The Myths– and Realities– Behind the Stereotype of the Elitism of Art History

Raphael, “School of Athens” (c. 1509)
(Source)

I recently started using the app Zite on my iPad, a sort of news-related RSS feed which is programmed to cater to your reading tastes the more you use it. I naturally chose Arts and Culture as one of my top categories, and the following article, originally in The Guardian, caught my attention: “History of art: a degree for the elite?” This article was written by Joy Starkey, a third-year Art History undergraduate at Cambridge University. It seems to be more relevant to the British academic and artistic scenes, and consequently, I had a little more trouble relating to it. However, it’s main point was quite clear: art– and therefore Art History– is quite literally put on such a pedestal that it is typically seen as inaccessible for most people, thus its study is believed to be limited to the elite few. And I mean “elite” in the literal sense of the word. According to Starkey, this stereotype is particularly prevalent in England, as Art History is a popular major amongst royals and the wealthy. She additionally points to other key factors in this perceived inaccessibility: the collecting of art tends to be pastime for the rich, art is often seen as cryptic (therefore those who can decipher it clearly are privileged), and art museums– which I should note regularly brush shoulders with the wealthy in order to acquire their art for exhibition loans– are inherently “treasure-oriented” with their presentation of objects on pedestals and white walls. I certainly agree with Starkey that the appreciation and study of art does not have to be limited to the pompous and privileged (I myself come from a thoroughly middle class background). Furthermore, I do not believe that Art History has to be a niche subject, and I wholly agree with her statement that art is “anything but elitist… Art is one of the most vivid ways of viewing history — it is an intimate glimpse into someone’s world.” However, I have to counter-argue that there still are degrees of elitism in the arts sector beyond its financial prevalence as a hobby for the wealthy, and they still pervade academia.  Continue reading

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Book review: Print the Legend by Martha Sandweiss

A mid-nineteenth century daguerrotype of Native American lodges.
(Source)

Print the Legend is an impressive contribution on multiple planes, for Martha Sandweiss not only recounts the complex history of the use of photography in the American West between 1840 and 1890, she also guides both the general reader and historian alike in the process of rethinking how we interpret and utilize photography. She posits two ways to think of how we interpret and use photographs as primary source documents: in history, which requires knowledge “about the circumstances of its making, the photographer’s intent, the public function of the image, the ways in which it was received and understood by contemporary audiences” (p. 9) and through history, in which “we must give attention to the shifting fate of the image—the ways in which it might have moved into archives or attics, museums or scrapbooks, and the ways in which it has been reinterpreted over time” (p. 9). The title of the book is a reference to a quote from the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance, in which the newspaper editor states: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes a fact print the legend” (p. 324). This highlights Sandweiss’s encompassing theme of the difficulty of promoting photography in the face of more mythologized media such as painting and printmaking. Print the Legend is highly marketable to a wide variety of audiences: her prose is eloquent and easy to read, and the book itself, which is printed on high-quality glossy paper, is aesthetically pleasing and can be distributed in multiple types of settings, such as major bookstores and museums. Sandweiss is currently a history professor at Princeton University, but her background as a photography curator at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth and as a professor of American Studies allows her to tackle her subject matter with a fresh and unique perspective than she in turn is able to effectively communicate to multiple types of readers.  Continue reading

Book review: Devil’s Bargains by Hal K. Rothman

Historic photo of a Colorado ski resort
(Source)

Tourism in the American West has been a subject that has been ignored for far too long. Indeed, its last major scholarly treatment occurred in 1957 with Earl Pomeroy’s In Search of the Golden West, and historians since then have been distinctly reticent to tackle the subject for fear of mockery. However, Devil’s Bargains by the late Hal K. Rothman revitalizes the subject in a powerfully written and historically relevant manner. He expands beyond Pomeroy’s look at California and instead looks at much of the trans-Mississippi West, narrowing down his narrative to regions and specific time frames. Rothman argues that tourism is not a passive act that is simply rooted in the desire to take a break from everyday life, but rather a colonial act that transforms the locals who accommodate the tourists as well as the landscape itself. However, in many ways, tourism was and is a necessity for many towns and regions: ascribing these places to a touristic economy is, in essence, a devil’s bargain. Continue reading

Donation Day #2: (Thanks)Giving

“A powerful way to show how thankful you are for what you have is to give some of it to those who have less.” (Vincent DiCaro, CNN contributor)

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Donated winterwear… and Freya, wishing she could have a pair of baby booties.

On Saturday November 10, after many delays (mainly due to exhaustion) and thus a bit later than I would have liked, I finally made it up to the Safehouse to donate my late Grandma’s scarves and baby booties, as well as the hats I crocheted over the summer. The final tally came to 22: 11 pairs of baby booties, 6 scarves, and 5 hats. Everything I made, save for some of the embellishments, was crocheted using my Grandma’s yarn. Giving away the beautiful things that she had made, as well as a few of my own creations, felt so wonderful and rewarding. I thought that parting with her creations would make me sad, but it did not: I was happy knowing that I fulfilled a generous task that she had done in life.

There was a trend on Facebook that a couple of my friends were taking part in: every day for 30 days, they would make their status something they were thankful for. Thanksgiving certainly is a time to be thankful– I myself have many things to be thankful for– but frankly, some of these statuses struck me as… well, selfish. Even tactless. I am happy for people who are able to live comfortable lives and be mindful of how lucky they are, yet there are so many people out there who do not have much to be thankful for. For one of my friends who posted every day about what she was thankful for– like the fact that she has a warm bed, a good job in a sh*t economy, her own car, etc– I’d say she got an average of 5 likes per status. That’s about 150 for the month. When I posted a status about giving things to those in need, I got 2 likes.

