Dissertation Work, January Update

As promised in last week’s post, here’s my first update on my dissertation work for 2021. Since we’re covering what I’ve been up to since finishing comps, today’s post will be a bit longer.

Since starting this prospectus process I’ve been journaling my thoughts for future reference.

At this point, I’ve been doing more thinking than finished writing. While I do have a growing repository of free-write sessions and mock prospectus samples in my dissertation folder, the main thing I’ve been working on is figuring out what my core research interests actually are beyond whatever I find interesting within the context of a specific seminar or exhibition.

As I’ve mentioned since starting this blog, what I want to write about are federal community art centers, but what I’ve been trying to figure out since finishing comps is the context in which to write about them. After all, what’s the point in having a great research topic if you don’t have any engaging questions for it? So for the past few months, I’ve been thinking about what my framework actually is, and ultimately, what my core research interests are beyond any specific topic like the CACP.

I know I want to write about federal community art centers, but what questions do I want to ask about them? And in which overarching framework do I want to situate them?

This means that I’ve been reading about various subjects and discussing potential theoretical frameworks with the dissertation writing group I joined last fall. Given the connection between museums and art centers, I’ve been reading a lot of museum theory in terms of power relations and the way museums maintain the status quo through their collecting, exhibition, and labor practices. This has included classics such as Tony Bennett’s The Birth of the Museum, which draws heavily on Foucault, as well as more recent publications such as Joan Baldwin’s and Anne W. Ackerson’s Women in the Museum, which considers how museums both empower and constrict women through their professional cultures. As I mentioned in my previous post on SECAC, I’ve also been interested in cataloging and archival practices and how they shape the art canon, particularly through a lack of documentation or visibility.

From an archival standpoint, I also finally went through and organized some research I did on the Mildred Holzhauer Baker papers at the Archives of American Art, which I visited in the fall of 2019. Baker was the director of the FAP’s Exhibition Section and assembled all of the traveling exhibitions for the CACP (which, considering that the total was over 500 shows, is impressive at the very least), so she played a major role in the program’s educational trajectory. Since the CACP was a Depression-era project, I’ve also been perusing works that explore the material and visual culture of that time. Jani Scandura’s Down in the Dumps has been a particularly engaging read, given its somewhat personal approach to the archive, and its geographic variety in terms of case studies offers a model for my own work, as the CACP was not restricted to one specific state or region.

The other subject I’ve been reading into is art amateurism. Not necessarily folk art or outsider art, per se, but art made by nonprofessionals or people who didn’t get their training from the academy. So I’ve been reading about forums such as Etsy where people share or sell their work, celebrity art teachers such as Bob Ross and other icons of art populism, the paint-by-number fad of the 1950s, and even the emergence of chain art supply stores or mail-order suppliers like Michaels or Blick. What I’ve been focusing on is not so much what people actually make, but how they access the education and supplies needed to create this stuff.

Not to sound cynical, but any book that has a chapter on someone as beloved as Bob Ross is likely to attract more readers and get my ideas out to a greater number of people.

What I’ve been learning from all this is that as a scholar, I’m interested in questions of art access, particularly for nonprofessional art practitioners. What engages me aren’t so much the careers and works of professional artists, the people associated with the art world as defined by curators, gallerists, and collectors, but rather than millions of people who make art without ever being recognized in a formal capacity. I’m not even talking about so-called outsider artists or folk artists, people who have been identified by specialists as being worthy of the canon due to what they consider their untainted creativity. I’m talking about the millions of people who, like me, make art but not professionally. Maybe they’ve taken a few classes; maybe they learned to draw from a book or watching tutorials. Maybe they even manage to make a living outside of the gallery circuit, whether through selling on Etsy or by the roadside. Or maybe they make pieces for their family and no one else.

This brings me back to the CACP. Initially, I became interested in this program because of its national travel infrastructures and the mobility underpinning its operations. As a curator who often transported exhibition materials myself, either in my own car or in a rented Uhaul, the idea of a national traveling exhibition program that brought art materials to different places by train really intrigued me. This still interests me, but it also ties back into the question of access, because what made this program unusual (to me at least) was that it catered to nonprofessionals. Unlike the workshops, murals, and other projects associated with the FAP, which hired professional artists, community art centers were designed with amateurs in mind. Sure, the staff who taught at them might be professionally-trained artists, but the students they imagined taking their classes, both adults and children, were not. Indeed, FAP administrators continually stressed that community art centers were not intended as professional schools, but as places where people could learn to appreciate the arts through looking and doing. And I think that’s worth exploring more deeply.

