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How long do you typically look at an artwork, and what can you learn in that time? In this episode of Crash Course Art History, we’ll acquire a toolbox of terms to help us discover how all art is influenced by the time and place it was made in.

Introduction: Art in Context 00:00
Art Historians' Tools & Spring Way 00:53
Art's Function & an Elephant Mask 03:56
Using Context to Compare & Contrast 06:23
Review & Credits 10:19

Image Descriptions:



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CC Kids:
Less than thirty seconds.

That’s about how long I can hold my breath, gargle mouthwash, or last in a staring contest. And it’s also how long research tells us the average museum-goer looks at an artwork.

So yeah, not very long. Which raises the question: How much can you understand something you’ve looked at for less than half a minute? You might be missing an incredible love story, or a hidden easter egg that unravels an entire mystery.

And the further you go down that rabbit hole, the more meaningful your experience with the art becomes. In this episode we’ll explore how to look at art… and see more than meets the eye. Hi!

I'm Sarah Urist Green, and this is Crash Course Art History. [THEME MUSIC] OK so, sure, you can enjoy an artwork by experiencing it for any amount of time. But something happens when you take a closer look. You start to notice things that lead to questions.

Like, where, when, and why was this amazing thing originally made? In other words, what’s its context? Much like how an archaeologist uses tools to uncover artifacts, art historians use tools to uncover the stories behind art.

But our tools aren’t tiny axes and spades—they’re words like “shape,” “color,” “line,” “volume,” and “texture.” These help us describe an artwork’s form, or its purely visual or physical aspects. The better we get at noticing and describing what we’re seeing in art, the more we jiggle the key to unlock the context behind it. Let’s try it out, with “Spring Way,” made in 1964 by the artist Romare Bearden.

If you were in the same room with this work, maybe the first thing you’d notice is how compact it is, about the size of an iPad. Notice the way it’s arranged—or its composition— by scanning the piece from one side to the other, and top to bottom, or whichever way you want. Strong lines stretch vertically and horizontally across the image, created by a grid of rectangles and triangles, broken up by very few curves.

We get the sense of tall city buildings with textured brick walls. And we can identify a figure climbing the stairs on the right, making this work representational. But just like how not every poem rhymes, not all art represents the world exactly how it is.

The figures are abstract, meaning they might be recognizable, but the artwork doesn’t confine itself to how a person or building looks in real life. Zoomed in, we can see that “Spring Way” is a collage of different papers and clippings on paperboard. This is the medium, or the materials the artist used.

We can tell how deliberately he chose each piece by the nearly monochromatic color palette, mostly gray, black, and cream, with pops of red peeking between layers. From those colors, I get the sense of an environment that’s bleak and harsh–with only brief moments of life. And then I start to wonder about the artwork’s context and the artist’s intention.

So, let’s see… If I investigate the title, “Spring Way,” I’ll learn that it’s named after an alley in Pittsburgh, nearby where the artist lived with his grandparents in the 1920s. They rented rooms to Black people who had migrated from the South, often working in dangerous conditions at a steel mill. If I dig deeper into Bearden’s life, I’ll learn he was part of a group of artists called Spiral, who strived to represent Black people’s experiences as a way of contributing to the Civil Rights Movement.

All of these details build to create an experience of art that is so much more than visual. You can appreciate its form, while also listening to the stories it can tell you when you explore its context. Our art historian’s toolbox can unlock context in other ways too, like helping us understand how an artwork originally functioned.

Take this object: a Kuosi Society Elephant Mask, made by the Bamileke People in what’s now Cameroon sometime in the 1900s (vague, I know). If we look at the mask’s composition, we can see different shapes representing an elephant’s features — large circles on either side for the ears and long rectangular panels hanging down for the trunk. Notice how color accentuates the mask’s curved forms and draws attention to the ears, eyes, and mouth.

The mask’s intricate patterning comes from brightly colored beads, sewn along with cowrie shells into cloth and raffia, or strips of dried palm leaves. And from the choice of materials and process, or technique, we assume this mask was made for someone very wealthy and powerful. Those glass beads were imported, rare, and pricey—in other words, they were a flex.

This show of importance is part of the mask’s content: the ideas it communicates, beliefs it affirms, and subject it portrays. Although the subject of this mask is an elephant, to understand its larger meaning, we have to put it in the context of the Bamileke culture—where powerful animals like elephants are associated with powerful people. The mask’s style — meaning, its distinct combination of form and composition — is signature Bamileke.

