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20 Art and Culture Podcast Episodes You Should Hear

From public art as a tool of control to grief in games to the science of color, here are 20 recommended podcast episodes on visual culture.

A steam-powered Ophicleide in 'Eine Andere Welt von Plinius dem Jüngsten illustriert von J. J. Grandville' by Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard (via Wikimedia)
A steam-powered Ophicleide in ‘Eine Andere Welt von Plinius dem Jüngsten illustriert von J. J. Grandville’ by Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard (via Wikimedia)

There’s a wonderful world of listening to explore these days with the rise of podcasts (including here on Hyperallergic). Whether you already have your favorite shows or have yet to delve into the medium, here are 20 recommendations (in no particular order) for podcast episodes to check out. The intention is to focus not on art podcasts, but on shows with a broad range of cultural interests that, through their distinct perspectives, help reveal art’s context in the world.

99% Invisible: “Photo Credit” (8/16/16)

“Our modern world owes a debt to the Bauhaus, and the Bauhaus owes a debt to Lucia Moholy, whether anyone knows her name or not. But we should know it,” says 99% Invisible host Roman Mars in this episode on the life of Lucia Moholy. The podcast excels at investigating overlooked phenomena and stories in design history, such as holdout houses and hostile architecture. In “Photo Credit,” the subject is the often unnamed woman photographer behind the best-known visuals of the Bauhaus. The story isn’t just interesting in its tumultuous details, from Moholy’s loss of her negatives when fleeing the Nazis to her tense exchanges with Walter Gropius; it also asks important questions about who owns the image of a building and how photographs shape our understanding of the past.

The Memory Palace: “Gallery 742” (12/17/15)

Nate DiMeo of The Memory Palace is currently an artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, creating site-specific episodes responding to its American Wing. Before he started that project, the museum commissioned him to create a piece on its Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room. Like all of his Memory Palace episodes, “Gallery 742” gradually builds an almost tactile place out of just narration and sound, returning to the 1880s, when Arabella Worsham stood between the room’s carved wooden walls, preparing to walk out into the night and poised to become one of New York’s richest women, despite her past as a girl with nothing.

Illustration of the Astor Place Riot in 'Our Theatres To-Day and Yesterday' (1910) (via Internet Archive/Wikimedia)
Illustration of the Astor Place Riot in Our Theatres To-Day and Yesterday (1910) (via Internet Archive/Wikimedia)

The Bowery Boys: “The Astor Place Riot” (4/2/14)

One of New York City’s most violent riots started because of Shakespeare. The Bowery Boys podcast, hosted by Greg Young and Tom Meyers, has been unraveling history in the five boroughs with conversational, well-researched discussions since 2007 (a recent trilogy on the Bronx is especially great). The episode on the Astor Place Riot chronicles the brutality of the evening of May 10, 1849, at the Astor Place Opera House, from a rivalry between Shakespearean actors to the class divisions of the 19th century that went right down to experiences with art.

Raw Material: “The Vessel” (10/3/16)

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s new Raw Material podcast is off to a promising start. Host Ross Simonini is concentrating on artists who “work with the unknown.” In “The Vessel,” that means talking to such artists as Dohee Lee, who evokes spirits in ritual performances, and exploring the history of how mystical experiences acted as conduits for Modernism.

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, "Self-portrait in a Straw Hat" (1782), oil on canvas (via National Gallery/Wikimedia)
Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Self-portrait in a Straw Hat” (1782), oil on canvas (via National Gallery/Wikimedia)

Stuff You Missed in History Class: “Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun” (5/18/16)

In Stuff You Missed in History Class, duo Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey often highlight unsung cultural contributions by women. Their episode on Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun recounts how the 18th-century portraitist rose to be the first female court artist, creating some 30 paintings of Marie-Antoinette before the French Revolution disrupted her life and legacy.

