you were in need
of a reality check, or you were walking into an art show. Wall text is any
writing on the walls of an art exhibition. If you visit an art show today,
chances are there will be at least some wall text. Whether it’s merely small
labels accompanying individual pieces of art, or paragraphs of text meant to
explain the show, wall text helps visitors better understand an exhibition.
Labels are generally small plaques with the work’s title, artist’s name, date,
medium, and any other information that’s relevant to the work. This can mean
a price if the work is for sale, the name of the owner if it’s being borrowed,
or a brief explanation for educational purposes. Art preparators can also
adhere vinyl lettering right onto the clean walls of a gallery. This technique
has been pretty trendy since the advent of the white cube style gallery space.
Plus, peeling the lettering off at the end has to be one of the most satisfying
feelings. N
Water is a big deal. It makes up sixty percent of your body and seventy-one
percent of Earth’s surface. Opinions vary, but you should be drinking
somewhere in the realm of four pints (two liters) of water per day. It makes
sense that humans would harness this invaluable resource for art-making.
Watercolor is a painting medium in which the paint pigments are
suspended in a water-based solution. This gives the paint color a lovely
transparency. Watercolor is used on a number of surfaces, the most common
being watercolor paper. Regular paper may warp when wet, but watercolor
paper is made with cotton to minimize such distortion. Watercolor technique
is special because you get to play with the effects of good ole H2O. For
example, you can use water to dilute and lighten a color, as opposed to
adding white paint.
Watercolor has a looong and varied history as a medium used by cultures
all over the world for everything from landscape painting to calligraphy to
still life. It is a great introductory medium for small children (because mess
is minimal compared to other paints) and a lovely way to spend your Sunday
afternoon. Instant creative satisfaction, just add water!
Now put down this book for a moment and take a water break you
majestic and likely dehydrated babe. C
The “white cube” is a reference to the modern gallery space as coined by
Brian O’Doherty in his series of essays Inside the White Cube: The
Ideology of the Gallery Space. Originally published in Artforum in 1976, the
essays have since been published into a handy little book. The white cube is
generally a rectangular or oblong gallery space, painted white with overhead
lighting. It has been stripped of its artifice in order to free it of any context.
Opposed to the outside world, it’s important that the white cube is a neutral
space. O’Doherty examined how we display and consume art in a postwar
climate, and what that says about our relationship to said art. He does this by
looking at exhibitions from the 20th century, and working through the
problems brought on by the modern gallery. These range from artist/curator
problems, such as how to hang art in a modern space, to problems
surrounding the visitor’s needs, such as how to interact with an everchanging environment.
Basically, if you’ve ever walked into an art gallery and thought, “Where
am I supposed to stand?,” you’re going to get something out of these essays. N
A woodcut is a type of print made from a design cut into a block of wood.
Areas that the artist cuts out create negative space, while the remaining
surface transfers the ink to produce the print. The surface is covered with ink
using an ink-covered roller (called a brayer), leaving ink upon the flat
surface, but not in the nonprinting areas.
Originating in China during antiquity, the earliest woodblock fragments
are attributed to the Han Dynasty (c. 220 CE). In Europe, woodcut is the
oldest technique used for Old Master prints, developing around 1400. In
Japan, woodblock prints became all the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries,
making up a good portion of the ukiyo-e prints that influenced many
modernist European artists. Woodcut printmaking became a popular form of
art in Mexico during the early to mid-20th century. Artists used it to convey
political unrest and it was a popular medium for political activism,
especially after the Mexican Revolution (1910–20). The accessibility and
versatility of woodcuts made them a big deal in art history and they have
been instrumental to the creation of entire styles, as well as driving social
movements. Today, the cheaper and easier to produce linocut has mostly
replaced the woodcut. It involves the same process but with with linoleum. J
Have you ever looked at a piece of art and thought, “there’s no way that one
person made that thing …”? Well there’s a good chance they didn’t. They
most likely had a workshop to help them. Workshops are spaces where artists
can work with a team of skilled craftsmen to help complete their artwork.
Contemporary artists such as British Damien Hirst and American Jeff
Koons have workshops to create their monumental and grandiose artworks.
Sometimes the people working in these workshops are artists themselves,
and often they’re people with more specific technical abilities. I imagine
creating a work like Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in
the Mind of Someone Living (1991), would require quite the team of
experts. In these situations, the artist becomes the creative mastermind with a
team of employees to complete their vision—not a problem considering Hirst
and Koons’ work goes for millions of dollars on the reg.
