Sarah Urist Green on How to Make Art History Less Boring

When Sarah Urist Green was in college, she did not like studying art history. She found the dry lectures and the click-throughs of old, flat images in dark lecture halls to be “alienating and unexciting.” But today, she’s the educator and personality behind popular art history PBS Digital Studios series “The Art Assignment” on YouTube.

Sarah Urist Green pbs rewire
Sarah Urist Green, host of “The Art Assignment.”

What changed? She realized the way art history is usually taught is downright problematic, she said. And she’s trying to flip the script on the much-maligned subject matter.

Rewire talked with Urist Green about her own experience with art, and how things like “The Art Assignment” and new PBS series “Civilizations” can help change hearts and minds.

Rewire: You recently published an episode of “The Art Assignment” about art history getting the reputation of being boring. In fact, the episode is called “Why You Don’t Like Art History.” What’s your take?

Sarah Urist Green: When I was in college… I loved art, I love to make art, I love to learn about art that has been made in the past. (But) for me, everything I was hearing (in my art history classes) was so firmly rooted in the past and there wasn’t an acknowledgment that these things that happened in the past were still relevant today. And I kept wishing that there were a way to kind of marry what I was learning in my studio art classes and what I was learning going to art shows around Chicago into learning about the art of the past.

The video actually came from a personal place. I ended up going to grad school for art history, working in the museum field and now I make an educational art program (“The Art Assignment”), where I functionally teach art history in my own way.

I think a lot of the introductory classes to art history that people take are a really bad way to introduce people to art. Just sort of learning about Greek and Roman art and the Renaissance and sort of this progression of names and dates throughout images on the screen is really boring. There are a lot of history art teachers out there who are teaching in a dynamic and exciting way, and if you’ve had that experience, I think it’s great. This video… was to talk to the people who don’t like art history or think they don’t like art history or had one tragically awful art history class that caused them never to return to it again.

Rewire: Why does the traditional, linear way of learning art history often come off as boring?

SUG: I think it comes off as boring because it gives you a false sense of mastery and that it gives you the sense that this happened and then this happened and that there was either progress or lack of progress. I think it’s more interesting to think about how people were making things concurrently, in different parts of the world, that were in some cases extremely different and in some cases less different.

The brightly colored light show at Amiens Cathedral in Amiens, France, featured in "Civilizations." Sarah Urist Green pbs rewire
The brightly colored light show at Amiens Cathedral in Amiens, France, featured in “Civilizations.” Photo courtesy of Nutopia Ltd.

I think it’s not that interesting to come up with these narratives where there was this time in ancient Rome where everything was amazing, and then there was a century of nothing. If you really look back through our history, you don’t see evidence of that.

I prefer to learn about art in the past through things that are happening now. Like when you are learning about an artist who’s making new work now, I like to think about, oh, who’s done stuff like this before? And who were they inspired by? Who were the people they were inspired by inspired by? I think that, for me, has been kind of the key to finding a hook to caring about these things that happened thousands of years ago.

Rewire: How does the new PBS and BBC series “Civilizations” play into this?

SUG: I’ve found that a lot of art coverage is very self-selective. To really learn about art or to find out about what’s happening in the world of art, you have to go out of your way to learn about it and it tends to sort of exist in its own little niche.

With “Civilizations,” it’s like this great time where the rest of the world can think about art and art history and it’s the space—especially when it’s such a big network like BBC and PBS—that we kind of all together can think about why art is important and why we want to tell the stories of our history.

Rewire: How do you see that intersecting with your own work?

SUG: The reason why I make “The Art Assignment” on the platform that I do, on YouTube, is because I want to be in that space. I worked in an art museum for a number of years before, and that is also a place I feel like you can talk to a wider swath of community, but you do have to select to go to a museum.

When you’re on YouTube, my hope is that you may just be an intellectually curious person who likes a lot of different things and you come across “The Art Assignment” and you think, oh, I’m mildly interested in this topic, and then you click on it.

What I like about making educational videos, videos about art in the context of YouTube, through PBS Digital Studios, is that I have a chance to talk to people who aren’t already sold on art.

The overall kind of thrust of the (“The Art Assignment”) is to find those connections between art and ideas now and things that artists have done in the past. I think a lot of people think of art as something pretentious, something set apart, something for only particular audiences, and it doesn’t have to be that way. I think series like “Civilizations” show you that art really is for everyone, if you take advantage of it.

Rewire: You mention in your art history episode that the original 1969 “Civilisation” BBC series, the inspiration for “Civilizations,” has some problematic aspects because of the way it was framed. Is there still value in the series?

SUG: What “Civilisation” was really good at is showing (host) Kenneth Clark’s personal passion for art. I think seeing anyone’s personal connection to art and how they’re so enthusiastic about it is the most infectious way to kind of pass along an interest in art history.

Anyone who’s taken a course in any topic (knows) it’s only as exciting as the professor and how interested they are in their topic, and I think Kenneth Clark was extremely knowledgeable about the art that he spoke about and also was really good at showing his audience how much he valued it and how much that other people should value it too.

Rewire: You also mentioned that the way people see art is inherently biased by their experiences and educational backgrounds, even for experts like yourself or the hosts of “Civilizations.” Can you explain that?

SUG: I think we are all biased by our educations. Our education is something that opens up the world to us, but no matter how much of your life you spend studying and learning new things, you’re limited. I know that, I’m intensely aware of that, and I think anyone who makes content and puts it online, especially on YouTube, is made aware every day of things that they get wrong, of things that they don’t know, things that other people know. I like being open to that and I think that it’s important to couch what you say, like, look, I’m making videos about art from my experience and my education and my research, but there are a lot of other ways to think about it, too.

David Olusoga, one of the hosts of "Civilizations." Sarah Urist Green pbs rewire
David Olusoga, one of the hosts of “Civilizations,” with Benin Bronzes at the British Museum in London. Photo courtesy of Nutopia Ltd.

I think that the nice thing about the new “Civilizations” series is that it’s not just one historian’s point of view. They bring together the views of three different art historians, and not only men. And I think just getting three view points instead of one is a huge step in the right direction. This way, with three, you get to sort of know these people enough and learn why they’re interested in art without being overwhelmed with a huge number of different viewpoints. I think that step from “Civilisation” to “Civilizations” is a big one, to kind of admit that there is more than one view point and it’s important to always keep that in mind.

Rewire: What are the best ways for people to get into art if they’re curious?

SUG: There’s a lot of things you can do to go see art in a way that isn’t going to feel like you’re under any social pressure. I think the great thing about an art museum, you can walk in and hopefully have minimum social interaction if you want and just be with the art.

I think a lot of times you do, to a certain extent, have to go out of your way, depending on where you live, (to get to art) but in most communities there are things that are happening. There are art openings and if you do a little research you can go see them, whether it’s at a museum or a lot of colleges and universities have smaller art galleries, have lectures by visiting artists that are open to the public, and in a lot of cases, arts organizations are putting on discussions and events and talks with artists. They want people there. I think a lot of people might feel like, oh, I’m not sure I should be here, but all of the places would love a full audience of people there to listen.

It does take paying attention (to what’s going on in your community) but I think once you learn the places… where you can see and experience art, you get on their mailing list, you follow them on social media, then it becomes a lot easier to know what’s happening and to see what might be going on. A lot of times there’s a lot happening that you might not know about… that could be just a block out of your normal path to work or school.

Watch “Civilizations” online at PBS.org or check your local PBS station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times. Watch “The Art Assignment” on YouTube.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.