Student with artwork made in a class offered through the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center. The FAP anticipated that the majority of students who took art center classes would not become professional artists. Instead, the intent was to create art appreciators, people who understood art as an important part of daily life.

Why? First off, by focusing exclusively on artists who have been deemed worthy of the canon, we’re ignoring a lot of creative output. Maybe it’s not the most original or innovative material out there, or maybe it is, but so long as we only focus on the artists who show their works in museums or galleries, we’re always going to have a limited understanding of what people make when they envision themselves as artists. Second, taking a closer look at how people working outside of public schools or academies access art resources could help us better understand the state of art accessibility in the United States. We tend to lean on the narrative of art access being dismal in this country, but what if we’re using the wrongs metrics to gauge it? I’m not saying that formal art enrichment programs aren’t necessary or important, but they might be more effective if we study how different communities or individuals learn to make art without the benefit of a school or similar organization. This, in turn, leads to my third point: how museums can better engage their audiences. As ongoing critiques have pointed out, museums often uphold rather than challenge inequality and other social norms through the art they collect, the artists they show, and the classes they offer. What would happen if museums shifted their emphasis away from defining canonical art and instead focused on art-making as a creative practice performed by all members of a society, community, or culture? What would that look like?

These are all huge questions that go way beyond what any dissertation can cover, but thinking about these big-picture inquiries has helped me get a better understanding of what interests me as a scholar beyond the specificity of the CACP itself. The next step is to narrow this down to something manageable.

Admittedly, this has been a new experience for me. When you take classes in the semester format, you usually have to figure out your paper or project topics fairly early on so that you finish on time. Especially for someone like me who spends a lot of time revising my writing, this means going with the first or second idea. Similarly, when I was curating full-time, the logistical demands of the exhibition schedule meant that I had to pull together concepts fairly quickly so that there would be enough time to print labels, check artworks for conservation needs, prep galleries for installation, and so on. Even my undergraduate thesis had to be written within a year, so I only had a couple of months to nail down what I was going to write about. All of this is to say that my projects have generally emphasized results over ideas, so I’ve tended to spend little time in the conceptual phase.

In some ways, it’s been liberating. Over the last few months, I’ve had to start reframing my understanding of progress and to recognize that not every accomplishment can be measured by the number of words written or edited. Some days I write a lot; other days I go for long walks and talk out different ideas or scenarios with myself. Some days I research; other times I completely switch gears and work on my art. I’ll admit, I often feel like I don’t have much to show for all this thinking. Yet by giving myself the space to think through different ideas or scenarios, I’m ultimately coming up with a more innovative dissertation while discovering new topics and questions that will fuel my research for years to come.

At the same time, it’s been overwhelming. Over the past few months, I’ve probably imagined at least half a dozen potential iterations of the dissertation. Some versions concentrate solely on the New Deal era. Some versions are more focused on exhibition practices. Others look away from museums altogether and explore the commercial side of art accessibility through the expansion of chain supply stores. With so many different ways to approach the question of art access, it’s admittedly been a bit overwhelming to realize just how many ways I can go about answering it.

Remember, if you can’t put it in the dissertation, save it for your next book project.

But the key is to remember that I don’t have to pursue all of these directions. On the contrary, I can’t, because the resulting tome would be far too long for anyone to want to read, let alone write. Not all of these potential directions interest me equally, so the next task is to figure out my focus. After all, the best dissertation is the finished one, the one that gets me my degree, and in that respect, the one that works for my needs is the one that I’ll actually want to write.

Besides, all these other ideas mean future book projects, right?

2021: A Preview of my Reorganized Blog

With 2020 finally behind us, I’ve been thinking about how to be more efficient with my work. While I’ve always been pretty good about finishing the things that I start, I also want to get better at what I do, including thinking about different project ideas. Taking inspiration from my dissertation journal, for instance, I’ve started journaling about other projects I’d like to pursue, including steps I need to take to bring them to fruition. I have a habit of thinking about projects without necessarily doing anything about them, so writing down and prioritizing ideas is one way to begin following through with them.

Writing my dissertation thoughts in a journal has helped me think about how journaling as a practice can help me actualize other projects.

I’ve also been thinking about how to make better use of this blog. While I’ve always been consistent about writing and sharing posts, shortly after finishing comps I started thinking that my posts could relate more directly to my work. For much of last year, my posts focused on reading lists and my thoughts about them, which proved really helpful when it came time to review. Given how useful this experience was for me, I decided I should continue to have the blog work for me, but this time as a means of thinking through dissertation ideas, sharing exhibition research, and other projects. I’ve done a similar overhaul with my Instagram account, but the blog is the best place to discuss ongoing ideas and research in-depth. If I’m going to spend time writing posts, after all, I figure I may as well incorporate it more directly into my scholarly and creative practice.