Historically, many successful artists have used workshops in more or
less the same way. Famous painters would often have a workshop to
complete less important tasks or aspects of their work. Workshop attendants
could be in charge of something as simple as mixing paint colors, or they
could do as much as paint an entire background. Due to workshop
production, sometimes it’s difficult to know for sure which aspects of a work
were completed by the artist, and who else may have had a hand in it.
Because of this, works are often displayed in museums as “from the
workshop of [ insert artist name ].” N
YARN BOMB (n./v.)
Have you ever been walking around a city and been confronted with a pole
or tree wearing a knitted sweater? Did it make you stop and think, “huh?”
Well, my friend, that was yarn bombing. The practice of covering public
areas, objects, or even trees with colorful knitted (or crocheted) yarn or
fibers is a type of graffiti, or street art. Unlike graffiti, however, yarn
bombing is less permanent and can be easily removed. It’s hard to pin down
when yarn bombing began in earnest, but we can place its rise somewhere
between 2009 and 2011. It’s thought to have started in Texas, where a group
of knitters decided to make use of their half-finished scarves, sweaters,
mittens, and hats and make art for the community to enjoy. From here the
practice took off and yarn bombing started popping up in cities all over the
world. Yarn bombing, as its name implies, is somewhat of a clandestine
practice, and shows up without warning. Urban environments are usually
choice locations for yarn bombing because there’s a) a lot of stuff you can
cover, and b) a lot of people who will see it.
Yarn bombing can be a form of protest art, used to disrupt or bring
awareness to an issue. In 2015, the Polish artist Olek covered a women’s
homeless shelter in Delhi to raise awareness for the shelter and to protest the
Indian caste system that results in the widespread poverty that makes such
shelters necessary. Yarn bombing is a colorful, pleasant way to make people
stop and think, but be warned: in some places this practice is considered
vandalism, so check out the laws before you go yarn bombin’ (unless you are
a renegade knitter who eschews the man’s laws, in which case, we’ll look
the other way). J
Death, sex, drugs … just a few of the YBA’s (and AHB’s) favorite themes.
The Young British Artists—known as YBAs—came to prominence in the late
1980s. These loosely affiliated artists were bound by an open-minded
attitude toward art-making, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a proclivity for
dark themes (hell yeah). Included in the group were Sarah Lucas, Jenny
Saville, and Tracey Emin. Many of the YBAs studied at the Bachelor of Fine
Art program at Goldsmiths College, London, a program known for
disregarding the convention of separating students based on medium. All the
painters, sculptors, photographers, printmakers, and so on, studied
together in mixed classes rather than those designated by medium, and this
subtle dismantling of convention may have nudged them to be open-minded in
terms of process as well.
The YBAs are known for their innovative and shock-inducing artwork.
There are two exhibitions in particular associated with the YBAs
—“Freeze” in 1988, and “Sensation” in 1997. “Freeze” was curated by a
baby-faced Damien Hirst and drew a lot of attention. Included in the show
was Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963–1995 (1995). This
work features a tent with the names of everyone she’s shared a bed with—
whether the experience was sexual, or not—inscribed on the inside of the
tent. Emin’s work is largely considered confessional and this work
represents intimacy more than sexual conquest. It also demonstrates the
postmodern impetus of disregarding so-called “fine art” media for lowculture items.
Ironically, making art that casually blurs the line between high and low
culture, resulted in many of the YBAs becoming extremely rich. N
Man, I just really love some good, old-fashioned, stepped-platform
architecture. Basically, you have a flat platform, usually made of stone or
mud bricks, and then you slap a smaller platform on top, and so on and so
forth, until you end up with a structure that could be called a pyramid, or a
ziggurat! But wait Jen, what is the difference between a ziggurat and a
pyramid? That’s a good question, dear reader, and the answer is: it’s
Some historians and archaeologists distinguish ziggurats from pyramids
by their function. Ziggurats served as a platform that elevated a temple to
house the gods and give them a cool place to chill and receive votive
offerings from mortals. Pyramids, on the other hand, were tombs, acting as
the final resting place of the great Egyptian pharaohs. However, the pyramids
in ancient Mesoamerica throw this theory right out the window. These
pyramids also acted primarily as enormous platforms for temples and we
call them pyramids, not ziggurats! What the heck! Another theory is that the
term “ziggurat”—taken from the ancient Akkadian word for “to build on a
raised area”—is merely the name we give these structures that are
specifically from the ancient Mesopotamian world. Fine.
