Trump and Francis Bacon, Grace Jones feeding Divine cake and Michelangelo, Britney x Caravaggio – @TabloidArtHist joins the gap between high art and pop culture equally
90s/00s red carpet moments with Bjork and Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian emerging from the sea earring-less in that iconic KUWTK scene, any glimpse of Anna Nicole Smith’s life: these pop culture moments inspire complex, intense feelings. That emotion we pour out when screaming over a meme about Love Island or Blac Chyna’s side piece; or rooting for the mid-noughties anachronism Lindsay Lohan is pretty similar to the narrative that once surrounded classic art. Centuries passed where Caravaggios and pre-Raphaelite works were the focal point of admiration and gossip. Now, Tabloid Art History is the Twitter account uniting what’s seen as ‘high art’ with modern pop culture.
Elise and Chloe are both students at Edinburgh university, studying art history and English literature respectively, whereas Mayanne is an UCL art history grad. They teamed up before launching the zine Can’t Win Don’t Try.
The initial idea, they tell Dazed, came first from seeing an image of Lindsay Lohan beside a Bernini sculpture. “We had often talked about how much we love so-called ‘high culture’ and pop culture equally, and find that pop culture is often unfairly maligned as ‘vapid’ or ‘silly’,” Chloe says. “We loved it when both high art and pop culture are combined.” What quickly became a small joke snowballed into a Twitter page with a huge, growing following. It’s taken on a mission to encourage others to love and consume pop culture as a ‘pleasure’, rather than a ‘guilty pleasure’.
“There’s something really disingenuous within art history as a discipline whereby you’re expected to only engage with ‘high brow’ culture’,” says Elise. “Can you be an art historian and also watch every episode of The Simple Life? Of course you can. Through the account we get a kick out of highlighting the fact that supposed ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ culture aren’t as disparate as they both may seem at first, and that it’s okay to appreciate both.”
The women behind Tabloid Art History point to contemporary platforms like The White Pube, Gal-Dem and Rookie as big inspirations. Chloe expresses a love for Anna Nicole Smith – a Hollywood starlet dropped into a reality star age – and Kim Kardashian, who, as a reality star, entrepreneur and Vogue cover star is a “perfect storm of our love of ‘high culture’ and pop culture. She’s a “modern day Madame de Montespan or Mazarinette”. Mayanne references Master of None as a brilliant example of television that’s unafraid to explore both ‘high’ and ‘low’ references, from French New Wave and Italian cinema to R&B. Elise highlights a shared love of the Kardashians, The Simple Life and John Berger docs, as well as an interest in Shia LaBeouf, an artist at the intersection of “self conscious-celebritydom” and new creative ventures.
Ultimately, this project legitimises a love for media sidelined as shallow, and unworthy of analysis – Tabloid Art History champions a nuanced, playful exploration of taste culture, as well as the basic ability to engage with anything you enjoy. “There isn’t anything not good enough putting your intellectual energy in,” Mayanne asserts. “Giving yourself the freedom to be enthusiastic about the culture you consume, whatever that may be, often transforms into an ability to think outside of the box, to be more creative. That there are some things ‘worth’ enjoying, and some things ‘cool’ to dislike, is definitely a concept I run into before doing art history, but I didn’t realise the extent of it until much later.”
“There’s something really disingenuous within art history as a discipline whereby you’re expected to only engage with ‘high brow’ culture’. Can you be an art historian and also watch every episode of The Simple Life? Of course you can”
The page draws from a spectrum of art: from 40s BC works, to the Romantic era and Renaissance, as well as movements they wish to explore outside of their studies that aren’t, as much of classical art taught can be, focused on the white and western – that means displaying more contemporary pieces, feminist and PoC works. “We want people to look at our comparisons and see a type of art history they may never have had the opportunity to see before,” Elise adds.
As revered as paintings, sculptures and other pieces of art are centuries after they were first created, the question arises as to whether some of our contemporary medias – Twitter, reality TV, celeb mags and meme pages – will be relics in a distant future. Elise observes: “The new era of art historical theory and discussion has to adapt to the way we consume the media around us. Berger and Barthes did that in the 70s, and I suppose we’re trying to do something similar: making these discussion accessible and making them relevant to the age we live in now, albeit within 140 characters.”
Answering this question, Chloe points to fabricated tabloid headlines of 10 years ago – reposted by the amazing early 2000s archival page Pop Culture Died in 2009 – and how, though they don’t give a totally accurate depiction of what really happened, they’re relics of a history that was “thought to be the truth”. That rings true even looking back on the 18th century pamphlets that spread gossip about Marie Antoinette. Though many weren’t accurate, they still shape our idea of that era’s culture today.
“The scholarship is going to have to make some methodological changes though, because the medium is so radically different,” adds Mayanne. “It’d be difficult to look at tabloids and hashtags like you look at cathedrals and relics on a purely practical basis, but it is already being discussed, like bell hooks’ essay after the release Beyonce’s Lemonade.”
