In a series of interviews, MAYANNE SORET explores the world of art history podcasts. Here, she introduces the series and shares some thoughts on her own introduction to the world of podcasting. You can read Mayanne’s introduction to the series here.
This is one of a series of articles that were commissioned in January 2018 in association with For Art History, but due to some unforeseen circumstances, have not been able to be published until now. We hope you enjoy them!
When starting this series in December of 2017, The Lonely Palette was my latest discovery in Art History podcasts. I stumbled upon the podcast via a listicle, of which I have now lost the url, around the same time I listened to the whole of A Piece of Work with Abbi Jacobson. I was immediately hooked by the shorter, focused format, looking at one artwork at a time, and by the involvement of the public that brought forward a variety of voices. Created in May 2016 by Boston based Tamar Avishai, The Lonely Palette has since presented a wide selection of paintings, art movements and artists. Most episodes go as follow: Tamar takes one work, usually at at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, interviews the public on their thoughts and feelings, and jumps off on an art historical analysis of the subject at hand, in a concise and engaging manner. In January 2018, I asked Tamar a few questions about making the podcast, her journey as an art historian in and out of the field, and ‘returning art history to the masses’.
How did you come to podcast? And how did you come to Art History? And what was your motivation behind starting the Lonely Palette?
I actually came to podcasting through a relatively circuitous route. After finishing grad school in art history and teaching off and on for a number of years, I realized that I was really drawn to the empathic intimacy and storytelling of public radio, and that maybe art history had just been a means to get that kind of storytelling into my life. I had actually ended up studying art history in college because, in my undergraduate cohort of thousands, I’d been pushed out of the fine art classes I wanted to take, and honestly, I was biding my time until I could get back into the studio. But then I realized that I was actually a much better art historian than I’d been an artist, and I decided to switch my major from fine art to art history, pursued a master’s, and never really picked up a piece of charcoal since.
But I’d been moving away from the art world and the museum world after the global financial crisis made mincemeat of the job market, and moving towards radio, which felt like it embodied what I’d really loved about art history – the dizzying, subjective expression of human experience. I was attempting to break into radio when Serial exploded everything, and with increased opportunity came increased competition. I wanted to offer something from a unique perspective, and that’s when a radio friend suggested that I do something related to art history. And suddenly, not only was I making something in the radio world that was actually filling a hole, but I was finally able to write about art the way I’d always wanted to, with no academic pretension or dustiness. Art history takes itself really seriously, and here, I could drop in the pop culture references that the academy had frowned upon, and teach the way that I’d always wanted to be taught.
What public were you expecting, and who ended up tuning in? Has it evolved since you started? What are some of the reactions you had?
I had no sense of what kinds of people would be interested in listening to a show like this – art history has the stigma of being both boring and snooty, and I aimed to make the show neither. And I’m honestly floored by how many different types of people listen, both art people and self-professed “not art people”. I hear all the time that someone hated art, or resented it because it always seemed so proud of its inaccessibility, but they like my show because it doesn’t play into the stereotype, the Vivaldi and British accents of audio guides, and it makes them realize that art history is, like all good radio, simply storytelling.
How do you decide on a subject, and how do you plan an episode? How does that differ from your other art historical practices?
I basically have three factors that play into each object I pick: either it’s something I studied in school and stumbled upon in a museum, or it’s already in the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, or I realize that I spend too much time in early 20th century Europe and I need a little diversity. I’m an adjunct Spotlight Talk lecturer at the MFA, and so I give monthly 15-minute lectures on any object I want (which actually gave me the format for the podcast), and most of my episodes tend to stem from whatever talk I gave at the museum that month. But of course, since I started the show, I’m much more attuned to the collection and to museums wherever I go, sniffing out objects that would make for good episodes. To be honest, the podcast is the only art historical practice I’m engaging in right now, and it’s bliss: I get to focus on exactly what I love about the discipline, and nothing I don’t. Every object gets to be fascinating, because I love thinking about what angle I can take to explain it, how I can hook a listener.
