In Western Art History

I don’t know anything about Mallory Ortberg. I infer from the writings at The Toast that Ortberg uses she/her pronouns. She may identify as queer in some way I have not given much attention to. What else she may or may not do for a living, I do not know.

What I know about Mallory Ortberg is this:

Mallory Ortberg has given me a love of Western Art History.

Ortberg writes an irregularly re-occurring series of pieces at The Toast, called Western Art History. The premise is simple. Ortberg captions and provide dialog for the subjects of classic paintings in Western Art.

The posts are themed. Women Inexplicably Aroused By Waves in Art is a slightly racier theme. Or, Unhappy Little Girls With Birds In Western Art History is a more tame selection. One of my favorites is Women Trying To Say “No” Politely In Western Art History.

Here’s one example:

no, no, you misunderstand
I’m tensing up from joy
you know
how like of when
someone coming up from behind you and unexpectedly grabbing your shoulder makes you so happy you freeze up

They are all like that. And the more you read in sequence, the more hysterically funny they become.

At first, I liked the posts because they are snarky. But the more I have read them, the more I come to appreciate them. I feel that Mallory Ortberg, in her anachronistic and snarky captions, is creating a world in which the people of the past are not dead, lost, and forgotten. She is re-establishing the common humanity of history.

Of course, the way some of the characters are captioned is not an accurate reading of what the artist intended to convey. Rapture in the presence of the divine, for instance, is frequently captioned as indifferent boredom. This is due, I suspect, both to a desire for comedic effect and to the way art had changed its understanding of portraiture over time.

But the captions have made me LOOK at art in ways I never have before. These days I look at ALL art, online or in-person, searching for emotional connection. I study the faces of the people in the paintings. I look at them. I re-dress them in modern clothes, I re-write the narrative, I empathize, I relate.

Mallory Ortberg taught me to love the Western Art canon.

I can’t walk through a museum without giggling hysterically, sure.

But it’s a hysterical giggle of love.

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