Scrolling through their feed, it looks like pretty much any art movement you could think of and mid-2000s it girl/ITV 2 multi-hyphenate star is covered, but the group have more they wish to explore. Elise is looking for the “perfect comparison” to Jean Benner’s Salomé – “What is more captivating or heroic than a painting of a woman holding a man’s severed head on a plate?”. There’s also some David Bowie comparisons in the pipeline, and Studio 54 photographs looking for a classical twin.
Tabloid Art History are putting out their first zine soon, filled with works from academics, writers, artists and illustrations. Pieces will look at everything from Instagram curation and Jean Cocteau to grime culture. Below, they round up some of their recent fave posts.
DONALD TRUMP ON HIS CAMPAIGN RALLY, APRIL 2016 / “BUSINESS MAN I”, FRANCIS BACON, 1952
“A pope and a president. Both men uniquely powerful, both men leaders of a particular kind of world. In Bacon's work, existential angst and the complexities of masculinity rear its ugly head, an eerily fitting tribute to a man who himself seems to revel in a nightmare of his own making. Whilst the two images pair up on a purely compositional basis, Bacon's preliminary sketch for his Pope Innocent X portraits heavily hints towards darker facets of human history, merging ideas of power and menace in a disquieting way.”
SPICE GIRLS ON THE SET OF A PUBLICITY PHOTOSHOOT, 1994-2000 / “LES DEMOISELLES D’AVIGNON”, PABLO PICASSO, c. 1907
“When we think of the Spice Girls, Girl Power! and a special kind of girl gang magic are one of the first things that come to mind. Well, maybe after that dress – Ginger Spice we’re looking at you. Whilst provocative posturing and a finger-up attitude are the main tenants of spice girl realness, Picasso’s ‘Demoiselles’ offer a more accusing look at female sexuality, with fear and foreign curiosity taking centre stage in the painting. Modelled from prostitutes Picasso had encountered, as well as taking inspiration from Dahomean statues, Les Demoiselles are a welcome reminder of our much evolved attitudes towards the female form. That the poses in both images are so similar is accidental and yet what better way is there to celebrate art history’s baddest girl group of all time.”
DIVINE FED CAKE BY GRACE JONES AT HER 30TH BIRTHDAY PARTY, LAFARFELLE DISCO NEW YORK, 1978 / MICHELANGELO’S “CREATION OF ADAM”, 1510
“Don’t you wish your birthday parties were as cool as this? Disco, Divine, Grace Jones, and cake – a.k.a perfection. We're sure mimicking God creating the first man on earth wasn’t at the forefront of Grace and Divine’s minds at this moment, but they candidly and accidentally succeed in a way that is so perfect, we couldn’t resist comparing the two.”
KATE MOSS EMERGES FROM THE RIVER THAMES, 2015 / “A MERMAID”, JOHN WILLIAM WATERHOUSE, 1900
“Kate Moss/Mermaid Kate Moss modelling persona has never been about her beauty alone. Instead, we talk a lot about her charisma, her aura, something special and almost magical about it. Of course she is beautiful, but her fame rests on that special magnetism that's almost frightening and supernatural, alike a siren's call.”
BRITNEY SPEARS AT A DEL TACO DRIVETHRU, 2007 / “DAVID WITH THE HEAD OF GOLIATH”, CARAVAGGIO, c. 1607
“We love this one because they are so ridiculously different in tone, yet have a great symmetry to them. Besides, while Britney may not have slain any giant foes, she’s still a hero in our eyes for providing the world with the jam that is ‘Toxic’.”
MARCEL REALISES HE’S CHEATED ON GABBY DURING A CHALLENGE ON LOVE ISLAND, 2017 / “THE SCREAM”, EDVARD MUNCH, 1893
“What we loved about this Love Island moment was that Marcel’s shock at his own actions was so intense yet so delayed – it really seemed as if he had only just remembered the existence of Gabby, and the not insignificant fact she had just become his girlfriend, only after his kiss with Shannen was complete. We think The Scream is a good visual representation of the inner turmoil that both Marcel himself, and we as a Love Island obsessed nation, felt at this moment.”
KANYE WEST INVADES TAYLOR SWIFT’S VMA AWARD ACCEPTANCE SPEECH, LA, 2009 / “THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS”, PETER PAUL RUBENS, 1639
“Just as Paris’ judgement ended up causing the Trojan War, which lasted ten years, so too did this moment cause another, almost-decade-long, feud; that of Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West. Of course, Kim Kardashian exposing Taylor Swift’s lies on Snapchat was the equivalent of the Greeks’ Trojan Horse in terms of a masterful winning move – and also one of the best pop culture moments of the past year.”
KIM KARDASHIAN ON THE SET OF HER PLAYBOY SHOOT, 2007 / “THE PEARLS OF APHRODITE”, HERBERT JAMES DRAPER, 1907
“Kim Kardashian is in many ways regarded as an ideal, a hyper feminised vision of perfect beauty, but she's also often criticised as being too much, like the ideal of her beauty makes it crude and vulgar. On the other hand, we know Aphrodite is the ideal of beauty, but we don't perceive her as such, we remember the idea of her as being such. That memory makes this beauty somehow more tolerable, it's ethereal, intemporel, innocent. This comparison opens up an interesting path into of the way we present and accept ideals of beauty, depending on our relation to it in history, and it's tie to our concrete reality.”