Do you think your perception of your own subject has changed since you started the podcast? If so, how?
Honestly, before the podcast, I was really done with art history. I called myself an erstwhile art historian. I just felt burned by the discipline, burned by academia (who never really let me develop my own style, lest the formality of the field suffer), and burned by the museum world, who never let me forget how lucky I was to have unpaid internships. And like I said, I was tired of having to take the work so seriously when teaching it could be so much fun, and just as meaningful and intellectual. I had been working in finance just to make ends meet, and, frustrating as it was to turn my back on what I thought would be my chosen field, it was so refreshing to live in a world that acknowledged the existence of Netflix. But working on this show has utterly reawakened my love for art history. Mostly because I get to study it, and teach it, on my own terms, which actually makes me want to reach out to old professors and classmates, free from the burden of collegial competition, and just share together what excites us about the field.
Have you worked in any other public facing roles/engagement related roles in art institutions? And if so, how do you think the podcast format differs from the various positions you held?
When I was in grad school, I had a yearlong internship in the education department of the Worcester Art Museum, and also dabbled a bit in their curatorial department. I also served a brief stint as an intern in the provenance dept. at the MFA. Each experience gave me an opportunity to see the inner workings of an art museum department. Specifically, working in education showed me why people come to museums and what they expect to get out of the experience, and working with curators showed me how disconnected curators are from those same audiences – and with good reason! It’s not their jobs. The objects are their jobs. But art museum educators are pushing back against that all the time, the museum goer’s perception that curators are the proprietors of a club with a secret knock. What’s neat, actually, is that the most recent job I’ve held at the MFA is the one that inspired the podcast – I work in the education department, but as an art historian, giving lectures while still needing to hook the audience and make them care. The podcast format is exactly what I do in my role: make someone care about an art movement in 15 minutes, without feeling like they’ve been lectured at – rather, that someone fun just told them a really cool and compelling story.
You describe the Lonely Palette as the podcast “bringing art history back to the masses” – Could you elaborate on that? What do you mean by masses and why do you think it’s important for people to connect and engage with art history?
I admit, it’s a flawed tagline, because the truth is, I’m not bringing art history back to the masses, since the masses never really had it. Art history and art museums, until recently, always prided itself on its elitism. It never claimed to be for everyone. And this is a reputation that museums have to fight now that their visitors are ageing. But at the end of the day, what is art history if not the history of human experience, through the point of entry of this or that artwork? And that’s universal, and absolutely fascinating. When art history is packaged that way, it can appeal to many, many more people. Suddenly people feel like they’re seeing themselves and their own experiences in this Rothko or that Van Gogh. It touches something primal. And if viewers aren’t questioning themselves and their own reactions – if they’re not scared that an art historian is going to come swooping in and telling them that they’re “wrong”, then these objects will be able to do their job – conveying deeply relatable human experience – much more effectively.
What do you think is Art History’s greatest challenge?
I think it’s going to take a long time to undo the rarified reputation that art history has spent so much of its lifetime cultivating, and that’s assuming that it even wants to, which I don’t think it does. People tend to study art history for its elegance and connoisseurship, not for its human messiness. And that means these programs and museums are going to attract fewer people as time goes on and the socio-economic divide becomes more pronounced. It will be seen as a rich person’s hobby, just as it once was, and all the more so because the jobs are so scarce and poorly-paid. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to see so many new blogs and podcasts harnessing the power of the internet to appeal to younger people. We sacrifice some of the academic tone (though not the rigor) to make the study of art cool.
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Just like the Art History Babes interview, I decided to bring in some thoughts about my listening experience, and asked for Tamar’s take on it, starting with “objectivity” and “subjectivity”.