Ziggurats are sure to show up in your introductory art history class. This
is because we often begin with ancient Mesopotamia in many introductory art
history classes (fertile crescent and whatnot). Mesopotamia (the area we
now call the Middle East) was one of the earliest complex civilizations in
human history. Groups such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Babylonians
all built ziggurats as part of elaborate temple complexes where only a select
few could enter, namely priests and rulers. These structures were made of
mud bricks, unlike their Egyptian and Mesoamerican cousins, which were
made of stone and were glazed in dazzling colors that have since been
eroded by desert winds. There are few surviving ziggurats—about twentyfive by conservative estimates—with the ziggurat at Ur, in modern day Iraq,
being one of the most extant examples. Climate change, erosion, and more
notably, human intervention (for example, war in the Middle East) are some
of the greatest threats to the remaining ziggurats, so hopefully we’ll all get
our shit together soon or else we’ll be left with nothing but pyramids. J
ZINE (n.)
Fanzines. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for an abbreviated word. Zines are
small folio books or pamphlets that began as cheap ways to disseminate
information but have become a medium unto their own.
The origin and spread of zines owe much to various countercultures of
the 20th century, mostly via nerds (which I say affectionately), musicians, and
feminists. Zines were first invented in the 1930s by science fiction fans as a
way to self-publish and distribute their “fanzines” (fan magazines dedicated
to sci-fi films). Earlier methods of large-batch production were timeconsuming, so when copy shops became popular in the 1970s, it was a true
game changer. Photocopying allowed creatives in the punk music scene in
London, New York, and LA to make, copy, and distribute thousands of zines
through the 1970s and 80s. The Riot grrrls coming out of Washington in the
1990s also embraced the medium, breathing new life into the zine scene.
Their manifesto laid out how members should start a band, make a zine, and
get their voices heard—rad! Both movements believed strongly in the DIY
(that’s “do it yourself”) ethos and aesthetic, which is why zines often
embrace the handmade look.
Whether they’re folded, glued, or bound, hand-drawn, photocopied, or
created on a big-ass printing press, zines are still being made by artists
worldwide. Zine fairs or conventions take place all over the world and
allow artists to showcase their work, meet other zine artists, and potentially
sell some work. The internet has also had an impact, allowing both for the
creation of e-zines as well as providing a platform for artists to sell their
paper zines regardless of where they live. Zines, at their core, are about
independent thought and creativity. What’s not to love? N
For podcasts, blog posts, videos and more, visit:
→ Ades, Dawn, Marcel Duchamp, Neil Cox, and David Hopkins. Marcel
Duchamp. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1999.
→ Artsy:
→ Bailey, Gauvin. Baroque & Rococo. London: Phaidon Press Inc., 2012.
→ Camille, Michael. Gothic Art: Glorious Visions. New York: Harry N.
Abrams, 1996.
→ Charney, Noah. The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives, and Methods
of Master Forgers. London: Phaidon Press Inc., 2015.
→ Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory: reading culture. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
→ Craven, David. Art and Revolution in Latin America (1910–1990). New
Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002.
→ Curran, Brian., Anthony Grafton, Pamela Long, Benjamin Weiss. Obelisk:
A History. Cambridge: The Burndy Library, 2009.
→ Curran, Brian. The Egyptian Renaissance: The Afterlife of Ancient Egypt
in Early Modern Italy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
→ Debord, Guy. The Society of Spectacle. New York: Zone Books, 1994.
→ Decolonize this Place: www.Decolonizethisplace.org
→ Gay, Peter. Modernism: The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett
and Beyond. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008.
→ Gruzinski, Serge. Images at War: Mexico From Columbus to Blade
Runner (1492–2019). Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2001.
→ Hodge, Susie. Art in Detail: 100 Masterpieces. London: Thames &
Hudson Inc., 2016.
→ Hyperallergic: hyperallergic.com
→ Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception: and Heaven and Hell. New
York: Harper & Row, 1963.
→ Kettenmann, Andrea. Frida Kahlo, 1907–1954: Pain and Passion. Köln:
Benedikt Taschen, 2000.
→ Khan Academy: www.khanacademy.org
→ Leach, Neil. Architecture and revolution: contemporary perspectives on
Central and Eastern Europe. London: Psychology Press, 1999.
