Watch 3000 Years of Art, a 1968 Experimental Film That Takes You on a Visual Journey Through 3,000 Years of Fine Art

Even if we can’t name them, we’ve all seen hun­dreds of the most impor­tant paint­ings in art his­to­ry, and even if we can’t name it, we’ve all heard “Clas­si­cal Gas.” 3000 Years of Art, the 1968 exper­i­men­tal film above, offi­ci­ates an aes­thet­ic union of about 2500 of those much-seen, high­ly influ­en­tial images and Mason Williams’ instru­men­tal hit song, all in just over three min­utes.

Ini­tial­ly released on The Mason Williams Phono­graph Record in 1967, the track went on, with the help of 3000 Years of Art, to become “one of the ear­li­est records that used a visu­al to help pro­mote it on tele­vi­sion, which prob­a­bly qual­i­fies it as one of the ear­li­est music videos.” Those words come from Williams him­self, who post­ed the video to his own Youtube chan­nel.

When “Clas­si­cal Gas” first became a hit, he writes, “I was also the head writer for The Smoth­ers Broth­ers Com­e­dy Hour on CBS. I had seen a film titled God Is Dog Spelled Back­wards at The Encore, an off beat movie house in L.A. The film was a col­lec­tion of approx­i­mate­ly 2500 clas­si­cal works of art, most­ly paint­ings, that flashed by in three min­utes. Each image last­ed only two film frames, or twelve images a sec­ond! At the end of the film the view­er was pro­nounced ‘cul­tur­al’ since they had just cov­ered ‘3000 years of art in 3 min­utes!’ ”

Con­tact­ing the short­’s cre­ator, a UCLA stu­dent by the name of Dan McLaugh­lin, Williams asked if he could re-cut its imagery to “Clas­si­cal Gas” for a Smoth­ers Broth­ers seg­ment. First air­ing on the show in the sum­mer of 1968 — the same year that saw anoth­er of the show’s writ­ers, a young man by the name of Steve Mar­tin, bring his tal­ents direct­ly to the air — the result­ing pro­to-music-video rock­et­ed Williams’ song to anoth­er sphere of pop­u­lar­i­ty entire­ly. Not only that, it “opened the door to real­iza­tions that the view­er’s mind could absorb this intense lev­el of visu­al input” with its use of kines­ta­sis, the phe­nom­e­non where­by a mon­tage of still images cre­ates its own kind of motion.

Fol­low­ing the idea to its then-log­i­cal con­clu­sion, Williams soon after wrote a skit for the Smoth­ers Broth­ers Com­e­dy Hour “pro­ject­ing the idea that some­day VJs would be play­ing hit tapes on TV.” And so the tra­jec­to­ries of easy-lis­ten­ing instru­men­tal music, gen­tly sub­ver­sive tele­vi­sion com­e­dy, and art his­to­ry inter­sect­ed to give the world an ear­ly glimpse of MTV, Youtube, and whichev­er host of even short­er-form, intenser view­ing expe­ri­ences comes next.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to 100 Impor­tant Paint­ings with Videos Cre­at­ed by Smarthis­to­ry

One Minute Art His­to­ry: Cen­turies of Artis­tic Styles Get Packed Into a Short Exper­i­men­tal Ani­ma­tion

100,000 Free Art His­to­ry Texts Now Avail­able Online Thanks to the Get­ty Research Por­tal

An Online Guide to 350 Inter­na­tion­al Art Styles & Move­ments: An Invalu­able Resource for Stu­dents & Enthu­si­asts of Art His­to­ry

The Art His­to­ry Web Book

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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