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Art history is much more than names, dates, and creepy babies. It helps us understand how history itself gets constructed and told. In this episode of Crash Course Art History, we’ll learn how interpreting artwork reveals connections among all of us, across cultures and across time.

Introduction: The Stories Art Tells 00:00
What Is Art History? 01:33
The Medicis & Giorgio Vasari 03:17
How Art History Developed 04:43
How History Is Shaped by What Survives 08:10
Review & Credits 11:06

Image Descriptions:



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CC Kids:
Every piece of art tells a story.

Usually, more than one. I’ll show you.

This is a biombo, a folding screen made in Mexico  and inspired by Japanese decorative designs. It existed before we had pianos  or bicycles or even sandwiches. This one would have decorated a wealthy Spaniard’s  home in late seventeenth-century Mexico.

And while it might look like mere decoration,  if you lean in, it'll tell you a story. A story of a battle, where Spain conquered  Tenochtitlan, or modern day Mexico City,   and the Aztec emperor Moctezuma the Second  was killed by one of his own subjects. But records from the Indigenous people of  Mexico tell a different story of the same event.

In their account, the Spanish killed the  Aztec emperor, as part of their conquest. Historical events like this — and history  itself — aren’t exactly straightforward. The story you get varies, depending  on which documents, or artworks,   you look at, and who’s doing the telling.

By studying this centuries-old screen we  learn about more than just the object itself. We learn about history — and how history,   like art, is not something we  discover, but something we create. Hi!

I'm Sarah Urist Green. I’m a curator and art educator, and  this is Crash Course Art History. You might think that art history  is a stuffy subject that’s only   useful for clinching a trivia night victory.

Or you might think it’s just  memorizing a bunch of names and dates,   with the occasional jump-scare  from a creepy, long-limbed baby. But art history is really about thinking  critically by observing closely. It’s the study of objects and  images to understand the people,   places and time periods they come from.

Art reflects different perspectives and stories   but also reveals the ideas that  connect people across the world. And that three-letter word —  “art” — holds some big ideas. It can include ancient cave paintings and pride  flags, state-funded monuments and street art,   works designed for function and  works designed to ruffle feathers.

And since art is subjective, what’s  a beautiful sculpture to one person,   might be the stuff of nightmares to another. Plus, ideas about what art is have  changed—and continue to change—over time. Not all cultures think of art the same way, or  even have a word for “art” in their language.

Like, the Lega people from what’s now  the Democratic Republic of the Congo   have a category of objects called  masengo, which roughly translates   to “heavy things” and refers to items  with great significance or “weight.” As for you, when you hear “art history,”  you might think of something like this. Whoops, sorry, I meant, this: The  well-known Sistine Chapel ceiling,   painted by Michelangelo di  Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. No clue why we call him by his first name.

But let’s explore why that ceiling  comes to mind when you think about art,   and why you’ve heard of the guy who painted it. Let’s go to the drawing board! The story of the Sistine Chapel doesn’t  actually begin with Michelangelo,   but with a wealthy Italian  family called the Medicis.

The Medicis ruled Florence and, later,  Tuscany, from the 15th to the 18th centuries. They also controlled the what, where,  and how of the local art scene. They financially supported several  huge artists—including Michelangelo.

So with the Medici Brand behind him, Michelangelo  was basically one of Italy’s biggest influencers. He even caught the eye of Pope Julius  the Second, who commissioned him to   paint the now famous Sistine Chapel ceiling. Now, the Medicis were also sponsors of the  painter and architect Giorgio Vasari, who   wrote a book called “Lives of the Most Excellent  Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.” It celebrated Michelangelo  and other artists like him,   and it gave the Medicis credit for  supporting a historic, quote, “rebirth.” In fact, before the French term “Renaissance”  became prominent in the 19th century,   Vasari described this artistic moment in time as  “rinascita”— Italian for “renewal” or “rebirth.” So yeah, the book was basically  sixteenth-century sponsored content,   and it became the bedrock of  what we know now as art history.

It shaped not only the way  art history would be written,   but which artworks were considered important,  talked about, and eventually meme-ified. Of course, writing about art  didn’t start with Vasari. By the fifth and fourth centuries B.

C. E.,  Plato was wrestling with art’s imitation   of reality in his writings, and Aristotle  was exploring how art can conjure emotions. And in the ninth century, Zhang Yanyuan  wrote “Famous Paintings of Successive   Dynasties,” the oldest comprehensive written  history of Chinese painting known to exist.

So, there’s evidence of art historical  writings throughout the world,   and through much of recorded history. But Vasari’s series of biographies strongly  shaped how the story of art would be told   from then on, with a significant  bias toward Western European art. It was this text that became the basis of  what is called the canon of art history:   a collection or timeline of artists and  artworks believed to be truly great,   to have furthered art’s progress,  that get talked about again and again.

