When most people think about art history as an academic discipline, they may imagine a bespectacled professor in a darkened room, clicking through dusty slides in a monotone. Perhaps they imagine a fastidious docent, in a dark wool suit or a turtleneck, imparting little-known facts about the old masters to a tour group crowded around an ornate frame. As an art history student myself, I am more than familiar with the powerpoint presentations and glossy textbook pages ripe for the memorization of surnames, dates, and titles. At the center of all of these vignettes is the experience of viewing a piece of art. To think about art is surely to look at art, right?
Podcasts challenge this notion while also working to make art history more accessible to the masses. While a podcast exists on every subject under the sun, an auditory format can be especially difficult to talk about art. This is because one cannot always see the works being discussed. They alienate the listener from the hyper-visual nature of the subject. However, podcasts like “The Lonely Palette”, created by Tamar Avishai of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, Massachusetts, overcomes this while simultaneously “return[ing] art history to the masses, one object at a time.” Each episode is a deep dive on a different iconic work of art, jumping through historic artistic movements and across continents.
Avishai opens each episode with snippets of overlapping voices, unidentified, describing the work in question. This opening zeroes in on one significant piece of art. They voice initial observations, like the apt description from “Jasper Johns’ Target (1961)” as “concentric circles in colors of red, blue and yellow, and that some people could say looks like a target but it doesn’t look like a target.”, or first emotive impressions, such as identifying the “sparseness” and “austereness” in “Edward Hopper’s Room in Brooklyn (1932)”. They are also just plain funny, ranging from the deadpan, “I see… I see a toilet… is it art?” when looking at “Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917)”, to the hilarious: where else could you hear “Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913)” sculpture described as “an Amish Transformer”? Although the only exposure to the piece is a photograph on the album art for each episode, these intros place you inside a gallery, alongside other whispering guests trying to make sense of the piece before them. It’s a masterful tactic, situating the listener alongside others who have no formal experience in talking about art. The bulk of the episode then dives into each work, the artist, their influences, the movements they were a part of, and the broader significance of the piece and its impact on the art world.
I recommend this podcast to anyone who will listen, not only because of its exceptional educational content – anybody who’s ever been first to name that painter knows the rush of ego that accompanies that brief moment of intellectual superiority. Avishai’s true brilliance is actually in dismantling that very sentiment of intellectual superiority in the art world. A seasoned art historian wouldn’t feel condescended during her eloquent dissertations, but neither would an earnest novitiate in the art world. We all have moments of inadequacy when talking about art, moments where a simple bowl of fruit just feels like, well, a bowl of fruit. Who hasn’t looked at a black square painted by Mark Rothko and at least considered the fact that, “I could definitely do that.” Avishai finds humanity in every piece, whether it’s a massive steel installation or a classic post-impressionist oil painting. There’s this overwhelming sensation of needing to “get it”, a feeling that one should absorb some deeper intellectual meaning when consuming art, and Avishai’s ability to remove that pressure from the conversation while encouraging intellectual curiosity at the same time is a marvel. I end each podcast with an urge to head to my nearest museum and talk about art, unselfconsciously and with a reinvigorated sense of wonder at the art to which we have access.
Edited by Anna Hilbun. Listen to “The Lonely Palette” anywhere you get your podcasts. This writer recommends starting at Episode 1, but has especially loved Episodes 11: “John Singer Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882)”, 17: “Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917)”, and 21: “Mary Cassatt’s In the Loge (1878)”.