Two.

Granted, it was only one status (though I just posted the beautiful story of the NYC cop, Larry DePrimo, who bought shoes and thermal socks for a homeless man, and it only has one like). Perhaps people thought I was being preachy. Perhaps the fact that I have about half as many friends as this one girl does means that two is about right if we’re thinking in terms of percentages. Perhaps people just don’t check Facebook on Saturday mornings. Or perhaps my friends– real or “less real” (aka the people I barely know and am only Facebook friends with just because)– too vividly remember how selfish I used to be not too long ago.

I suppose that a little bit of selfishness is to be expected when you spend years struggling to stay employed in a bad economy, then dive headfirst into grad school, and mix in the fact that I am an only child. My shift towards being a less selfish person really began near the end of my first semester of grad school: I, like many other grad students, rarely ever feel like I am doing well. Grad school made me hyper-conscious of myself and my actions, but one of the few things that made me feel good was being kind to others. When my Grandma died, it was like something permanently changed in me. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt for not having talked to her more in the months immediately preceding her passing. In a small way, my crocheting was an act of penance– for being a bad granddaughter and for being relatively selfish. Her death was a tragic catalyst that made me realize how much I wanted to do more good in the world.

Christmas is around the corner, and I am making plans to set up boxes at work and school to take donations of clothing and blankets to the Safehouse. This November and its 30 Days of Thankfulness may be over, but next year, I am thinking of doing my own version of it. And I won’t even care if I don’t get a single “like.”

Hurricane Sandy and the future plight of US museum collections

As we all know, Hurricane Sandy has left an extraordinary amount of damage and suffering in its wake. After a little more than a week, 110 people in the US are dead (with another 67 dead in the Caribbean and 2 in Canada), 350,000 in New York are still without power, and there is thought to be between $15-20 billion in damage. In the midst of all of this human (and animal) suffering at hand, everyone is understandably more concerned with working towards the safety and preservation of life. However, when power is restored, homes repaired, and lives made somewhat whole again, attention will likely turn towards more “abstract” concerns.

Flood damage in the (unfinished) 9/11 Memorial Museum
(Source)

I saw a couple stories over the weekend about how flooding in New York City affected cultural institutions. In the first story, Anderson Cooper interviewed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as they toured the 9/11 Memorial Museum site. The museum, which is mostly underground (and thankfully still empty) flooded with around 200 million gallons of water. It was roughly 5 feet deep. Another story on Bloomberg Businessweek drew attention to the millions of dollars of damage and loss of art after the basements of artists’ studios and galleries flooded (I should note that the first story I read was on CNN, but the link appears to be broken). A massive conservation triage-type effort is underway to halt further damage to works that can still be saved– indeed, conservators in the area are absolutely inundated with work– though some were simply damaged beyond repair (or the money it would take to repair and restore it would be more than the piece is worth).

There is a lot of buzz about how this storm has really brought attention to the fact that climate change is starting to manifest in more noticeable (i.e. highly destructive) ways. Sandy was literally a perfect storm of events: a hurricane + a cold front + high tides. In another article on ArtInfo on the 9/11 Memorial Museum, it talked about how museum planners knew that the museum was built in an area that was susceptible to “100-year floods.” While there was theoretically a 1% chance that the museum could flood every 100 years, the area has seen substantial flooding twice in the last 14 months. Talk of future storms is taking into account increased frequency of so-called 100-year storms and higher sea levels. In other words, the destruction that we saw from Sandy– particularly the flooding– could very likely be the tip of the iceberg of future issues along coastal lines and areas of low elevation, which also happen to be the locations of some of the biggest and most prominent museums in the US.  Continue reading

Life Lessons and Vintage Photos

I spent the better part of the last month in an academic hole, preparing for and taking my comprehensive exams (and it has already been confirmed that I passed the minor portion). In my anxiety-ridden state, I thought a lot about my Grandma. I thought about words of comfort she may have had– especially her favorite quote, “This, too, shall pass”– or life lessons that are far more worth remembering than issues in the methodologies of Andre Breton versus Georges Bataille. Since it is high time that I upload the photos I said I would in my To Grandma(s) page (which has now been updated), I would like to share some of these thoughts.

ca. 1942

Always store your photos in acid-free materials.

ca. 1930

Take some time to relax and smell the flowers.

Continue reading

Book review: The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen

Comanche portraits
(Source)

The Comanches are usually portrayed in the existing literature as a formidable equestrian power that erected a daunting barrier of violence to colonial expansion. Along with the Iroquois and Lakotas, they have been embedded in collective American memory as one of the few Native societies able to pose a significant challenge to the Euro-American conquest of North America. But the idea of a Comanche barrier leaves out at least half of the story. (Introduction)

In this masterful account of the history of the Comanche people, Hämäläinen demonstrates that the Comanches were far from disorganized bands of violent Indians as they have previously been portrayed to be, most notably in the work of T.R. Fehrenback and Walter Prescott Webb. Through his meticulous research, extraordinary detail, and superb prose, Hämäläinen instead shows that the Comanches represented something closer to an empire. This is evidenced in their calculated military prowess, strategies of diplomacy, innovations in culture and technology, and economic growth. He further argues that the Comanche empire changed the course of American expansion, particularly in what is now New Mexico and Texas, through their dominant presence in the Southwest.  Continue reading