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From cave paintings to public murals, humans have told stories with art for thousands of years. In this episode of Crash Course Art History, we discover that visual storytelling is elementally human — and so is competing over whose story is told.

Introduction: Narrative Art 00:00
History as Story 00:55
Contradictory Stories 04:10
Official & Unofficial Stories 07:01
Review & Credits 08:51

Image Descriptions:


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CC Kids:
What can humanity's earliest  artworks tell us about who we are?

Before humans wrote down stories  with words, they wrote them with art. Like in prehistoric cave paintings,   part-human/part-animal figures are often thought  to represent shamans communing with spirits.

Some researchers believe the  art depicts actual ceremonies,   where people wore animal masks and tried to  figure out more about life and the afterlife. But storytelling in art isn't just  revealing ancient myths and rituals. It's also unveiling conflicting  accounts of the same historic event,   personal stories of love and loss, and a deeper  understanding of what it means to be human.

Hi! I'm Sarah Urist Green, and this  is Crash Course Art History. [THEME MUSIC] It’s no coincidence that the words "story"  and “history” sound alike — they come from   the same Latin root: “historia,”  meaning a narrative of past events. And history itself is a great big, ever-evolving  story, made up of lots of smaller ones.

Which we learn about in a whole host  of ways: by reading verified documents,   conducting research, digging for artifacts,  and talking to people who were actually there. And, of course, by looking at art. Like, take this hand-painted silk  scroll from 15th-century China,   called, “Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute.” The work is thirty-nine feet long, and  is an example of a narrative scroll,   in which an artist tells a story  that progresses as it’s unfolded.

The scroll tells the story of Lady Wenji,   a poet who lived more than a thousand  years prior, during China’s Han dynasty. Lady Wenji, the widowed daughter of  a nobleman, was abducted during the   collapse of the Han Dynasty and taken  as a hostage to what is now Mongolia. She survived her captivity in part  by writing poetry about her homeland.

Eventually, she married a chief and had children. Years later, she was ransomed and able to  return to China — what she’d wanted for so long. But that meant leaving her  husband and children behind.

In the end, she was loyal to her country  but heartbroken over the loss of her family. So, the scroll shows us a different side  of history than, say, a textbook might. We can see how history is made not  just of the broad strokes of war,   but also of the emotional realities of  individuals caught in the cross-fire.

Let’s look at another major  historical phenomenon: migration. History books might describe  this in open-and-shut terms:   this group of people moved  here and that one moved there. The end.

But Ethiopian-American artist Julie Mehretu  makes work that challenges that idea. This is her 1996 piece, “Migration Direction Map.” Yeah, it doesn’t seem  terribly helpful to me either. And that’s intentional.

Maps tend to have clearly defined  borders between places and things,   suggesting divisions that  are permanent and unchanging. But this map has wavy and intersecting lines. It shows boundaries overlapping and  merging, arrows pointing this way and that.

You’re not sure where to start, or  where you’re supposed to end up. The title clues us in to the ideas Mehretu  is exploring–that the movement of people is   anything but straightforward, reflecting  the realities of individuals and families   as they settle and resettle, blend and  clash, as relationships shift over time. Even though Mehretu’s piece isn’t representational  — meaning it doesn’t directly depict objects or   people as they appear in the world — it  does deepen our knowledge of history.

Now, art can also show us how  different people tell the same   stories — and histories — from  totally different perspectives. Kind of like how my husband said  he’d save me the last piece of pizza,   but in his version of the story — huh,  how weird, he can’t recall saying that. Pizza aside, let’s check  out this relief sculpture,   a type of carving with figures that pop  out of a surface in three dimensions.

It’s from around 2250 B. C. E., and it was made  by the Akkadian civilization in what’s now Iraq.

It shows their king, Naram-Sin,  conquering the neighboring Lullubi people. Take a look under Naram-Sin’s foot. He’s trampling a Lullubi soldier  as Akkadian soldiers look on.

