Tools for Resistance: The Importance of Art, Research, and Writing

by Lynn Clement


Although I’ve always tried to take an activist’s approach to art history and fought against the notion that it is inconsequential, there have been times that I have succumbed to the denigrations of my profession.  In the wake of the 2016 election, with attacks on immigrants, refugees, the LBGT community, the rise of violence against people of color, and the return of the white supremacist public voice (to name a nauseating few), my job felt particularly frivolous.  I am lucky to have a circle of friends who are avid do-gooders.  Through their chosen careers they fight for voting rights, for reproductive rights, for clean energy and natural resources, and for fair banking practices (to name a brilliant few).  Being surrounded by such people gives me an enormous sense of pride, and an enormous inferiority complex. What could I do to make a difference?

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In the wake of this election I have read more than ever before because when I am in doubt, I do research. I turned to articles and books to guide me to an answer, to guide me out of inaction and uncertainty.  I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  I read This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century by Mark and Paul Engler.  I read Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hoschchild.  I read Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis.  I read We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.  I read So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo.  Most recently, I read Your Art Will Save Your Life by Beth Pickens.  While each of these books have been immensely important and helpful, it is the last in my list that I would like to expound on because of its resonance for those of us who might feel they are ill equipped to be part of the movement against the growing tide of injustice.

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Beth Pickens’ book is an open letter to those working in the fine arts, but her advice could be used for anyone. The passage that will likely reverberate wider than what the author may have originally intended reads:

“The lesson I took away—and that I access during every natural and human-centered crisis—is that I can start exactly where I am, with what I have, to work toward justice and be of service to someone more vulnerable than I am.  I don’t have to wait.  I don’t need to become somebody else or wish for difference skills.”  (Pickens, 28)

This is the passage from the book that most inspired me.  What are my skills?  What is my passion?  What is my creative outlet?  What do I hope will impact others on a micro or macro level?  For me, it is my research and my teaching.  I had my answer; this is what I could do.

I could find ways to expand the discourse and challenge the status quo. I could strive to think even more critically about what I see and read, and I could teach students to do the same.  I have long been in the process of rewriting my lectures to be inclusive of voices of those that had been marginalized throughout history; I could double, triple my efforts.  I could create more assignments that challenge long time ascertains about art, art making, and art seeing. I could give to my student food bank and reach out to students in a greater way. Many would now be dealing with less assistance and would be dealing with family members (or their own) threats of deportation.  I could also support writers and scholars working to improve the inclusiveness of my, and related, fields.  This is how I could channel my fear and anger.  “Anger is real and necessary, and it can be transformed into fuel.” (Pickens, 37)

“When our culture becomes oppressive and moves toward upholding the white supremacist capitalist militarist patriarchy, we need creative, public forms of dissent to inspire, counter fatigue, rally, instigate, and inform.” (Pickens, 104)

Art is often in service to those in power, however, art has always had a purpose beyond that.  “I read about artists making work during war, in times of violence, and despite systemic neglect.” (Pickens, 10)  Art has power and it can give voice to the powerless.  I think this is one of the reasons that art is viewed as dangerous.  It can easily be used to tear down the false narratives that our nation was built on.  I could address those false narratives in my approach to history and how it has been recorded in visual forms.

“Your art will help you navigate the world, and it will light the way for others.” (Pickens, 9)

As I look to those working in the fine arts to light my way, I can say the same for fellow scholars working in the humanities.  Again, to make this change I’m doing my research and finding likeminded teachers, scholars, and historians.  They are making a difference and they are helping me to strive for the same.  A tumblr page entitled People of Color in European Art History provides outstanding resources for addressing race in the visual arts. LaTanya S. Autry has created an invaluable resource regarding museums and social justice. Smarthistory.org has amazing resources on myriad art historical subjects, but their Seeing America theme is particularly helpful in addressing notions of a more inclusive National Identity in the visual arts.  Angela Sutton and her colleagues at the Vanderbilt Center for Digital Humanities working on the Slave Societies Digital Archive have inspired me to address hard histories in my classroom despite the risk.  Pickens’ book offered additional people of action like Marcia Chatelain who created the #Fergusonsyllabus, a resource for educators teaching “every age group in every discipline, to share resources for bringing racism, policing, urban history, civil rights, and black history into each of their classrooms…” (27)

