As an art historian and curator, I adore all things art and its history, and yet the question above is one that is not unfamiliar to me. In my daily travels, I hear frequent complaints: why go to an art museum when I can go to a concert? Theater and movies are more fun! Or I remember an art history class from my university days, and the professor was so boring… and the artwork was boring, too. The most common litanies are: I just can’t get into it; it’s not for me; we don’t need it; it’s boring.
To many, art is frivolous at best, and unnecessary at worst. It’s a feeling I understand because–believe it or not–it’s one I shared as a child. Growing up without access to art education and with few resources for understanding the visual arts, I assumed that art equated “dark, dusty paintings on walls.” How shocking, then, to discover that the stories behind works of art–and the artists who created them–are so fascinating, filled with incredible details that are often strange, funny, and personable. Once I began studying art history in earnest, I was converted into an art evangelist, aiming to engage others in this vibrant field in any way possible. And in 2016, I added another element to my list of persuasions, besides curating, lecturing, and writing: I started podcasting about art history.
ArtCurious, a podcast about “the unexpected, slightly odd, and strangely wonderful in art history,” is an entertaining and educational look into art history as you’ve never seen it. Revealing some of the strangest, funniest, and most fascinating stories behind the world’s great artists and masterpieces, this podcast – and its accompanying book of the same name, published in 2020 by Penguin Books –aims to smash expectations and assumptions about art that are held by aficionados and laypersons alike.
One of the complaints that I often hear from art lovers is that the art world is a (white) male-dominated field… and they aren’t wrong. Men have had far more opportunities to find access, education, and success in this realm for centuries, an imbalance that is still at play today (but thankfully to a smaller degree). Yet even in the midst of one of the most colorful eras in art history – monopolized not only by men, but by those big one-name guys, like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael – amazing women artists still flourished. And these artists flourished far more than even I, an art historian, had imagined. I’m in the midst of launching an audio course called Breaking Barriers: Women Artists of Renaissance Europe, and in the process I’ve learned so much about some women with whom I am now obsessed: Properzia de’ Rossi, a spitfire “rare female sculptor,” in the words of artist biographer Giorgio Vasari; Catherine Vigri of Bologna, who not only authored religious texts, but also illustrated them – and would go on to become the patron saint of artists; Fede Galizia, an Italian artist who adopted the genre of still life painting before many of her compatriots; and Caterina van Hemessen, who created the first self-portrait of an artist seated at their easel, ever. These women did indeed break barriers and created interesting and trailblazing works of art, enough that their stories have delighted even this historian. And that’s one of my favorite things about this field of art – it’s ability to continually surprise you.