It's no secret that traditional art spaces can feel intimidating, and that people feel more comfortable analyzing an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians than they do a Caravaggio painting. So what's a woman with a love of both Kim and Caravaggio to do? Create something like @TabloidArtHistory, an account dedicated to connecting contemporary pop culture moments with classical art.
The brainchild of art history students Elise Bell and Chloe Esslemont, @TabloidArtHistory was born out of their shared love of pop culture and art history. What they didn't expect was the amount of traction the account—which shares juxtapositions between U.K. cult reality show Love Island and a church mural, and Harry Styles with the Virgin Mary—would get. And yet, maybe it shouldn't have been such a surprise: As Esslemont points out, what we now consider high art was the pop culture of its time and similarly reflected the people, issues, and social mores of its era. So why not compare North West to baby Jesus?
Thanks to its founders' keen eye and astute pop cultural commentary, the account took off—to the point where the duo was tasked with creating a zine for an exhibition. Enter Mayanne Soret, who distilled the spirit of @TabloidArtHistory into a physical issue which features contributors tackling topics as diverse as U.K. grime and "The Revolutionary Narcissism of Female Self-Appreciation." Soret also became a permanent member of the TAH crew.
We wanted to speak with the women behind @TabloidArtHistory about the entity's trajectory and institution-flouting goals. Despite Bell being unavailable to join our chat, Esslemont, Soret, and I touched on everything, from the failings of the traditional art world to the gate-keeping that still unfortunately occurs and what exactly makes their account so pertinent to contemporary internet culture. Read our Q&A, below.
How do you know each other? And why decide to start the account?
Chloe Esslemont: Elise and I both did art history, and I knew her because we had mutual friends, and we'd just inevitably end up talking about art or the Kardashians or a mixture of both. We kind of bonded over the fact that we had a lot of similar interests. Then, there was this image floating around the internet comparing Lindsay Lohan to a Bernini statue… that was like our white whale, because we don't know who made that. I want to find them.
Mayanne Soret: Yeah, [that one surfaced] before memes had an ownership. Nobody cared who made it, it was just reblogged on Tumblr. Now we want to know!
CE: Basically, we saw that image on Twitter and—I think I just changed to do English from art history—I was like, "If I was still doing art history, this is what I would do my dissertation on." I love when our pop culture is mixed [with highbrow culture]. It always really annoyed us how it's like, you can only like one or the other. Or one's super highbrow, and one's super lowbrow, and they're incompatible. Or you're stupid if you like pop culture.
At the time, there were also a few images of Kim Kardashian and North [West] at a fashion show comparing them to the Madonna and Child [imagery from Christian iconography]. We were basically saying we kind of wish there were more sort of those things. We started sending [these types of images] to each other and quickly made an account—to mainly share them with our friends. It kind of took off quite quickly. When we decided to do the zine, which was five months into it, Mayanne offered to help us with the design of it. Then, we got on so well with her that we wanted her to become the third person on our little team.
When did you start to notice that the account was picking up steam?
CE: Within the first week, we had an article written about us by The AV Club, which was very cool and kind of crazy. We just started it as a joke and didn't think it would become much of a thing.
There have been different stages of it picking up steam though. Love Island is one of the most popular shows [in the U.K.], especially last year. We were tweeting about that and doing comparisons [between that and works of art] quite a lot. We definitely got a lot of followers and press attention out of that. I also was just at home in the middle of nowhere for a few months that summer, so I had a lot of time to devote to doing stuff with the account.
How does your zine figure into all of this? Is it kind of a collection of all the different posts you guys have done?
CE: Yeah, it's articles, poems, photos, interviews, and all sorts of different things written by people who have submitted stuff to us.
MS: Before I joined, there was this really great art collective in London who put on an art night club that was a mix of visual art, music, and DJing. They invited the girls to print out some comparisons, and through that discussion, it was suggested that they could do little [printed] companion guide. That's how the zine came about originally.
The first issue was planned for the exhibition, and it called for papers on art in popular culture and how they intersect. There wasn't really an editorial guideline per se. As we went on and talked about it on social media, people kept on asking us what we were going to do with it and if there were any copies available. That's why we decided to publish it properly. We did a call for illustrations so that we could have original artworks in it. Our idea was that it should be a free resource, so we put it online for free as a PDF on our website.
We also thought it would be really nice to have as an object, so we put it on sale. We calculated the price so that we could make some profit to pay all of the contributors in it as well. We're doing the second issue now. We've got all of the art and illustrations and writing and it has more of a direction. Not in terms of having a theme or only accepting certain types of essays—we're still very broad in terms of creative writing and essays—but we've really [tried to prioritize] art forms, artists, and points of view that haven't really been discussed in the broader history of art [analysis]... or even online. We sat down, looked through submissions, and thought, “Would we read this somewhere else?”
That's really cool. I love the democratization of something that is thought of as so elitist and classist.
CE: Yeah, especially having it be free online is something that's really important to us. There's definitely [a lot in there] that I would have liked to read when I was younger… I like that you can have a flip through it yourself on our website if you want, but I also like having the physical copies, because there's something quite nice about the physicality of it. And it means we have the resources to pay our contributors. I think having both of those things is really important.
Do you view @TabloidArtHistory as a big "fuck you" to the white cube institution?