Today then, I’d like to share my new organization for this blog and give you a preview of the posts you’ll see in the future.

Essentially, the main change is that instead of viewing each post as a stand-alone piece, I’ve reorganized the blog around a monthly cycle of posts, with each post addressing a specific topic.

Week 1: Dissertation work. From now on, the first week of the month will focus on what I’ve been doing for my dissertation. I’ll talk about research, theoretical frameworks I’m considering, the actual writing I’ve been doing, and anything else dedicated to this project. Even if I haven’t done much of anything, I’ll talk about it and why I’ve been struggling with it.

Week 2: Exhibition Research. The second week of the month will highlight the work I’m doing with the Barry Art Museum. I might talk about specific objects or artists, overarching conceptual ideas, practical questions, and whatever else might seem relevant.

Week 3: Art. I want to be more consistent about my artmaking practice, so to hold myself accountable, I’ll spend week three of each month talking about what I’m doing, whether it’s sketching, creating more finished pieces, or even thinking about projects.

Week 4 (and sometimes 5): Miscellaneous. This final week of the month will highlight more eclectic posts that don’t relate to my work directly, whether it’s my musings on B-horror films or toilet paper.

Obviously this format can be adjusted as necessary, such as accommodating posts on conferences or other activities. If I end up teaching a class in the future, I’ll probably readjust further by switching out the miscellaneous week for posts on pedagogy. For now though, this is how it will generally look moving forward.

Essentially, I intend this monthly format to serve as a means of holding myself accountable and to follow through with projects while also documenting my ongoing work for future reference. It’s also a means of making myself more comfortable with talking about works in progress. I admittedly don’t like discussing unfinished projects because they’re well, incomplete, but it’s a crucial part of academic life, as well as working in general, and I need to get better at doing it. I’ve started doing this with my dissertation group, but the blog, with its public platform, offers another means of both sharing and documenting my ongoing work. In short, this new format will hopefully help me become better at what I do, whether it’s research, art-making, or just thinking about ideas.

We’ll launch this new format next week, when I start talking about my prospectus work. In the meantime, I hope your new year is off to a healthy and productive start.

Reflecting on 2020

In my first post of 2020, I talked about all the things I hoped to accomplish, both in my academic work and in my life outside of scholarly efforts. As I wrote that list, I told myself to be reasonable in terms of ambitions, that whatever I wrote needed to be things I could accomplish without completely overwhelming myself in terms of time or energy. I can’t help but laugh a little when I read that list now. Knowing what a disaster 2020 ultimately became globally, goals like traveling more or getting better acquainted with neighboring cities like Richmond seem laughably naive now. But in all fairness, I had no idea when I wrote it that we’d spend the year navigating a pandemic.

And yet to simply write off 2020 as a wasted year is to disregard all the very real labor countless people did, whether they were working on the frontlines in hospitals, protesting racial inequality, parenting, going to school, making art, creating music, or any of the other jobs and activities that sustain and enrich our society. The pandemic made life more difficult for a lot of people, but it didn’t stop the world completely. Today then, as we get ready to bid 2020 adieu, I’d like to reflect on how my past year has been in terms of the good, the bad, and the infuriating.

Publishing an article on the war drawings of Howard Cook was one of my accomplishments this year.

In terms of my academic work, I actually did manage to accomplish a lot of the tasks I had set out to do, even if it didn’t feel like I was doing much a lot of the time. I passed my comprehensive exams, arguably the most significant milestone in my program to date. My prospectus is still a work in progress, but I am working on it consistently. In terms of publications, I not only identified several potential journals for future articles but managed to publish my first peer-reviewed article, which counts for something. In terms of conferencing, I presented new papers at two virtual events, SECAC2020 and “Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures.” About the only thing I didn’t do was start my digital project on art centers in earnest, but I least presented a lightning talk on it, so that’s better than nothing. I’ve also started new projects or opportunities that I hadn’t anticipated. The most notable of these is the exhibition I’ll be curating on robots with the Barry Art Museum, an experience that will enable me to connect with curators, artists, and other professionals in the Chesapeake area and beyond. Even if I felt like I spent most of my time at home envying my cats’ napping prowess, I have been working.

Brandon has also been keeping busy. As I mentioned in my previous post on his work, if anything, he was busier than usual in the spring because he had to install a lot of new gallery spaces alone to maintain social distancing. His work dropped off in the summer, as it usually does, but he’s had more assignments recently due to seasonal changes and year-end donations.