Ouch. Now, here’s a different sculpture made by the  supposedly tiny and crushable Lullubi people. That guy?

That’s their king, Anubanini,  squashing an enemy soldier underfoot. Looks pretty familiar! While we don’t know if these  sculptures portray the exact   same battle, it’s clear the roles are reversed.

Both cultures are telling the story  with themselves as the victor. Each side has their own version. It’s family pizza drama on a much larger scale.

Because yeah, art — and stories — are  always told from a particular point of view. Which can be easy to forget, especially in   the face of really compelling  or unchallenged storytelling. But then you see a pair of works like these and  you’re like, oh — yeah, that’s me, that’s John.

Two sides, same story. I wonder if our kids know the truth… Sometimes, there are even conflicting  stories within a single artwork. Like, this Indian sculpture, known  as the Great Relief at Mamallapuram,   which was carved sometime in  the seventh or eighth century.

It’s one of the largest relief  sculptures in the world,   carved from single huge stones called monoliths. Huh, we really do have a lot of heavy  stone objects popping up in this series. Note to self: If you want to make art  that survives, make it out of rock.

Anyway, it’s clear there’s a story on this rock,  but scholars disagree about exactly which one. It could be “Arjuna’s Penance,” about  an archer who fights a fellow hunter,   only to find out he’s a god in disguise. Or it could be “Descent of the Ganges,” which  explains the sacred origins of the Ganges River.

But scholars do agree on a few things. Like why the sculpture was  created in the first place. Both stories include water and  someone asking forgiveness from   the gods, which would’ve represented  protection to viewers at the time.

The relief was commissioned by a king to show  his commitment to protecting his subjects. In fact, it’s possible the artists  intentionally depicted multiple stories   so that a wide variety of people  could understand the same message. But, the coolest part?

On the relief, the Ganges River would have been   represented by actual water  flowing down the boulder. Which is what I like to call a live stream. Sorry.

All around the world, storytelling  in art has highlighted parts of   history that have been overlooked, or  purposely hidden, by people in power. Like, in 1934, Black American artist Aaron  Douglas completed this series of murals during   the Harlem Renaissance, a time period that saw  an explosion of painting, music, literature,   and poetry by Black artists centered in and  around the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. The four panels of the mural show overlapping  scenes from Black American history,   like emancipation from slavery, the Harlem  Renaissance, and the emergence of hate groups.

One figure stands with a slip of paper in hand,   possibly a voting ballot, pointing toward  the U. S. Capitol Building in the distance.

A symbol of political  progress for Black Americans. Like “Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute,”  Douglas’s art tells a chronological story. His graphic style is  distinct–a blend of influences,   from African sculpture and jazz  music to geometric abstraction.

The story is triumphant and hopeful,  emphasized by these glowing concentric circles. But the work doesn’t deny the historic  and ongoing struggles of Black Americans. On the left of this panel,   you can see the looming shapes of Ku  Klux Klan members threatening the scene.

At the time, stories of Black Americans were  not often heard outside of the Black community. The mural helped amplify a missing  piece of history to the broader public. Some refused to believe that Douglas’s  impressive murals were made by a Black   artist, which is both horrifying  and also important to share.

It shows just how necessary it is  to the fight against racism that   we acknowledge the contributions of Black  American artists, historically and today. So yeah, storytelling in art: it’s everywhere. It brings together cave painters, poets,  kings, and you and me, here today.

It helps us understand history in new  ways, compare different perspectives,   and showcase the experiences  and contributions of many. Not just the victors or the privileged,  or the probable pizza stealers. Although there’s no such thing  as a perfect, unbiased record,   storytelling in art enriches what we know about  the past, preserves memories for generations,   and gets us at least a small step closer to  that elusive but alluring thing we call truth.

Our next episode will explore the intersection  of art, spirituality, and the divine. I’ll see you there. Thanks for watching this episode of Crash  Course Art History which was filmed at the   Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields and was  made with the help of all these nice people.

If you want to help keep Crash  Course free for everyone,   forever, you can join our community on Patreon.