CE: It's so funny that you mention the white cube because we love [art critics] the White Pube. It's funny because it literally started out as a joke between me and Elise. All our discussions about art and pop culture had been annoyed at the elitist nature of art history, and how you can only like a certain kind of art history. Or if you liked art history, then things like pop culture—or thinking about them in tandem—were vapid or stupid. But, as we've grown the account and had discussions with people, it's definitely become something... It's quite important to us to actually think about what art history represents and whose voices are being heard.
MS: I don't know exactly what made people start asking us questions about art and art criticism and all of that. I feel like it's a bit of a mix of our social media presence and also us tweeting random things. Not always just comparisons, but stating our opinions. It is still a page that's run by three people—real-life people with an opinion on art. And I feel like as we've done that, we've realized that there’s an audience for that.
So what goes into the process of making a comparison post, typically?
CE: Honestly, it's usually just flashes of inspiration. We consume a lot of media and generally are always kind of looking for things in pop culture [that remind us of art]. It usually is either, “Oh, I've looked at this thing, and it reminds me of this thing,” or, “I've looked at this thing, and I think it's a really interesting image. I kind of want to think of something that would be interesting to compare.” Sometimes we'll ask for each others’ opinions if we're choosing between images—like, "Which one do you think is better?"—but generally, we just kind of put our stuff out there, which means it's also enjoyable for the rest of us, because we get to see how [people respond to our individual] posts. We don't know everything that's going on on our own account, so we still kind of get to experience it along with everyone else.
From Ariana Grande's “God Is a Woman” to Beyoncé's Louvre moment, why do you think pop artists are starting to embrace art in this way?
MS: I don't know, but it's such a moment, and I'm so excited for it. I feel like when the Beyoncé video came out, I was like, “This is it. Museums are in pop culture.” I feel like I haven't really thought about it too much yet, but it's becoming so big.
Even with just like recreations of works of art. Not just for “God Is a Woman,” but in Ariana’s stage design, she's explicitly referred to [M.C.] Esher. And you've got even like [U.K. grime artist] Stormzy recreating “The Last Supper” on the cover of Gang Signs & Prayer. And, obviously Beyoncé and Solange.
CE: Particularly, if we're talking about Beyoncé and Solange, they have such a background in art history. Like their mother's talked about it in interviews—about how she used to teach them art history when they were younger. And it's clearly something they're very engaged with and think about. I hope that [leaders in pop culture actively engaging with] this all will help redefine what we think of as art history—who can engage with it, who does engage with it, who it belongs to, the accessibility of it, the kinds of art that we're talking about, the intersection of art and history, and art history in popular culture. I hope that this is all a sign of how those things are changing and modernizing.
MS: Yeah, and it's so basic to say, but the people that you admire will influence the way that you think about yourself and what you think you can do. And I feel like by engaging with canon, artists really create a space where their fans can not only look up to them but discover more about the references that exist.
Why do you think the blurring of lines between high and lowbrow culture is more prominent now?
CE: I really think the internet has a lot to do with it, just because there's more access to conversations about the two. On like Twitter or Instagram, you have people like the White Pube who livetweet Love Island, but they also do huge amounts of reviews and have very interesting output. Like, they use emojis instead of stars to review everything.
What do you think people enjoy about the juxtaposition between high art and tabloid pop culture? Are there any visual or thematic parallels that you've noticed that people tend to gravitate toward?
CE: I think it's a mixture of things. Like, the tweet we have pinned on our profile is a comparison of Britney [Spears] with a Del Taco bag and “David and the Head of Goliath.” The enjoyment in that is that they are things that are completely separate in mood, tone, time period, and subject. So the juxtaposition is funny. But then I also think there are a lot of other ones that we've done that are maybe less humorous but point to parallels in imagery that people use. It’s ultimately just an interesting little look into human nature and connecting those dots. People sometimes also forget that art history was the historical canon from a hundred years ago. That, at the time that it was made, was pop culture.
MS: Yeah. I definitely feel like there are two types of very successful posts. There's one that’s just the result of the pure enjoyment of things that are just visually funny to see, which is valuable in and of itself. And there's also a real appreciation of comparison that really brings out the craft in pop culture. Like especially with music videos. Take Janelle Monáe’s “Pynk” and Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman.” But maybe that also has something to do with the fact that there are more people creating today, and they’re paying homage to the craft.
Definitely. So wrapping up, what else do you all think needs to change in terms of white cube art?
MS: So much... In terms of accessibility, a big discussion that we’re having right now is about paid internships and extremely low-wage labor that keeps people away from [art-related] industries. I feel like there are also not enough resources or conversation about how much we should be getting paid, depending on what you're doing, how much experience you have.
CE: Unpaid internships are unfair in and of themselves, but then they also feed into the wider problem of art and art history being spaces associated with [upper-middle class white kids]. They really need to change and become a lot more accessible and diverse, and [to do that, you need] a full-time job that’s paid—or not paid very little.
It also kind of plays into the idea... that art and culture can only be a hobby and you have to justify they're quote-unquote useful or productive for society. It kind of sustains this idea of “people do this as a hobby, so you don't really need to be paid for it.” But, in terms of what's in the classroom and what kind of art you're seeing and how that is being discussed… [you need to be asking], "Who are you reading? How is it being discussed? And how are different subjects within the history of art being discussed?" That really needs to change, especially within art history.