Overall, we feel grateful for our respective situations, especially from a financial perspective. While my summer teaching gig with Keio got cancelled, picking up the Barry exhibition will more than compensate for the lost income while providing new opportunities to network. Brandon has also seen his wages remain the same, thanks to Colonial Williamsburg taking a top-down approach to pay cuts and having its top earners bear the brunt of reduced salaries. We’re both extremely thankful for that decision, as a universal 10% or 20% cut to all salaries would have made it more difficult for us to meet our expenses. As far as this year goes, we managed to maintain a holding pattern: we didn’t necessarily gain more income, but we didn’t lose it either.

We’re also grateful for our health. So far, neither of us has contracted the virus, and our respective families have also stayed healthy. Overall, we know that we’ve had an easier time living through the pandemic than a lot of people, and that largely stems from our privilege as white people with reasonable economic means and ready access to the various sources we need to live.

All that said, I’m not going to pretend that this year has been easy emotionally. My anxiety remains manageable but has increased since the onset of the pandemic. My sense of time has become distorted, and in terms of travel I rarely move beyond the square mile or two around my house. I’ve become more anxious around crowds in particular, which I find disconcerting. When I think back to the time I spent in Chicago as an undergraduate, or abroad in London, it saddens me to know that the crowds that once brought me a sense of excitement now bring apprehension, and I don’t know when I’ll feel comfortable around large groups of people again. I’ve also become worse at staying in touch with friends, as I tend to withdraw when I feel down. There are times when just writing an email or a text to set up a time to talk feels exhausting, as I know I don’t have much to say. This makes me all the more grateful for having Brandon and the cats in my life. Especially with Brandon, it makes all the difference knowing that he’ll be there to talk to, to hold, or to simply share space.

Drawing facemasks such as this one has helped me think through some of my pandemic-related anxieties.

And it’s not like I haven’t found ways to cope with the anxiety. Admittedly I didn’t make a lot of art this year due to a bout of tendonitis, but once that healed I did complete a digital project on facemasks that allowed me to work through some of my pandemic-related feelings. I’ve also managed to maintain a consistent exercise regimen, and have been playing more flute more consistently, all goals that I had set out to do.

Perhaps my proudest accomplishment, academic or otherwise, is my decision to take up knitting. I’ve wanted to learn how to do this for years, but had hesitated for one reason or another. I had even listed it as one of my goals in my initial 2020 post, but removed it before publishing because I didn’t know if I’d have time for it. Before the pandemic lockdowns started in earnest though, I finally ordered a basic learning kit from a company called KnitPicks, as I figured I would be spending a lot of time at home in the near future. During the pandemic I’ve learned to make scarves, hats, cowls, and even stockings with stranded colorwork, virtually taking care of my entire Christmas list in terms of gifts. I’m so glad I got over my hesitation to take up this craft, and look forward to making wearable things for myself and others for years to come.

All that said, I am more than ready to see this year go, and to resume life at some point that isn’t defined primarily through pandemic parameters. Here’s to saying goodbye to 2020, and to ringing in a hopefully less trying 2021.

Confronting My Fear of Theory

Sometime during my first year of my Master’s program I decided I was “not a theory person.” I don’t remember exactly when or why this happened. Maybe it was because my classmates seemed so much more assured of the readings than I did. Perhaps it was the way I struggled to write about theory. Or maybe it was when I started wondering why most of the theorists we were reading could get away with penning page-long sentences and I couldn’t.

Regardless, by the end of my first year, I decided that theory was not my forte, and that I was a no-nonsense, practicum-based scholar. That perception would shape my work for years to come, from my decision to work in museums, especially smaller institutions that demanded a hands-on role in exhibition installations and other activities, right down to my research interests when I decided to return to graduate school. After all, in my personal statement, I emphasized that my interest in art and infrastructure developed from my museum work, specifically my experiences with exhibition transport. In the parlance of digital humanities, I was a hacker rather than a yacker.

But here’s the thing: you need theoretical frameworks for the dissertation because scholarship isn’t neutral. Every piece out there, whether it’s a scientific experiment or a history of cardboard, has a point of view, and as a scholar it’s your responsibility to make your perspectives evident to your reader. Theory enables you to do that because it provides the framework or lens through which you’ll be expressing your particular interests, whether your focus is on race, gender, class, ecocriticism, all of the above, or something else.

That doesn’t mean embracing theory is easy though, and it’s one of the things I’ve been working through with this prospectus. Indeed, it’s only recently that I’ve finally started to understand the usefulness of theory. As a Master’s student, I thought theory was primarily for showing off, a way of using big words and concepts. In actuality, when employed well, theory becomes helps articulate different observations or phenomena, whether it’s the use of critical race theory when addressing urban poverty, or gender studies when exploring workplace inequality and the division of labor. At its best, theory helps to clarify rather than obscure our observations or ideas.