Criminal: “Pen & Paper” (1/22/16)

“I started smiling at John Gacy, and he started smiling back,” explains courtroom artist Andy Austin, about how she got the infamous serial killer to change his expression. In “Pen & Paper,” Criminal host Phoebe Judge interviews Austin on her life as a Chicago courtroom staple with a distinctive watercolor style, and how art endures as a vital medium in the drama of witnesses, defendants, and jury.

Sidedoor: “Tech Yourself” (10/25/16)

The Smithsonian Institution’s new podcast, Sidedoor, started last month with a debut episode on what technology reveals about humanity.  Sidedoor‘s strength is that it has the whole of the Smithsonian as a resource, and “Tech Yourself” journeys from the anthropology of cellphone use at the National Museum of Natural History to artist Ian Cheng’s simulated organism/video piece “Emissary in the Squat of Gods” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC (photo by My Photo Journeys/Flickr)
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC (photo by My Photo Journeys/Flickr)

American Icons: “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial” (5/26/16)

Studio 360’s American Icons series, hosted by Kurt Anderson, has tackled everything from Superman to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The episode on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial examines how public art memorialized a war that didn’t seem worth its losses. Architect Maya Lin, soldiers who bristled at the abstraction of her design, and those who come today and find their own reflections in the names carved in black granite all add their voices to the narrative on what started, as Anderson puts it, as “the most controversial public sculpture in American history.”

The Urbanist: “The Museums That Make Us” (4/23/15)

On The Urbanist, Monocle editor Andrew Tuck inspects the design, infrastructure, and institutions that make our cities work. In the episode “The Museums That Make Us,” he studies how museums shape — or “hope to shape” — cities, including London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, which emphasizes civic identity in its shows, and the construction of a “museum of civilizations” in Beirut.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Greatest Cartoon Almost Made” (6/17/15)

“How did a man who in the ’70s was often called the next Walt Disney end up as the Captain Ahab or Don Quixote of the animation world?” asks Imaginary Worlds host Eric Molinsky. The podcast specializes in fictional realms such as fantasy cartography and the cultural history of “sexy robots.” “The Greatest Cartoon Almost Made” tells the story of The Thief and the Cobbler, an animated film that Richard Williams spent three decades on, never completed, and then was ripped off by Disney’s Aladdin, before becoming its own fragmented work of art.

Shark work by Damien Hirst in Doha (photo by Gazanfarulla Khan/Flickr)
Shark work by Damien Hirst in Doha (photo by Gazanfarulla Khan/Flickr)

Planet Money: “Why A Dead Shark Costs $12 Million” (10/9/13)

“Why does one guy’s stuffed shark sell for 12 million dollars, and another guy can’t sell his?” asks Planet Money in this look at the economics of art. The 2013 episode, whose title references Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” is an engaging consideration of the monetary values applied to art, as well as whether or not art really is a good investment.

Freakonomics: “Fear Thy Nature” (9/14/12)

In this episode, the accessible economics podcast Freakonomics probes the unexpected link between the immersive theater experience Sleep No More in New York City and the Stanford Prison Experiment. “Fear Thy Nature” includes interviews with people involved in both the art piece, which allows the audience to freely explore the ongoing performance, and the psychological test that gave students roles as prison guards and prisoners, in order to ask how behavior is influenced by our surroundings.

William Henry Fox Talbot and others at a commercial calotype establishment in Reading, England (1846) (via Wikimedia)
William Henry Fox Talbot and others at a commercial calotype establishment in Reading, England (1846) (via Wikimedia)

In Our Time: “The Invention of Photography” (7/7/16)

BBC Radio’s In Our Time podcast is not for casual listening; prepare to give your undivided attention to academic discussions of the renaissance of the 12th-century or the collapse of the Bronze Age. “The Invention of Photography” is especially thorough and rewarding. It starts by defining the idea of a camera, then works up to the astonishing appearance of Louis Daguerre’s daguerreotype in France and William Henry Fox Talbot’s salt prints in England. Along the way come details on the early adoption of photography in astronomy and how, even from the beginning, photographers struggled with the fact that a picture always captures more than intended.

