BRAVE NEW WORLD: Examining the Zeitgeist at THE ART STORY

My Latest Discovery:

I am excited to share a vital resource for online art history research called The Art Story.  This resource is a growing compendium for art lovers, artists, curators, writers, educators, students and the curious looking for concise and expansive art histories.  They have accumulated the largest online encyclopedia of art in the world, with over 1000 topic pages. The Art Story has specialized pages to address your interests, whether you are looking up an artist (Picasso, Michelangelo, or Kara Walker), an art movement (Impressionism, Performance, or Baroque), or an art concept (The Readymade, Renaissance Humanism, or Collage).

Founder Michael Zurakhinsky started The Art Story, noticing that art history education wasn’t always accessible or factual online.  One of the best resources was Wikipedia, but as an art history learning tool its’ value seemed limited. He was disappointed that prominent arts organizations such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City only cover their own collection, do not cover the rest of art history, and often provide links to Wikipedia instead of their own curatorial research on their website.  Many encyclopedic art textbooks are terribly outdated. Newer, topic-based books are more inclusive, but they focus on singular subjects. To understand how a particular artist or movement connects to others is a herculean task. After 12 years with hundreds of writers on the job, The Art Story is now available to all, and for free!

The Challenge:

As a former museum educator at MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, and Studio Museum in Harlem, I was always craving a comprehensive tool for art history research on the internet. I am happy to have discovered The Art Story, and I use it in researching classes I teach, including my current online course at Pratt Institute, “Brave New World: Daily Artmaking Ritual.”

I took The Art Story for a research spin in contemplation of these unprecedented times. I share here with you how I put together a grouping of artworks navigating the consistent, accessible architecture of the Art Story website. I was able to save hours of research time and enjoyed having an easy, reliable way to travel through the site connecting artist’s works to different art movements, influences, genres, and other concepts.

A Brave New World – Contemplations and Discoveries:

Artists throughout history are known to interpret and challenge the zeitgeist of their times. The year 2020 has amplified ideological battlegrounds and ignited public health and environmental challenges.  We battle two concurrent pandemics in the United States and globally; the coronavirus and the fight for human rights spearheaded by Black Lives Matter. While thinking about the global pandemic, we can examine artworks made during past pandemics including the concurrent Syphilis and Spanish Flu outbreaks in Post-WW1 Europe and the AIDS crisis in the 1990s, with it’s devastating impact on New York City. Climate change and environmental issues have erupted globally with science denial by the United States government affecting our ability to contain the coronavirus.  Many activist artists are making work about these issues, let’s look at art history to compare notes.

Timely Treasures from The Art Story Website:

George Grosz
The Funeral: Tribute to Oskar Panizza, 1917-18
Artwork on The Art Story

As I started my research, I was thinking about artists who lived through the previous world pandemic.  Looking up the keyword Spanish Flu brought me to an article about Egon Schiele (The Female Nude) After reading about the artist, who died very young from the Spanish Flu in 1918, I became curious about other artists painting that year.  I found an artwork that encapsulates that pandemic era perfectly.

German Expressionist George Grosz painted A Funeral: Tribute to Oskar Panizza in homage to writer and psychiatrist Oskar Panizza, known for his critiques against the post-WWI German government. This passionately expressive painting deploys Cubist and Futurist techniques to capture the chaos of plague, war, syphilis, and alcohol. Grosz described The Funeral as a “gin alley of grotesque dead bodies and madmen…. A teeming throng of possessed human animals… think: that wherever you step, there’s the smell of shit.”

George Grosz captured the tight quarters and frenetic pathos of a city riddled with disease. The Funeral is ablaze with color, a tattered flag, a priest waving a glowing white cross, a club festooned with  a “Dance Tonight” sign, bodegas and cafés that stand in counterpoint to the huddled masses and tightly-packed flaming apartments. From a contemporary lens, this hallucinatory hellscape speaks to our collective unconscious, as fears of disease and death have colored the urban landscape, where there’s no option but constant motion.

Even though George Grosz paints a grim scenario, the colors and the details feel so rich and satisfying to me as a viewer. The Funeral makes me wonder if imagining a monstrous hellscape can be cathartic. Which other artists throughout history have created their own visions of hell to express their societal concerns?

I was searching through The Art Story for an artist who was making work during the AIDS Crisis, so I did a keyword search on the main search bar. Felix Gonzalez-Torres came up first in the search. 

Cuban-born American Minimalist and Conceptual artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres brought his personal history and politics to tackle issues such as gay rights, gun violence, and the AIDS crisis. Gonzalez-Torres tracked the impact of the crisis through creating intimate works, foreshadowing and later mourning the loss of his lover, Ross Laylock, who died due to AIDS-related complications. Gonzalez-Torres considered his muse, Laylock, his primary audience.  Untitled: Lover Boy captures the depth of eternal love. The two sets of windows ajar, with curtains blowing into an interior domestic space conjure breath, the intertwined souls of two men partnered in transcendence of earthly boundaries.

Untitled: Lover Boy was made in an atmosphere of government neglect of the disproportionately affected the LGBTQ+ community.  I think about each of the over 230, 000 people who have died from the coronavirus in the United States thus far.  Each one of them is connected to someone, somewhere who feels that eternal love like Gonzalez-Torres did for Laylock.  We walk alongside our lost ones. Looking at works by Gonzalez-Torres can help us to cope creatively with grief, and mortality.