I still feel inadequate and ineffectual most of the time, but the more I read, the more I learn, the more I see others in my field resisting, the more I feel better equipped to help.  “We have a vision for the world we want to live in, and we have the tools for resistance.” (Pickins, 25)

Woman on a Mission: My Search for Community in an Academic Gig Economy

By Lynn Clement


The trajectory of my career has been driven by the firm belief that access to education in the arts should not be a luxury and my pursuit of this mission has lead me to teach at local community colleges. Working in this setting allows me the extraordinary opportunity to meet people of different backgrounds, with myriad academic interests and life experiences, all which improve my teaching and strengthen the approach to my discipline.  However, an adjunct professor, in particular, forges odd professional relationships.  Due to shifting, and often conflicting, schedules with our colleagues, it can be lonely work.  While I value deeply the interactions I have experienced in the adjunct faculty lounge, finding alternative communities in which to support professional creativity, development, and collaboration is also essential and can be found in unlikely places. FB_IMG_1515115484807

Not long ago I turned to Twitter in my quest for community (and cute dog pictures) and have found people there that have provided helpful insight and support. Sure, social media is a large briquette in our current political dumpster fire, but that doesn’t mean these forums are entirely unhelpful.  I started following museums, academic journals, and education organizations and from there was able to find other professionals to follow.  From their posts I get access to relevant and timely articles, information on conferences, symposiums, calls for papers, grant opportunities, and the like.

Without access to social media sites like Twitter, Linkdin, and Instagram I never would have come across important and supportive ways to amplify my voice, like Smart Women Write. It is through these communities that I attempt to use the power of words to convey the power of art.  And I’m not alone.  It’s through Twitter that I also learned of HistorioBlogs like Age of Revolutions, important art organizations like Arts Emergency, and scholars like @medievalpoc, all of whom are working to change the discourse of the art world.  They have impacted my work immensely.

My one constant as a professor is that I will meet new people every 16 weeks.  Despite their ultimate physical absence, students can leave a lasting impression. While negative experiences cause permanent amendments in your syllabus (“I guess I have to put that in writing”), positive experiences cause long-lasting growth in your life. I often recall the most invested and passionate students I’ve had the pleasure to teach. One, a successful engineer, with several advanced degrees already, was taking my class to learn something entirely unfamiliar, to attempt something entirely untried, to search for innovation in an unknown subject.  It was an approach to self-examination and self-improvement that I would first envy, and then model.

The courage I witness in my students inspires me to further my own professional development. For example, I am learning the programming language called Python.  I have reached the point in my career where I feel I can do more to make art education inclusive and broaden its reach through new media and technology.  I have my students to thank for this inspiration and motivation.

This motivation has also lead me to various professional events throughout the year.  Time and money are difficult to come by, but I’ve found that attending (semi) local conferences, symposiums, and lectures can offer great personal and professional development in addition to inspiring creative collaboration.  In addition, many offer live feeds or recordings of the presentations if you are unable to attend in person.

I recently had the opIMG_20180412_110542353_HDR.jpgportunity to attend a symposium entitled, “Searching Through Seeing: Optimizing Computer Vision Technology for the Arts” at the Frick Collection in New York focusing on the ways in which art historical inquiry (and even creativity) can be advanced through computer learning.  My trip included a 4 am wake up, several miles of walking, a crowded Friday night train, and amazing presentations by leaders in the fields of digital art history and computer programming. I ended my day dirty, hungry, and exhausted, but I also had a notebook full of quality research leads, names, and email addresses.  Many of those people were looking for professional contacts just like me.  Perhaps adjuncts are not the only group who are searching for community.

This is also one of the reasons that I was ecstatic to become part of Smart Women Write.  I look forward to writing more about my experiences as an adjunct art history professor, about my experimentation with technology, about my personal and professional interests, goals, and passions, and, like Raquelle’s fantastic post from last week, my own approach to self-care. In doing so it is my hope that you will also find community here.