Dane Nakama, “Lost,” acrylic on canvas, (2021) (image courtesy the artist)

If you’re on TikTok a little too much, like I am, you’ve probably also faced the fear of having lost days of your life to what some call a “kids dancing app.” But during those many hours, I’ve found countless informational gems about our visual world, ranging from cocktail party fodder, to mind altering notions. While the open forum nature of the app can lead to the rapid spread of misinformation, previously ignored stories bubble to the surface, never failing to draw the comment, “Damn! School never taught me this.” The following are just a few of my favorite pieces of art and visual media history that I learned from TikTok. 

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  1. @cyberexboyfriend: Carpeted bathrooms were a post-World War II expression of prosperity. 

Have you ever wondered why so many vintage American bathrooms have carpeting? In this video, Laura Lisbon, aka cyberexboyfriend, explains to his audience that in the decades following World War II, the United States’ gains in economic prosperity were reflected in interior design. In the booming ‘60s and ‘70s, people gravitated toward bright colors and opulent textiles. Carpet was seen as a luxury, and on the bathroom floor? The ultimate finery! Cyberexboyfriend gives incredibly binge-worthy rundowns of fashion, design, and pop culture — all with a wry, deadpan air that’s completely his own. 

2. @theroyalwardrobe: Beauty patches were not just circles, but all manners of shapes, and changed based on skin tone! 

All of our favorite caricatures of wealthy, mid-17th-century aristocrats include a little cosmetic dot on the cheek. These “beauty patches,” which covered imperfections on the skin, came in all sorts of shapes — stars, moons, flowers, and countless other varieties. Rosie Harte, the creator behind @theroyalwardrobe, shows us a stunning painting of two wealthy women, one who is White, and one who is Black. Rosie shows how this painting clues us in to how non-White Europeans both took part in and altered European fashion to fit their needs: the woman with darker skin has white patches to contrast her skin tone. Theroyalwardrobe is a fantastic resource if you’re looking to get your high-class fashion history fix. 

3. @Pulasu.co: The woven mochila from the Wayuu people in Colombia is much more than a fashion statement.

Wayuu mochila bags are not only a fashion staple in Colombia, but are an ancient Indigenous weaving tradition. Laura Obregón Cañola runs the account for Pülasü, a group that works with Indigenous women and sells authentic mochila bags. She explains that the bags represent a mother: “The round shape representing the womb and body, the straps represent arms and legs; the opening … is a mouth, and last, but not least, the base is a belly button.” Her account also educates viewers on the lives and cultures of Colombia’s Indigenous peoples, including protests from Wayuu water protectors against El Cerrejón, an open-air coal mine which poses an enormous threat to their water supply. 

4. @heyyyms.v: KAWS has another half — Julia Chiang, a painter, sculptor and installation artist. 

And her work is stunning. This video is produced by Liz Vazquez (or Ms. V, as she’s known to her students and viewers), a high school art history teacher whose clear cut explanations draw attention to under-celebrated works as well as fresh examinations of well known masterpieces. She shows how Chiang uses repetition and glorifies handmade imperfections throughout her creations, working with innovative materials like melting ring pops. Once she showed me Chiang’s work, I became furious that Google defines her as “Kaws’ wife.”

5. @color.nerd: Can you tell whether someone is expressing toxic masculinity by how dismissive they are of color?

The video opens with influencer bentellect scoffing at the idea that two shades of purple could be different, insinuating that only a woman would care about such trifling matters. But this video is a “stitch,” consisting of a creator taking a few seconds of another video, and adding their own context. Peter Donahue, or color.nerd on TikTok,  jumps in to explain that in Western art history, form has been associated with masculinity, while color has been considered “dangerous and emasculating.” He says that the treatment of the idea that subtle color differences would matter to someone is a “litmus test for toxic masculinity.” For everything from explanations of hex codes to how most of our color wheels are totally off base, color.nerd is the go-to expert for all your colorful needs.

6. @pheauxtogenic: This is a treasure trove of Black art history.

It’s impossible to discuss pheauxtogenic without mentioning at least a few of her videos. Cass Rush is an art historian and student posting from Los Angeles, she creates incredibly valuable overviews of prominent American Black artists, such as Alma Thomas, Kennedi Carter, and Tschabalala Self. Her overview of Bill Traylor, a legendary Alabama artist who was born into slavery, provides helpful guideposts for how we discuss “outsider art,” and the classist undertones of the term “outsider art” itself. Before her video on Howardena Pindell, a Philadelphia artist who creates enormous, multimedia abstract masterpieces, I had no idea about her earlier work where she wrapped her head in bandages following a car crash, or the challenges she faced trying to enter abstract work into galleries as a Black woman. In just a couple minutes, this creator will guide you through the life and oeuvre of artists and movements that everyone should know about, but too often don’t. 

7. @sberrygames: American archeology has a “curation crisis,” in which countless artifacts have been stored without being studied … for decades 

We’re going back to mid-century USA. Along with the baby boom, there was also a construction boom, leading to an archeology boom. Construction projects are required to conduct salvage archeology: As earth is dug up, artifacts are taken out of the ground and put in depositories. But archeology students are pushed to unearth new artifacts, rather than study what’s already out of the ground, leading to countless rooms stuffed with items that are not being studied or even stored properly. And as you can imagine, this poses a big hurdle for Native American archeology. If this interests you, there may be ways to help museums out! Some offer volunteer positions where you can help them catalog their innumerable items. And of course, follow sberrygames for more illuminating tales from the world of archeology. 