Kehinde Wiley
Judith Beheading Holofernes, 2012
Artwork on The Art Story

One of my favorite ways to search through The Art Story is to look at the Artworks page for each artist I am interested in.  When I looked up Kehinde Wiley, I was reminded of his 2017 Presidential portrait of Barack Obama, hanging in the National Portrait Gallery and how it conjured conservative resistance, because of Wiley’s 2012 painting Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Many famed artists including Artemisia Gentileschi, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Caravaggio have painted this symbolic scene from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith, where Judith seduces and beheads Holofernes, who was generally intent on destroying her city of Bethulia. Historic paintings of this biblical story are often read as a feminist victory, but Wiley’s Judith fights a different battle.

In Wiley’s “Holofernes head” we see a Karen, a Becky, humorously and quite viscerally exposing feminism’s focus on white women, that often ignores racial disparities.  Throughout this historic 2020 election, we can’t help but look back to 2016’s election to remember the commitment that 94% black women made to vote against Trump, while 53% of white women voted for Trump (according  to York Times exit polls).  An even higher percentage of white women voted for Trump in 2020.  When a white woman acts against all women, does she not become a Holofernes, a “man” attempting to destroy Judith’s people?  Amy Coney Barrett becomes our current symbol for a woman inserted by patriarchy to act against the interests of women, potentially dismantling Roe v. Wade, jeopardizing a woman’s right to choose, in this country that was originally founded to separate church and state.

Barbara Kruger
Your Body is A Battleground, 1989
Artwork on The Art Story

“Do you know why language manifests itself the way it does in my work? It’s because I understand short attention spans” -Barbara Kruger

The Art Story includes choice artists’ quotes at the top of each Artist’s page.  This is such a valuable resource for art writers, educator’s and curators, who want to get at the heart of the artist’s intent.  Reading American Conceptual Artist Barbara Kruger’s explanation of her graphic text-based works as geared to “short attention spans” in 1989 feels so contemporary. 

Barbara Kruger’s bold works deploy her training as a graphic designer to create images and phrases that resonate, functioning both in public space and the contemporary art world. Best known for her silkscreen prints with captions over found photographs, she also creates site specific installations, video, and audio works. Her prints from the 1980s encapsulate “Reaganomics,” including this Your Body is a Battleground screenprint defending women’s reproductive rights, which was originally created for the March for Women’s Lives, in Washington, D.C in 1989. This image, set in Kruger’s signature palette of black, white and red, splits a woman’s face in half.   Half photographic portrait, half x-ray, this powerful image references the constant probing and control of the female body in America.  

Echoing the words of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933- 2020), the United States Supreme Court justice who fought tirelessly for women’s rights: “The State controlling a woman would mean denying her full autonomy and full equality.”

Ana Mendieta
Untitled (Siluetas Series), 1976
Artwork on The Art Story

Cuban artist Ana Mendieta is renowned for her contributions to the Body Art, Land Art, and Performance Art Movements.  On each Artist’s page on The Art Story, there are links to every art movement associated with the artist, making it easy to find (and to dive into) connections.

Her powerful Silueta series contemplates the cycles of birth, life, and death through performing various ephemeral actions in natural environments. Mendieta ritualistically asserted her form in relation to the seascape in Untitled: Silueta Series, Mexico (1976/1991). The deep impression of her body in the sand is activated by red pigment, the blood, the body, the soul’s imprint washed away by the ocean’s waves.  The vulnerability of the body and of the natural environment are seamlessly interrogated here, evoking Paleolithic goddess power, a matrilineage dating back to the Venus of Willendorf circa 30,000 BCE as well as childlike fantasy mermaids and bloody snow angels.

Mendieta’s Silueta series shares a feminist viewpoint on the environment that reverberates currently, with climate change affecting us globally. The Americas have been hit hard by fires, increasingly destructive hurricanes and global warming. According to Aaron Bernstein, Director of Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University, climate change has caused habitat loss for animals, and germs and diseases are spreading as animals congregate more closely to each other and human-populated areas.  I ponder how Ana Mendieta would respond now to the coronavirus as part of her lexicon.

About Me:

Rebecca Goyette is an interdisciplinary artist who lectures on performance/film/video and their relation to activist practices in modernist and contemporary art.  Goyette has taught and lectured for the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, School of Visual Arts, New York University and The New School and is currently teaching for Pratt Institute’s Professional Continuing Studies Department as well as leading her own online art workshop series called Maker’s Magic. Rebecca Goyette is represented by Freight & Volume Gallery, NYC, and exhibits her work internationally.

Call to Action:

I invite you all to start using The Art Story, for all your art history research.  I know you will find it easy to navigate and richly rewarding, helping you to quickly make connections between artists, movements, and concepts.  If you create an article, essay or research paper using The Art Story, let me and The Art Story Founder, Michael  Zurakhinsky know. Tag #theartstory, and we would be happy to repost for you on social media. If you are an artist looking for new ideas, The Art Story is here for you.  Do your own search for artists from the past that speak to our concerns of today. I am sure you will make some new discoveries using The Art Story’s accessible platform. Stay inspired!