Art Historians Shake Up Narratives on TikTokHistorians in the News
tags: social media, art history
In May 2021, Australian art historian and TikToker Mary McGillivray went viral for using her knowledge of visual geometry to debunk a claim that Eurovision winners Måneskin were snorting cocaine in the green room. In her clip on the video-sharing app, she used her training in Renaissance art to map the angles and prove singer Damiano David’s nose couldn’t have touched the table.
Using the name @_theiconoclass, McGillivray has amassed nearly 400k followers on TikTok who tune in for her pithy, irreverent content about art. One of her most popular videos provides tongue-in-cheek explanations of artist styles. “If it looks like the chaos after blackout where everyone is stumbling around in the dark under one solitary emergency light, it’s a Caravaggio,” she explains in the clip, and “If there’s at least one person looking to the camera like they’re on The Office, it’s a Velázquez.”
Other videos praise Taylor Swift’s unintentional reference to how medieval iconography works and Lizzo and Cardi B’s hidden art history references in their Rumors music video. She also does a deep dive into the role of bananas in Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian — a banana duct-taped to a wall — and Susan Gourley’s Half-Eaten Banana — actually recycled materials masquerading as a banana. As McGillivary ponders, “Are people more okay with [Gourley’s] artwork because it’s not a real banana? Do we feel more okay when the artist has carefully constructed the banana out of rubbish and then put it on the wall?”
McGillivray is part of an art history subculture on the video-sharing app that, despite being niche, has a huge following. Although the bite-sized clips could be dismissed as superficial, TikTok’s art historians are using the platform to explore points of view often excluded in more established spaces like galleries and museums.
Cordelia Noe, the founder of The Art Gorgeous media group and website sharing stories about creative endeavors around the world, is an advocate of TikTok’s art history content. “I think people and the art world have got a bit bored of Instagram, of the algorithms and the way of communicating there,” she tells Observer in explanation of the skyrocketing popularity of art-themed TikTok. The video-sharing platform is particularly appealing because “it is more fun, even a bit silly,” she says.