Australian TikTok creator Mary McGillivray brings artwork historical past to a Gen Z viewers as _theiconoclass
It took an investigation and a drug test to prove that the lead singer of Italy’s victorious Eurovision entry did not use drugs in the green space of the 2021 ceremony. But maybe Damiano David should have looked into art history to clear his name.
Twenty-five-year-old Melburnian Mary McGillivray used her understanding of linear perspective – gained through studying Renaissance art – to prove the singer was innocent in a TikTok that quickly hit five million views.
“Basically, I looked at the footage of this alleged incident and found that the angles and lines weren’t in sync. It was all an optical illusion,” McGillivray told RN The Art Show.
In addition to TikTok, McGillivray also creates content for Instagram and YouTube. (
“A lot of people think TikTok is just for silly dance videos and memes, but there are so many amazing subcultures in the app and one of them is the art history side of TikTok.”
In just 10 months, McGillivray built a fan base of over 350,000 using the hashtags ArtTok and ArtHistoryTok.
Under the name _theiconoclass, she posts art movements, reveals hidden meanings in works of art and analyzes the art of pop cultural phenomena such as Lizzo’s music video Rumors, Bridgerton and Harry Potter.
“I’m an art history toker, an art history communicator, and more generally an art history influencer – which is a whole new category of things,” says McGillivray.
“I am describing it [my TikTok] as a zoomer outreach program for art history education … I love to convey the stuffy side of art history to Generation Z audiences in an entertaining way. “
What makes a good TikTok?
McGillivray was raised by an art history teacher and museum curator.
“I pretty much grew up in museums and historical sites, it’s in my blood … that’s why I’ve always been very interested in art history and, in general, in visual cultural history.”
McGillivray graduated from the University of Melbourne with an honors degree in art history in 2019, after which she planned another degree at Cambridge University – and then COVID-19 happened.
McGillivray counts the English art critic John Berger as one of her greatest influences on art communication.
Delivered: Ben Sengsouvanh
In the middle of Melbourne’s long second lockdown, she turned to TikTok.
“I was locked in, pretty depressed and looking for something to do with my time,” she recalls. “[So] I decided to combine my art history knowledge with my video making skills to start creating content on TikTok. “
McGillivray was introduced to TikTok when she launched the platform’s first series of stories: Love Songs.
“I had to learn very quickly what makes a good TikTok,” she says of the experience.
McGillivray is a self-taught video editor and her friends produced the TikTok series Long Songs.
Delivered: Ben Sengsouvanh
According to McGillivray, the key to successful longer TikToks (the duration of videos recently increased from one to three minutes) is to grab the audience within the first six seconds, and then every 10 seconds to make sure there’s something to keep them busy.
Another important element is tapping into popular TikTok sounds: the songs uploaded and shared by users and other pieces of audio that are then reused in other videos.
One of McGillivray’s first TikToks to hit a million views – over a secret insult in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling – used a sound that had gone viral: a harp version of Rae Sremmurd’s Come Get Her.
She posted fairly regularly – up to three videos a day – for a few months before starting to build a following. But within six months, McGillivray had 250,000 followers.
“Art history is just old memes”
Art requires time and attention (rushing through a gallery is not advisable), which is why the brevity of a TikTok may work against the appreciation and understanding of art.
“I don’t see my role in adding immense depth to a subject on TikTok, it’s impossible in a minute,” admits McGillivray.
“I see my role in encouraging people to be interested in something they may not have been completely interested in before … the privilege of having an art history education or access to museums and galleries.”
One of McGillivray’s most popular TikTok series teaches its followers to recognize artists and art movements (e.g., “If it has cute babies, it’s Baroque. But if it has ugly babies, it’s Middle Ages”).
McGillivray called her account The Iconoclass because “I’ve always been interested in iconoclasm as a historical phenomenon and then … you’re in class and you’re going to learn” (
Another series, which she refers to as “Art History 101”, includes videos on iconography and counter post.
“Every generation needs to be brought back to the basics and what we take for granted,” she says.
But McGillivray introduces her followers not only to Leonardo and Michelangelo, but also to lesser-known or overlooked artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi, a masterful baroque painter whose work is finally being celebrated.
“[It’s] To be able to do such a really cool thing … to have women artists in the western canon is quite a privilege, “she says.
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The slug line of their TikTok handle reads “Art history is just old memes”.
McGillivray says, “It’s not going to zoom out [art history] in no way … It’s about making art history more accessible, but also about elevating memes. “
She adds that online meme culture involves layers of iconography, irony, and reference.
“If you’ve studied art history, you know that most of European art history is exactly alike.”
Community and content
TikTok clearly has broad appeal, but its algorithm (which has a dark side) quickly adjusts the individual’s experience and directs users to niche content areas, including video strips under hashtags like Historicaldress, Yiddishtok, and Pompomart.
McGillivray says she feels part of a thriving international community of TikTokers of art history that she is in touch with on Whatsapp.
“It’s really cool to know that there are people all over the world who are interested in the same things that you are and want to convey it to people for free,” she says.
McGillivray recommends Hawaiian artist Dane Nakama (umeboi) and New York artist Colette Bernard (artistcolette).
She also recommends the Australian story TikToker Liz (lilawood).
Umeboi does TikToks on the art of the 20th century and Artistcolette deals with the drama of the art world.
Scope of delivery: Umeboi and Artistcolette
McGillivray has her frustration with the platform, including the fact that certain features and the Creator Fund – the successful creator pays – are either not available in the Australian edition of the app or are delayed in arriving.
She adds, “Like all online platforms, TikTok can encourage burnout and a potentially unhealthy relationship with content creation.
“That’s why I think it’s so important to be very confident about what I’m trying and why I’m trying … for me it’s about communicating with people and engaging people, it’s not about becoming famous.”
McGillivray plans to continue creating content when she finally gets to Cambridge, but intends to continue to switch to longer content – like her recent YouTube essays.
“I feel like I’m moving more towards creating deeper content or developing less frequent content, but I’d like to be able to keep doing things.”