So, yeah, who's in the canon and  who's out is pretty arbitrary! And because this is my series —  and I don't think Vasari's gonna   mind — allow me to introduce.... my canon cannon. With its help, I, according to my own whims,   will launch people into my  personal canon of beloved artists.

And you better watch out, Gauguin,  I may also kick a few out, too. Many of Vasari’s chosen artists  became known as the Old Masters,   a kind of legendary status that later  artists needed to measure up to. Over time, art history continued to  evolve, and the canon of greats grew   to include new masterpieces and  makers, and forgot about others.

By the eighteenth century, artworks began  to be sorted by style, or groupings based   on time periods, creators, or  elements of their appearance. With that sorting came new ways of judging,   explaining, and interpreting art,  through the field of art criticism. And by the mid-twentieth-century, race, class,  and gender became recognized as important lenses   through which to examine art, both in terms  of who made it and who is looking at it.

So, today, art historians analyze images  and materials from multiple angles to   explore what they can tell us about each other,  ourselves, and the cultures that connect us. Studying art helps us understand  history as a constructed account,   something that’s built in its telling. And it helps us remember that our  own perspectives are always limited.

The more we learn about how  other people see the world,   the better we understand…pretty much everything. Like, here’s an artwork by Kara Walker, where  one account of history confronts another. It’s called “Fons Americanus,”—“American Fountain”  in Latin—and it’s inspired by the Victoria   Memorial in London, a monument celebrating  the British Empire under Queen Victoria.

The Victoria Memorial tells a triumphant story  about colonial rule in Africa and the Americas. But Walker’s monument tells another  part of the story from a different view. A weeping boy and a noose hanging from a tree,  for example, give voice to the unspoken parts   of the Victoria Memorial: the human toll  of colonial violence and enslavement.

As Walker’s work shows us, it’s as important to  think about what isn’t included in art as what is. And the same goes for history. So, yeah, let’s launch her right into the canon.

And often, what is remembered comes  down to what materials have survived. Take this painting: “The Raft of the Medusa,”  painted by Théodore Géricault in 1819. It’s a massive artwork that  tells an even bigger story.

In 1816, a French ship set  off for the coast of Senegal,   captained by a pal of King Louis the 18th,  who hadn’t been at sea in twenty years. The results were disastrous: the captain wrecked  the ship, which didn’t have enough lifeboats,   so the crew cobbled together a raft  to carry the remaining passengers. About 150 people were set adrift on  the makeshift vessel, and during the   next thirteen days at sea, they fought,  killed, and even resorted to cannibalism.

When rescue finally arrived,  only fifteen survivors remained,   with five more dying before ever seeing land. It took Géricault over a year to paint the scene,   which we know from documents that have survived:  sketches, drafts, and letters about his work. He interviewed survivors of the  Medusa, drew their portraits,   and consulted a book that two of  them wrote about what happened.

And he wrestled with how to paint it,   arranging the scene until he was  satisfied with the story it would tell. We even know how the work  was received by the public. At the time, opinions on the French monarchy  ranged widely, so when Géricault depicted   a tragedy caused by the king’s incompetent  leadership, many interpreted that as a sick burn.

The point is: We know so much  about this one painting because   lots of material evidence about it has  survived the past two hundred years. But that’s not the case for so many other works. Like this drum, which sits in the British Museum.

We don’t know exactly who made it or when. What little we know right  now is from museum records,   which say an Irish scientist procured the  drum in Virginia in the early 18th century. The museum labeled it an American  Indian drum made of a hollowed tree.

Then, over 150 years later,   an anthropologist noticed it looked  a lot like drums made in West Africa. But it took about seventy more years  before researchers figured out the   drum was made of wood from a  West African species of tree. It’s likely that someone from the Akan  culture, in what’s now Ghana, made the drum.

In its original context, it would have  been played as part of a whole ensemble. But at some point, the drum probably ended  up on a ship from Africa to North America. We have stacks of information to help  us understand “The Raft of the Medusa.” But with the drum, we’re piecing  together a story from scraps.

Artifacts like these show  us how much what survives   our history shapes our understanding of it. But the flip side is also true: the  more we uncover what’s been lost,   the more missing stories we fill in. So, throughout this series, we’ll explore art  history to discover how art reflects different   perspectives — but also reveals unexpected  connections across time, space, and culture.

We’ll see how art-making is also meaning making. And how context can change  everything we thought we knew. We’ll raise juicy questions about  how history is created and told,   how cultures swap ideas and materials, how artists  respond to social issues, and so much more.

Next time, we’ll learn about exactly  how to carefully look at a work of   art — and uncover ideas beyond the surface. 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 delightful people.

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