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Tabloid Art History Rewrites Artistic Cannon

Recent posts in Flavorwire and A.V. Club brought my attention to an intriguing Twitter account, Tabloid Art History, run by Elise Bell, Chloe Esslemont, and Mayanne Soret, which has actually been around since 2016. Beyond providing an affordable and enjoyable art history crash course, TAH performs the philosophical service of promoting visual literacy.

With its tagline, “for every pic of Lindsay Lohan falling, there’s a Bernini sculpture begging to be referenced,” TAH pairs more traditional works of art with  pics of celebrities, thereby establishing conceptual correspondences between images separated by chasms of time, sensibility, and significance.TAH asks us to hold in our minds images at once massively mismatched and strangely aligned as though they were meant to be shown together, even though they actually reach across a seemingly endless spatiotemporal divide.

While a Vox piece examines how TAH “places images from pop culture next to their precise analogues in art history,” and this is certainly true on some level, for me what actually makes TAH’s pairings fascinating is their almost-match that is often also a form of opposition.

TAH’s unsettling juxtapositions force us to rethink art history as we witness the formation of Britney as art. It also invents a history between the images: in the time between the moments of the older and newer works of art. This raises questions such as, how do we determine when the newer art was invented in the case of a picture of Britney, for instance? When the pic was snapped by a celebrity photographer? Or is the work of art Britney herself? So was the artwork created the day she was born? The moment she became a star—perhaps the moment she released her …Baby One More Time video and etched that particular vision of the Catholic school girl on our collective memory?

TAH also subtly critiques the notion of artistic canon. The very title involves a mental travel: an art history formed as we look at it, images of the “now” that are juxtaposed with images we’ve had time to canonize for the most part (some of the images are lesser known). One of the creators, Elise Bell, addresses the problem of canonicity in that same Vox article/interview: “What we have found limiting, however, and this is also reflective of our formal art history education and the lack of diversity within the canon, is how little literature or online resources there are dedicated to showing the art made by women and people of color. We get bored of matching tabloid imagery with works created by dead white men.”

If poetry was once painting’s sister art, we now see pop culture zooming in as painting’s sibling, and as our new religion. If paintings used to depict imagery from religion and literature, or sometimes both in the case of the illustration of biblical lore, TAH remixes tabloid celebrity as biblical heroine. When Alison Nastasi writes in Flavorwire, “If your life is incomplete without tabloid news and you worship at the altar of LiLo, Brit-Brit, and RiRi, then Tabloid Art History is your everything,” it can be interpreted almost literally.

As religion fell away in many ways, pop culture, and particularly film and film celebrities (and now television, web series, etc.), swooped in to fill the void. The poets saw it coming. In Spring And All, William Carlos Williams wrote that, “The decay of cathedrals / is efflorescent / through the phenomenal / growth of movie houses.” Sylvia Plath wrote of the projective capabilities of cinema: “Dark in the room above your heads, one runs the machine; reel after vibrating reel of divine life circles under his direction onto the mammoth screen, playing forth the drama, the life force, the Bible of the masses.”

As early as 1915, poet, and some say the first film critic, Vachel Lindsay wrote of the “cathedral mood of the motion picture” and connected the religious potential of film to Jesus’ employment of parables. For its part, TAH forms its own little tongue-in-cheek brand of poem or parable, little commentaries that wouldn’t exist without these strange visual pairings.

Lady Gaga performing at the Bell Center in Montreal, Canada (Nov. 3rd) // ‘The Creation of Adam’ by Michelangelo (c. 1512)

This image above, for instance, asks that we jump 505 years to find a surprising contrast: God creating the first human, the first man, and Lady Gaga, constantly playing with gender creating…herself in 2017, also seemingly out of thin air. It’s as though Lilith got another chance to roam the earth and this time got to create herself.