Reply All: “The Cathedral” (1/7/16)

Reply All is a podcast “about the internet,” and its omnivorous interests have resulted in some compelling and unusual stories (check out the online community that conjures imagined spirits as friends). “The Cathedral” is a heartbreaking listen about channeling grief into art, through the example of a video game made by a father about his son’s losing battle with cancer. (For reading, I also reviewed the game in January for Hyperallergic.)

Text in 'Maira Kalman Selects' at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Text in Maira Kalman Selects at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Allusionist: “The Writing on the Wall” (3/11/15)

Text panels are often the last things created for an exhibition, but they’re essential to the way visitors orient themselves in a museum. The linguistic podcast The Allusionist, hosted by Helen Zaltzman, uses “The Writing on the Wall” to highlight why the new Tate Britain installation has minimal panels, and how artist Fred Wilson embeds subtle institutional critique in incisive label text.

Radiolab: “Colors” (5/25/12)

Radiolab’s “Colors” is a scientific look at how we experience color, rooted in everything from painting to war. The episode includes interviews on the ways different animals see color, the connection between finding a perfect yellow pigment and the Cambodian killing fields, and descriptions from The Iliad that demonstrate how our perceptions of color are far from static, even for the blue of the sky.

Photogravure of Michelangelo drawing a cadaver by candlelight, after Antonin Mercié (via Wellcome Images/Flickr)
Photogravure of Michelangelo drawing a cadaver by candlelight, after Antonin Mercié (via Wellcome Images/Flickr)

Here Be Monsters: “Jonathan’s Cadaver Paintings” (10/30/13)

Jeff Emtman’s Here Be Monsters is a growing audio compendium of the dark sides of our world, from hallucinogenic healing for grief to a behind-the-scenes look at the carnivorous beetles gnawing on bones in natural history museums. “Jonathan’s Cadaver Paintings” concentrates on artist Jonathan Happ, whose subjects are the dead and who muses on how the practice of anatomical study was started in part by artists.

This American Life: “Blame It on Art” (8/22/97)

This is a somewhat dated episode of This American Life, from before podcasting became a thing; listen to a reporter talk on a cell phone, as intoned by host Ira Glass, from the site of the “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre. However, “Blame It on Art” is worth a return. Among the highlights of its vignettes — which feature an exploration of the competitive nature of balloon animals — is David Sedaris’s gleefully deranged rehashing of his brief life as a performance artist, including frying up plastic Army men in a skillet and building nests of human hair.

Gutzon Borglum's model of the Mount Rushmore memorial (1936) (via Library of Congress/Wikimedia)
Gutzon Borglum’s model of the Mount Rushmore memorial (1936) (via Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

BackStory: “Monumental Disagreements” (5/24/13)

In BackStory, historians Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf, and Brian Balogh break down the minutiae of their field. “Monumental Disagreements” is all about American public art as memorial and means of intimidation — whether it’s the Washington Monument, which was criticized from the beginning as a return to the statuary of the monarchy, the “faithful slaves” monuments in the South, or the appropriation of Sioux sacred land for Mount Rushmore. It’s a worthwhile hour on how public art can be used as a tool of control.

The Organist: “Growing Up Zorthian” (1/8/16)

On The Organist, presented by McSweeney’s and KCRW, host Andrew Leland offers engrossing reports on art and culture, including what it’s like to be born into a family business that is an ephemeral, inhabitable art project. Or, in other words: “It’s pretty hard to build on the past when your dad was a tyrannical garbage artist whose greatest piece of work was his life.” The setting is the Zorthian Ranch in California, constructed by artist Jirayr Zorthian from the 1940s until his death in 2004, and the story is how his son and granddaughter are coping with their roles as the ranch’s archivists and conservators.

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