Art Matters

Seminar Organizer: Susan Jaret McKinstry, Helen F. Lewis Professor of English

The Humanities Center seeks “to interrogate the relationship between humanistic study and artistic, ethical, and political issues in the contemporary world.” Across humanities disciplines, our work is reflective about what has happened, grounded in the present, and speculative about what might come. How does art matter in that process? The seminar title seeks to frame art as both matter – material, visual, auditory, or embodied – and mattering, as a force that shapes, performs, and often radically alters human behavior and culture. Art can explore all potentialities for human life; scholars across academic disciplines often use art as evidence.  The seminar will consider the implications of how art matters in our diverse fields and forms of research.

The arts highlight the intersection of cultural history and individual or communal life, envisioning the past, present, and future in diverse forms that are analyzed by scholars in academic research across all fields. In using works of art as case studies, our disciplinary conceptions of place, time, self, and event meet, often tangle, and produce myriad forms of knowledge. Disciplines outside arts and literature regularly use the arts as evidence: Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Psychology, Philosophy, and Political Science; works by Wallace Stegner and John Steinbeck in ENTS, History, Sociology, and Economics; music from Bach fugues to rap and hip-hop in Religion, American Studies, Gender Studies, Cognitive Science, and CS; photographs, paintings, political cartoons, advertisements, and films in History, Political Science, Religion, Psychology, Anthropology and Sociology.

Across disciplines, eras, and cultures, scholars study how art fosters connection and resistance within and beyond national, cultural, or historical boundaries. Performative rituals can be used formally, in religions and institutions, to sustain cultural norms; or informally, in protests and rebellions, to resist and radically alter them. Art illustrates historic periods, individual and group identities, and social movements, providing a nexus between the past and the future by expanding a moment into transhistorical arcs. Jesse Green’s recent NYT article, “How Today’s Queer Artists Are Revising History” (12/4/19), considers how artists link documentary and desire to make gender theory and queer culture historic, visual, compelling, counterfactual, and transformative; Stephano Massini’s 2012 play The Lehman Trilogy (directed by Sam Mendes in 2018 and currently on Broadway) uses the 19th century lives of three Lehman brothers to address American immigration history, acculturation, global economics, urbanization, technology, familial, and financial inheritance. Visual and written work, whether categorized as scholarly, creative, documentary, journalistic, or self-expressive, is understood and often required to connect lived experience and public commentary. Recent first-person writing such as Teju Cole’s Open City (2011), Carolyn Forché’s What You Have Heard is True (2019), Hisham Matar’s A Month in Siena (2019), and Valeria Luiselli’s journalistic Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions (2017) and its alternative The Lost Children Archive (2019) intermix art, autobiography, history, cultural theory, anthropology, sociology, and psychology to interpret cultural life in the present moment and to incite social change. Art matters in our research, in our social lives, and in global culture.

2020-21 Faculty Fellows

Deborah Appleman, Hollis L. Caswell Professor of Educational Studies, will engage in a new project that applies the concept of “situated communities of practice” (Lave and Wenger [1991, 1998]) to carceral settings. She will explore how incarcerated writers form communities of practice that, among other things, disrupt and invert oppressive, hierarchical structures of prisons while also fostering a sense of skill and worth that will prove useful outside of prison.

Cecilia Cornejo, Instructor in Cinema and Media Studies, will develop a manifesto that articulates the current direction of her artistic practice as a documentary filmmaker, especially in conversation with theories of late capitalism. She will research a range of manifestos by artists and filmmakers, exploring how these statements provide insight into their methodology, work, and relationship to their time.

Dev Gupta, Professor of Political Science, will investigate the disjuncture between “expert” and “lay” assessments of (and subsequent votes for) national acts in the Eurovision Song Contest. Eurovision, according to conventional public wisdom, is barely art and, for most people, matters very little. And yet Eurovision has long been recognized by scholars as an intriguing site where visual culture, politics, and debates about artistic merit intersect.

Baird Jarman, Associate Professor of Art History, will work towards completing a book manuscript, called Political Theater, which offers a new historical interpretation of the sudden proliferation of political caricature in the mass media of the United States during the late nineteenth century. His project treats political cartoons in the newspapers and magazines of the Gilded Age less as a purely journalistic practice and more in association with the burgeoning theatrical profession of the era.

David Lefkowitz, Professor of Art, will explore where a work of art’s meaningfulness lies in a world oversaturated with images, by culling imagery from the narrowly local (dust and crumbs swept off his kitchen floor) to the vastly global (screen shots from Google Earth) for new bodies of work.

Seminar Director:

Susan Jaret McKinstry, Helen F. Lewis Professor of English, will draft an article that examines the 19th c Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s collective redefinition of art and work. Centering on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris between 1854 and 1865, the article will connect their artistic and social practices with archival materials, letters, and art instruction manuals to understand the cultural impact of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.