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?
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.
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)