A thing I personally enjoy as a listener of podcast is the intimacy of the medium, being able to grow with someone’s voice and personal passion for the subject matter. With art history podcast especially, there’s the thrill of discovering something new, because each episode is another subject across a wide spectrum of time, medium and places. Having studied Art History as an academic discipline, I’m interested in the ways the historian “objectivity” has been questioned – more or less recently. Part of why I love podcast so much is because I get both the rigor of academic research, and the personal side of how a researcher came to gain interest in a certain topic, how it grew and interacted with their lives, all of which I believe could inform academic practice for the better.
One of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had as an art historian and a museum educator is the expectation that art is allowed to mean whatever someone wants it to mean. Sure, I get the value of empathy and ownership over an object – it’s what we’re taught, as museum educators, after all – but methods like Visual Thinking Strategies have been used and abused in the interest of drawing and keeping museum visitors. Too many museum educators use VTS as an end in itself, allowing the viewer to make their own meaning, and ending it there. And when I see that happening, I think, what did I get a degree in? Isn’t there something objective that we should be teaching? And I feel like this gets to the heart of the problem with art history: art historians treat it like history, artists treat it like art, and viewers are caught in between. Who are we to tell an artist what he or she “meant”? Who is the artist to think that he or she doesn’t exist in a tradition, in a continuum, and indebted to the artists that came before? What in this field is truly objective, and what is truly subjective? And how is a visitor, feeling self-conscious about both their lack of objective knowledge and their own subjective response to a powerful artwork, supposed to feel?
I’ve actually found in producing the podcast that I have a new respect for both the objective historical storytelling and the subjectivity inherent in art history. I get to invite people to look closer at an object that they would never have noticed before, and I like to give them the space to develop their own relationship with it before I bust in with some facts. I never used to have that patience as a grad student – I was too eager to explain to them what the object “means”. I also find myself looking more closely at objects than I ever used to, and putting less weight on the art history than on the looking. That said, I also put a lot of rigor into making sure my facts are correct, which means that my academic discipline has to be as airtight as ever.
A lot of the art history podcast and history podcast I listen to (Art History Babes, A Piece of Work, Art Detective, Spirits, etc…) are women-led. I really appreciate that, not only because I’m a woman in art history, but also because most of my teachers and peers were women when I was at university, the documentaries and radio programs I had access to tended to be male dominated. Obviously, the societal tendency to reject women’s voices and accept it as a form of intellectual authority has been studied before, especially in terms of how woman speak (vocal fry et al.) I struggled with that as a student, trying to make my voice less threatening and/or more authoritative, and listening to women speak about their own art historical endeavor in a variety of tons, voices, vocabulary, is refreshing because I don’t have to ask myself the question of how I sound anymore. Again, I’m interested in any thoughts you might have about this.
I think you’ll find a lot of women-led art history projects because there are just so many women in this field – in my master’s cohort, ten years ago, there was one guy and ten women; the cohort ahead of us had only one guy, and the one behind us had no guys at all. Almost everyone I’ve worked with in art museums has been female (except, without exception, the museum directors). I admit that when I was in school, I was self-conscious about not sounding “art historyish” enough, and it prevented me from talking about these artists and movements the way I really wanted to. I didn’t want the academy to toss me out for not taking it seriously enough. But then I kind of showed myself the door. And it’s much easier to speak with some authority when I’m not intimidated by the academic environment. So it’s not really a question of my gender as much as my need to escape from that world. And if my voice – which I admit, due to sheer dumb luck, is a pretty good one for radio – is more appealing because it comes off as less threatening, I have no problem with that. I’d rather draw people in and then surprise them that they’ve learned something.
You can listen to, subscribe, rate and share The Lonely Palette on iTunes, via the Apple Podcast app or wherever you listen to your podcasts. The Lonely Palette is part of Boston-based podcast collective Hub&Spoke, which provides high quality, independent podcast on a variety of topics – so if you like more than art history, go check out what they do via their website.
WORDS BY MAYANNE SORET
PHOTO BY ADRIANNE MATHIOWETZ, COURTESY OF TAMAR AVISHAI