8. @artistcolette: What is the value of public art, and what makes a good public art piece? 

For art world drama, analysis of public art installations, and an inside look into the world of a young artist living in New York City, look no further than Colette Bernard’s account, artistcolette. In this video, the creator shows us that it took close to 4,000 hours of manual labor to create the Talus Dome in Edmonton Canada, racking up a value of half a million dollars. But what is it worth in the eye of the public? She provides helpful criteria of what public art should be: “I personally think that public art should be interactive, accessible, and culturally relevant.” Colette goes on to say that while the people tend to get annoyed at Anish Kapoor, the Chicago “Bean” turns out to be a much more successful piece if we measure it by its staying power and level of public engagement.

9. @umeboi – Why is “cuteness” undervalued in art?

Did you know that “kitsch” is derived from the German word for “trash”? Dane Nakama is a painter and ceramics artist who often employs cuteness in their work, and has made several videos asking why this is so often cast aside in fine art. They cite Clement Greenberg and Walter Benjamin, who position “kitsch” as the opposite of avant-garde art.* Rather, they define “kitsch” as the “rear garde,”  “popularized, commercial, and lacking in intellectual effort.” Umeboi also shows how movements like pop art pushed back, using garish colors and comic book styles to challenge notions of “high” versus “low” art. In a soothing tone, this creator guides their viewers through landmark artworks and concepts from the perspective of both an artist and a historian. 

*I feel I have to mention that this is a rare miss from Walter Benjamin, a pretty wonderful Marxist theorist who incorporated Jewish mysticism and contributed much to the world of visual studies. 

10. @vi.babe: You know what a kimono is, but what about jūnihitoe?

In her video on jūnihitoe (十二単), vi.babe shows that  Japanese traditional clothing is much more than kimonos. Jūnihitoe (十二単) translates to “twelve layers,” and was worn by noble women and ladies in waiting in the Heian period (794 to 1185 CE.) Like the name suggests, it’s made up of layers of sumptuous textiles, which altogether could weigh up to 40 pounds (20 kg)! Vi.babe’s account explores the colorful and complex world of Asian traditional cultural dress. Look to her for the difference between áo dài and qipao, the many dazzling ensembles of Vietnamese dynasties, and many more topics on the diversity and richness of Asian dress. 

11. @Melinabee 

Do you know what “Curly Girly” is? What about “McBling,” “Wacky Pomo,” or “Decoplex”? Melina Bee explores “microstyles,” colorful trends in pop culture, architecture, and graphic design, mostly from the ‘80s, ‘90s, and the ‘00s. Her posts reveal a funky cultural richness we may be taking for granted, from the designs of “googie” vintage signs to the poster in every nail salon window. Until I came across her account, I had never thought about the aesthetic of the Cheesecake Factory, which she describes as “postmodern Las Vegas Mediterranean pastiche” — while pointing to how it’s been called bloated “postmodern hellscape.”  The chain’s eclectic and exaggerated aesthetic was designed in 1992 by hospitality designer Rich McCormack, who was inspired by the exuberant Victorian architecture of San Francisco, but it grew into, in Benches’s words, “engorged baroque” that’s “trippy in a smooth jazz way.” Bee’s videos highlight how many of us have seen these aesthetics, but haven’t stopped to think about the designers behind them. 

12. @aprilbydesign: Was the portrait on the US dime copied from Black sculptor, Selma Burke?

Selma Burke was already a notable sculptor when she was invited to the White House to make a relief of FDR. But when he passed away a few months later, they hired the mint’s chief engraver, John Sinnock, to create the final portrait that eventually went on to the US dime. Many suspect that he copied Burke’s original masterpiece. The creator of this video claims that he even looked at her artwork and sketches! April Cooper is an incredible artist herself. She also makes commentaries on topics such as being an artist who makes slow oil paintings in the rapid-fire digital age, voicing over beautiful brushstrokes and varnishes. 

@aprilbydesign

there’s so much to this story I couldn’t get every detail in 1 min. Do a google search. #blackarthistory #makeblackhistory #harlemrenaissance

♬ original sound – ArtbyApril

13. @_theiconoclass: There’s an art historical precedent for the “meta-selfie.” 

Mary McGillivray is a well loved art history expert from Cambridge University. She’s widely known for taking artworks out of their dusty archives and putting them on digital pedestals through fun and accessible videos. In this video she dissects the “meta-selfie,” which is an image people take of themselves looking in mirrors that reflect their phones taking a selfie. This trend is often maligned as influencer culture taken to the self-obsessed extreme. But Mary tells us that people have been making meta portraits, or, portraits of people painting portraits, throughout history, providing examples from ancient Rome to the Renaissance. “It doesn’t mean that social media is ‘eating itself.’ It means that social media is becoming more aware, as we ask ourselves, ‘what does it mean to take a selfie?’” 

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Isabella Segalovich

Isabella Segalovich is a Philadelphia-based artist, designer, writer, and TikTokker. Her work focuses on anti-authoritarian art history, on topics such as cultural appropriation and erasure, the racism...

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