Its repeating pattern of triangles, arranged in circles, plus the visual shout-out to another powerful animal—the leopard— points us to its creators. It was also worn, of course, along with a beaded vest, a feather headdress, and whisks of horsehair. It was also performed, not displayed in a case just for viewing, and was part of a masquerade, which included music, movement, and an interactive audience.

We don’t get to see the mask in that original context, but visitors to the Brooklyn Museum, where it’s housed, can admire it next to other Bamileke beadwork, as well as artwork from cultures of around the same region and time. Art History works to add that detail back in, and try to understand what the artwork might have meant to the people who made it, experienced it, or even wore it in its original time and place. And sometimes, putting two works side-by-side can reveal even more.

Let’s dive in by comparing and contrasting two very big hunks of stone. One that’s been meme-ified millions of times, and one that hasn’t. First, the less meme-ified Coyolxauhqui Monolith.

It was uncovered in 1978 when electrical workers in Mexico City hit a huge carved stone by accident. And I mean huge—it’s about eleven feet wide and weighs eight tons—that’s as heavy as an adult T-rex! But the size wasn’t the only surprising thing about it.

It was carved with the image of a dismembered woman wearing bells and feathers, with her limbs and head rolling freely from her unattached body. Who says art history isn’t exciting? The image would have been familiar to the Aztecs when it was carved in the late 15th century.

It depicts the story of the moon goddess Coyolxuahqui, who was furious when she found out her mother was pregnant with Huitzilopochtli, god of the sun. So the moon goddess tried to murder her mother with the help of her 400 brothers. But the baby sun-god was born ready to rumble, with an armored adult body.

He decapitated his scheming half-sister and tossed her remaining pieces off a mountain. The monolith shows the scene after the moon goddess was vanquished. Archaeologists figured out that this stone was originally placed at the base of a staircase that led to the Templo Mayor, a massive religious temple in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán.

The sculpture would’ve represented the ultimate destruction of enemies by Aztec strength. In fact, war captives were sometimes ritualistically killed at the top of the temple and rolled down onto the stone, evoking the myth. Now let’s compare it to our other heavy hunk of stone: “David,” a sculpture made by our old friend Michelangelo in Florence, Italy.

It was carved within a few years of the Coyolxauhqui Monolith, but over six thousand miles away. Like the monolith, it reflects an epic showdown that would have been well-known in Europe at the time—the story of David and Goliath. According to the Bible, a giant named Goliath challenged the Israelites to present someone who could defeat him in combat.

No one dared, except a young shepherd named David. Armed with nothing but a staff, slingshot, and five rocks, David knocked Goliath out and chopped off his head. Wow, a lot of decapitations today.

In any case, that’s the moment many artists chose to portray: David after conquering Goliath. Like how the Coyolxauhqui Monolith shows the moon goddess after her defeat. But Michelangelo sculpted the underdog David /before/ the fight, looking all determined with furrowed brow and stones.

Ahem, these stones. In his hands. The David sculpture was placed in front of Florence’s town hall.

At the time, Florence was facing attack from neighboring armies. The statue stood as a symbol of the city and its people. So the citizens of Florence looked at it and thought, “It me.” Side by side, we’ve got two sculptures made around the same time, in different parts of the world, that are both serving decapitation and nudity.

They were both sculpted from a single piece of stone, and they both were on public display in major cities, to be viewed by people who knew the stories they referenced. At the same time, the works show some significant cultural differences. Many Italians at the time perceived David’s nudity as a sign of heroism.

While the Aztecs saw Coyolxuahqui’s nakedness as a sign of humiliation and defeat. And, here’s the thing: just like sun gods and giant slayers, you have context, too. Your personal, lived experiences and cultural background inform how you view art…including how you feel about seeing naked people in it.

Artwork doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s connected to the context where it was made: a culture, a moment in time, a particular perspective. And it’s connected to the context it’s viewed within.

By observing closely and exploring the stories behind art, we can start to peel back layers of its context and meaning. So, whether you look at an artwork for 30 seconds or 30 years, there’s always something to discover. Next time, we’ll break down the history of museums and how they’re adapting to today’s world.

I’ll see you then. 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 marvelous people. If you want to help keep Crash Course free for everyone, forever, you can join our community on Patreon.