The Twitter Account that Reveals Our Obsession with Icons

Artwork: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holding a basketball, portrait by Andy Warhol, 1977 // Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavs during a game, c.2014. Courtesy of TabloidArtHistory.

“Everything has already been done,” Stanley Kubrick opined “Every story has been told. Every scene has been shot. It’s our job to do it one better.”

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Perhaps this is true—perhaps it is not. It’s impossible to know that which has never existed until it takes form. But one thing is for sure, and that’s the power of myth, which speaks of human nature’s relentless desire to find a narrative that makes sense out of the chaos and complexities of existence.

We do not need to look all the way back to mythologies of yore, to the heroic, monstrous, and villainous archetypes that have inspired great art, music, and literature in all cultures across time. The classical ideals of god, mortal, and beast have so completely subsumed our conscious (and even unconscious) minds that we simply follow the script.

“Myths are the stories we tell ourselves to resolve the contradictions we find intolerable,” Peter Conrad writes in the opening chapter of his new book, Mythomania: Tales of Our Times from Apple to Isis (Thames & Hudson, September 12). “We dislike the idea that we happened into being accidentally in a universe that is a product of a random explosion. We therefore invent a creator who designed nature to serve us an allotted us a privileged place in it.”

It is here, in this space of imagination that we unfold our myths: timeless tales of virtue and vice, of criminal behavior and moral lessons that speak as a warning to the foolish or the unethically inclined, distilling the wisdom of the ages into a captivating story that won’t be forgotten easily.

Conrad delves into the myths of the present day, of the exalted and desecrated figures that impel our imaginations to new heights. From Judge Judy to the Kardashians, Banksy to Christian Grey, Michael Jackson to Barack Obama, the way in which the art world, book publishing, music & entertainment industries, and mass media present narratives to us follows any number of classical myths.

We can see this quite literally in TabloidArtHistory, the sizzling Twitter account launched in November 2016, which combines tabloid photographs with historic works of art. Mythology is not simply a set of codified values that occur as a sequence of events; it is also a body of knowledge built into our visual intelligence.

“Seeing is a believing” is a popular idiom that was first recorded in 1639 to give credence to the faith of Thomas the Apostle (aka “doubting Thomas”), who did not believe in the Resurrection until he saw Jesus for himself. Jesus, however, understood that there were those whose faith did not rely upon such empirical evidence.

But—most of us are not true believers and we seek evidence to guide our thoughts, whether to reinforce what we already believe or to question assumptions that were implanted in us. TabloidArtHistory’s strength is in its flawless ability to combine pop culture with high art, to cross the boundaries of pre-supposed hierarchies in order to expose our obsession with the underlying myths and archetypes that enfold our lives.

Some artists like Beyoncé carefully research the past, sourcing a font of references from across the world of art, which she layers with great elegance and refinement to fully embody the essence of the Goddess herself. TabloidArtHistory draws parallels to the works of Kehinde Wiley, Eugène Delacroix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sandro Botticelli, and Evelyn de Morgan, and goddesses Oshun and Yemaya.

Others, like Tiger Woods may have no such intents, but his downward spiral evokes a sensation of martyrdom akin to St. Sebastian—though when all is said and done, Muhammad Ali’s Esquire April 1968 cover articulated this paradigm for not just the Champ, but for African Americans as a whole, who are forced to live in a state of “double consciousness,” as defined by W.E.B. DuBois.

“What we look for in moments of doubt is a sign – some indication of where we are, and an explanation of how we got there,” Conrad writes. “With luck there might be an arrow, like an index finger directing us higher or at least pointing ahead.”

Or there might be a Twitter account, a thoughtful meme, a well-crafted essay, a powerful song, or any other symbol by which we can find a semblance of understanding in what is rightfully considered a mess. The brilliance of TabloidArtHistory is the way in which it allows us to see for ourselves, to recognize that once upon a time high art was popular culture.

It’s really just two sides of the same coin, and that coin is myth: our need to fixate on select personalities as an extension of self, of hopes and our fears, our dreams and nightmares, of the countless lessons we ignore in our own lives until we can finally see the meaning of it all, outside ourselves.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.