The Ambassadors, a 1533 painting by German maestro Hans Holbein the Younger, is among the most studied artworks of all time. Historians have pored over its brushstrokes for centuries, unpacking its symbolism, divining its hidden meaning, and occasionally sharing those secrets with the cognoscenti. And at this point, the art world has The Ambassadors down pat: weird skull, religious iconography, the whole lot.
But The Ambassadors shines with new meaning on the TikTok account of Melbourne art historian and video editor Mary McGillivray. There’s a moment towards the end of her TikTok that’s so bizarre, so absurd, that I felt like my own skull was warped over the canvas. It was a total recalibration of what I understood art education could be. And she did it with a meme.
@_theiconoclassThere’s so much more I could say about this painting! ##arthistory ##arthistorytiktok ##renaissance♬ Classical Music – Classical Music
This is The Iconoclass, a social media project that aims to demystify the stuffy world of art history.
“Looking at art is a skill, and unless you were lucky enough to have an art history education, you probably weren’t taught how to do it,” McGillivray says in one of her clips.
McGillivray had a chat with PEDESTRIAN.TV about her miniature video essays, how social media lends itself to the art of yore, and all of those grotesque babies floating through Medieval art. You can find a lightly edited version of the discussion below. You should also check out Love Songs – the TikTok romcom edited by McGillivray herself.
PEDESTRIAN.TV: How would you describe your TikTok page to a new follower?
Mary McGillivray: Imagine if your over-enthusiastic high school art teacher had a TikTok account. My page is a mix of educational videos about art history and visual culture, jokes about how much I hate Picasso, and saucy Renaissance gossip.
P.TV: Can you tell us about your first ‘viral’ success?
MM: My first TikTok to reach 1 million views was about a secret hidden insult Michelangelo painted into the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
@_theiconoclassHe really did that #michelangelo #renaissance #arthistory♬ original sound – Hannah Stater (she/her)
When people think Art History, they usually think of serious, high brow artistic genius. But sometimes it really is just a Renaissance cupid flipping off the Pope.
P.TV: TikTok seems like an unusual or under-explored medium for art history discussions. How do you think it lends itself to art history content?
MM: You’d think TikTok would be the last place you’d find a thriving art history community, but there is actually a fantastic audience of engaged viewers who want to learn on TikTok.
Art history has traditionally been a pretty inaccessible and at times elitist field. I’m using TikTok to reach people who may not have access to a formal education in art history or media studies by using the language of the platform: memes. And one minute explainer videos.
@_theiconoclassTook me AGES to find this one! ##BRIDGERTON ##arthistorytiktok ##bridgertonnetflix♬ Wildest Dreams – Duomo
P.TV: Do you think TikToks themselves can be considered art?
MM: If I had a dollar for every time I get tagged in a TikTok asking me “is this TikTok art??” I wouldn’t need a Patreon.
Personally I’m not very interested in deciding what is art and what isn’t. The whole “what is art” question has never been very important to me. The questions I prefer to ask are: Why was this image made? What is it trying to tell us? Why are all those medieval paintings of babies so ugly?
P.TV: Do you feel there are any artistic periods or styles which mirror the chaos of life in 2021?
MM: At every great humanitarian disaster throughout history, people have tried to make sense of chaos, tragedy and uncertainty by making art. Whether it was during the medieval Black Death when artists depicted the disease as a manifestation of God’s punishment, or the 19th century Realists who painted the struggles of the working class in a rapidly industrialised Europe, or the photographers of the Great Depression who documented the harsh reality of their time – humans have an unrelenting urge to create images to represent the events they witness.
I imagine that one day in the future there will be museum exhibits about 2020 containing all those memes about face masks, all the Instagram photos of our isolation sourdough baking, and that unnecessarily sensual video of Stanley Tucci making a Negroni.
P.TV: If someone stumbles on your TikToks and wants to learn more about art history, where’s the next place they should look?
MM: My number one recommendation is always to watch John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. It’s got all the things you would expect from a 1970s BBC production – wide collared shirts, long hair, smoking on television – plus some of the most influential insights into how we look at art and also how we look at the world around us.
@_theiconoclass⚠️content warning: sü*ć*de⚠️ Artwork requested by @louisecox90s ???? ##arthistory ##arthistorytiktok ##vangogh ##vincentvangogh♬ Steven Universe – L.Dre
My number two recommendation is to visit your local art gallery! All public galleries in Australia will have free collections you can visit any time. As lockdowns ease, it’s a great opportunity to visit an art gallery or museum.
P.TV: What’s your favourite TikTok trend right now?
MM: As we head into Hot Girl Summer, my favourite trend of the hour would have to be the “I can’t talk right now, I’m doing Hot Girl Shit” audio. But I’m sure by the time this is published that reference will feel like it happened months ago. Ah, TikTok. Your meme life cycle has a faster turnaround than Taylor Swift‘s albums.
@_theiconoclassWe’re are my Sister Wendy fans at ???? ##arthistory ##arthistorytiktok♬ busy doin hot girl ish – Chelsea
P.TV: And your least favourite TikTok trend?
MM: Anything and everything from Straight TikTok.
@_theiconoclassReply to @workerism I present my case, let’s discuss. ##renaissance ##michelangelo ##lgbthistory♬ オリジナル楽曲 – ちゃぼてん – ????