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Democratizing Art History: 6 smARThistory Primers

From the Byzantine empire to Rembrandt, or what web video has to do with democratizing art.

Traditionally, the study of art history has belonged to the privileged. Tuition-rich courses, overpriced textbooks, trips to museums (often across vast oceans) — they all cost a pretty penny. Nowadays, the field is gradually being democratized. During the past few years alone, MoMA has made a trove of Abstract Expressionist art available on the iPad; the Getty Museum lets users view art online in 3D with the help of Augmented Reality technology; and we can now take a virtual tour through Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, or gaze at essential Renaissance paintings hanging in the famous Uffizi Galleryin Florence — all for free.

smARThistory is perhaps the most centralized effort to make art history an accessible field. Developed by MoMA Director of Digital Learning Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, Pratt Institute chair of History of Art and Design, the portal now offers 115 videos presenting unscripted conversations between art historians about the history of art. (Find them all on Vimeo right here.) The easiest way to understand the project is to experience it, so we have curated a sampler of six videos, covering iconic art from antiquity to modernity.


Rosetta Stone, c. 196 B.C.E., granite, 114.4 cm x 72.3 x 27.9 cm or 45 x 28.5 x 11 in. (British Museum, London)

The story of [the Rosetta Stone] is historically incredibly important. It allowed us for the first time to be able to read, to be able to understand, to be able to translate hieroglyphics. […] The Rosetta Stone is what helped [linguistic historians] understand that Egyptian hieroglyphics are not pictorial, they’re not pictograms but actually phonetics — so all those things that look like pictures actually represent sounds.”


Byzantine, Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, c. 1400-1450, tempera and gold on wood, 39 cm x 31 cm (British Museum, London)

The gold is the spiritual, it’s the heaven, it’s what you’re not supposed to represent.”


Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25 (Galleria Borghese, Rome)

This is all about not attaining beauty, almost having the thing that you want in your hands and having it slip out at the very moment when you attain it. […] It’s a meditation on what sculpture is. Bernini, more than anyone else, makes marble seem like the wings of an angel, a cloud.”


Rembrandt, A Girl at a Window, 1645, 81.6 x 61 cm (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London)

To Rembrandt’s credit, he really does make you psychologically interested in her.”


Salvador Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937 (Tate Modern)

[The surrealists] called the ability of Dali to do this, to see things simultaneously as more than one thing, as a result of a psychological state, which they called ‘paranoic critical activity.’ It was based on a willfulness reading of Freud. Freud talked about the filters that kept the unconscious and the conscious mind apart. But Dali claimed that in the state of ‘paranoic critical activity’ he could actually embrace both the unconscious and the conscious simultaneously, so that his conscious mind could actually do the painting.”


Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950.

When we think of Pollock’s drip paintings, we think quite rightfully of an improvisation, like a jazz musician going off on a riff.”

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University, and you can also find him on Twitter.

Published January 10, 2011




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