→ Lorde, Audre. Uses of the erotic: the erotic as power. Tucson, AZ: Kore
Press, 2000.
→ Lucie-Smith, Edward. Latin American Art Since 1900. Third Edition.
London: Thames & Hudson, 2020.
→ Morris, Frances, Tiffany Bell, Marion Ackermann, and Agnes Martin.
Agnes Martin. New York, NY: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers Inc,
→ Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Palgrave Macmillan UK,
→ Nagel, Alexander and Christopher S. Wood. Anachronic Renaissance.
New York, NY: Zone Books, 2010.
→ Nicholas, Lynn H. The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures
in the Third Reich and the Second World War. New York: Random House
Inc., 1994.
→ O'Doherty, Brian. Inside the white cube: the ideology of the gallery
space. Santa Monica: Lapis Press, 1986.
→ Quinn, Bridget. Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made
History (In That Order). San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2017
→ Root, Deborah. Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, And the
Commodification Of Difference. Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.
→ Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
→ Saltz, Jerry. How to Be an Artist. New York: Riverhead Books, 2020.
→ Sontag, Susan. Against interpretation, and other essays. New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966.
→ St. Clair, Kassia. The Secret Lives of Color. New York: Penguin Books,
→ Thomkins, Calvin. Duchamp: A Biography. New York: The Museum of
Modern Art, 1996.
→ Zumthor, Peter. Atmospheres. Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag GmbH, 2006.
Endless love and appreciation to our community of podcast listeners and
followers. You all have been a continuous source of encouragement and
inspiration to us, and we are so grateful to have attracted such a beautiful
community with our work.
We all found ourselves enveloped in the world of art history thanks to
passionate, brilliant, and thoughtful professors. Thank you for teaching us,
encouraging us, reading our writing, and challenging us; we are forever
grateful. Ricardo De Mambro Santos, Letha Ch’ien, Talinn Grigor, Catherine
Anderson, Lynn Roller, Anna Novakov, Susette Min, James Housefield,
Hegnar Wattenpaugh, Ferdinanda Florence, Maceo Montoya, Sarah Sik.
To the loved ones in our lives—family, partners, friends—thank you for
your support and enthusiasm for this book and what we’ve been building. It
has meant the world to us and we love you all.
Thank you to all of the “Art Buds” for fostering a creative community
built on friendship, dance parties, and shared interest in art. This podcast,
business, and book would not exist without our time in Davis, and that time
would not have been the same without all of you.
Special thanks to Ang for all of your support, and for feeding and
“mothering” the babes whenever given the chance. To our amazing team of
“lawyer dads”—Dan Kohls and Felix De La Torre—thank you for your
guidance through this new experience. To Jerry Hendricks, Jill Hendricks,
and Kristine Hendricks, thank you dearly for housing and supporting an Art
History Babe throughout the process of writing this book. To Anne
Tignanelli, your daughter will be forever grateful for your abundant curiosity
and unconditional support. To Jim Van Dine, thank you for sharing your love
of history and storytelling with your daughter. To Fred and Maria Gutierrez,
thank you for endlessly supporting and bolstering your daughter's love for art
and culture. A tremendous thank you to Sonya Mogilner and Kelsey Berka,
for keeping their resident Art History Babe fed and loved while writing this
Thank you Alice Graham, Laura Bulbeck and Isabel Eeles for your
feedback and your fundamental role in bringing this book to life. Thank you
to Carmen Casado for providing the beautiful illustrations that accompany
our text. They add something so special to the book.
Creativity, friendship and collaboration made this book possible and we
encourage you to nurture all those aspects in your life—the results can be
First published in 2020 by White Lion Publishing,
an imprint of The Quarto Group.
The Old Brewery, 6 Blundell Street
London, N7 9BH,
United Kingdom
T (0)20 7700 6700
Text © 2020 The Art History Babes
Illustrations © 2020 Carmen Casado
The Art History Babes have asserted their moral right to be identified as the Author of this Work in
accordance with the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilised in any form or by any means,
electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval
system, without permission in writing from White Lion Publishing.
Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders of material quoted in this book. If application
is made in writing to the publisher, any omissions will be included in future editions.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Digital edition: 978-0-71125-415-2
Softcover edition: 978-0-71124-882-3
Publisher → Philip Cooper
Commissioning Editor → Alice Graham
Project Editor → Laura Bulbeck
Designer → Isabel Eeles