The Politics of #arthistory/#arthistory as activism

Yesterday I was involved in a discussion over twitter that was initiated by @smarthistory. An initial question (how we can draw reverse the misconception of #arthistory, especially the idea that it is disconnected from politics and the world?) prompted some fascinating responses. It is a question that I often think about, especially when I am confronted with dumbfounded looks about what I do all day as an art historian. It used to baffle me that everyone from family and friends to students and colleagues believe I just sit and look at “pretty pictures” all day long. Even when I would kindly tell them more about what I do, I think many of them just felt confused. Some simply didn’t believe me. And I am not alone. I think art history is misunderstood. There are many reasons for the misperception. And we can all do more to overturn it. There are many folks who are actively engaged in trying to transform art history–or the popular perception of it–but there is still a lot of work to do. It’s not easy work, and it won’t be quick. But with the current state of affairs here in the U.S. (and let’s face it, the world), I believe we could do more to reach out to people outside of students in AP Art History and universities, and the academy. Yes, we need more editorials and op-ed pieces. Yes, we need greater diversity among folks in museums and universities. Yes, we need to rethink the survey/canon–OK, the general art history curriculum. But we also need to think more about how we all can reach publics outside of education systems or museum institutions. I think we need to wrestle with some really tough questions: How can art history help people who feel that art and its histories are not for them, or that art history is useless to them when they can barely provide for their families? Or who are without healthcare and jobs? Or who face discrimination every single day? How can art history help them? What can it do for them? These are hard questions, and I myself don’t always feel I can answer them adequately.

It’s no secret to anyone who reads my blog or knows me that I think Smarthistory is doing a wonderful job at engaging with millions of people across the world, and how the work I do there I consider a form of activism or politically engaged art history. But I think we can all do more. What if many of us started to think of art-historical practice as a type of activism? Would this help us reframe the discipline or engage with new publics? What would activist art history even look like? I think some aspects of what I do on a daily basis are a form of activism, a way of pushing back against stereotypes, racism, oppression, and more. And not just because I teach or research a specific subject, but in the way I practice art history. There are many of us that either actively consider themselves activists, and many who don’t but I’d put into this category. Heck, in today’s world I think teaching how to look critically can be a political act.

We stress critical thinking and reading, but we need to somehow communicate better that critical looking is of the utmost importance. We already do this, especially in our university classes. What I want to see us all do better is to find ways where we can encourage K-12 school boards that critical looking is a necessary skill for our children. I want to see colleagues in other fields (whether in the humanities or not) stress the importance of critical looking more. I want more creative thinking about ways we can create dialogue with people outside of the academy. (I’m going to begin a new thread that thinks of very concrete ways we could possibly achieve some of this.)

There are obvious challenges to doing much of this, and at the risk of making this blog post a lengthy essay I am not going to address the many challenges that are involved in shaking up art history. That said, as more art history departments are shuttered (with the U. of Nebraska as a recent example), there has never been a more pressing moment for us to consider ways to activate art history (and art historians) in new ways and to push back against the perception of art history as an intangible, inaccessible, elitist “thing” that isn’t relevant to today’s world. It might get uncomfortable. It might get messy. It might get time-consuming. I have to believe it is worth it.

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