This may sound obvious, but I really didn’t begin to understand the usefulness of theory until I came to William & Mary, and even now I’m still working to push myself to use it more. One thing that has helped has been the quality of new scholarship. Scholars and activists, particularly women and BIPOC writers like Roopika Risam or Marisa J. Fuentes, use complex theoretical frameworks in their writing, but emphasize clarity as a form of activism. For them, intentionally long, virtuosic sentences or paragraphs serve as a form of academic gatekeeping, meant to intimidate and detract rather than enlighten or inspire, so they make a point in writing with clear, accessible language so that a wide variety of readers can access their ideas. Seeing scholarship that is both theoretically engaging and accessible helps me better envision myself as a writer working with these complex ideas.

Talking with others about theory also helps. One of the most beneficial things I’ve done for myself is to join a dissertation writing group, where we talk about what we’re working on and suggest different approaches or texts to each other. I’ll admit, it’s always been challenging to me to share my work in an unfinished state or barely-even-started state, but that is exactly what I do with this group every week, and it’s already benefitting my research. Because my colleagues work on different projects and have different interests, they bring perspectives to my work outside of my own, and help me think about my work in new ways. Hopefully, I do the same for them.

Reminding myself that I’ve already worked with theory is also important. During my written exams I engaged a wide range of writers and perspectives, from Derrida to Foucault, and managed to write something coherent. Even at Williams, I discussed Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, and other theorists, even if I didn’t think I was doing it very well at the time. Probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done academically is present W.J.T. Mitchell’s What Do Pictures Want? while he sat in on our class right across from me (in all fairness I didn’t think he was going to show up when I volunteered to discuss his work that week), and I survived that, so I can probably stand incorporating theory into my own work.

This doesn’t mean that my fear of theory will dispel overnight. Rather, it will likely be an ongoing process, with my colleagues and advisors encouraging me to push myself further. But academia is as much about the process as it is the finished product, so I’ll continue thinking and engaging theory as I move forward.

Thoughts on the Presidential Election

How did you spend the 2020 Presidential Election? I imagine that’s a question historians focusing on American politics might be adding to their litany of inquiries, if they haven’t already done so. I spent November 3rd working as an election officer because I figured helping others vote would be more productive than constantly refreshing my browser for updates. For 16 hours I disinfected voting booths, explained to first-time voters how to fill in their ballots, showed other voters how to feed their ballots into the counting machine, and whatever else the other officers needed me to do. It was a long day and I was exhausted by the end of it, but ultimately it was a good use of time. More than 600 people from our precinct came out to vote, which counts for something. It was also probably the one day that week I didn’t think about the election and its outcome because I had other things to preoccupy me.

As with lots of other people, this election has left me feeling emotionally drained. It’s always a stressful season when a Presidential Election is on the ballot, but this year especially, between the pandemic, ongoing anti-Black violence, and other systemic issues, the stakes felt especially high. The delayed ballot counting was also giving me flashbacks to 2000, an election that ultimately left me feeling disappointed because I had wanted Al Gore to win, not George W. Bush.

But here we are, with President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris expected to take office in January. Across social media, I’ve been reading collective sighs of relief, exaltation, and for the first time in a long while, a sense of optimism for the future, at least for the people who wanted this outcome. And I’ll admit, it’s been nice.

But now the real work begins.

As tempting as it is to blame Trump for all our collective woes, he’s not the cause but the symptom. He gave a voice to a side of the United States we don’t like to think about: the racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, white supremacist one. While historians have long been pointing out how our country as we know it was built on the exploitation of Black people, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, and other atrocities, and perpetuates systemic inequality in its institutions and infrastructures, we don’t like talking about it. Trump’s response to the 1619 Project alone, the so-called 1776 Commission, gives you a sense of how little we like confronting the violence of our colonialist origins and how they continue to shape our societies and cultures. Yet so long as these perspectives didn’t have a voice, or rather one with substantial political power, it was easy to ignore them. We (and here I mean mainly white people) could make ourselves believe that things used to be bad, but they’re better now, and we’ve moved past them.

That’s the thing about our understanding of history. We like to think of the past as being decidedly over and finished. Partly this reflects an ongoing interest in progress, of constantly and undeniably moving forward to a better future, as Jani Scandura posits in her introduction to Down in the Dumps. But defining the past as over and finished also implies that we’ve moved on and don’t have to confront it. Such is the argument Erin Devlin makes in her book Remember Little Rock, which looks at how historical interpretations of the Civil Rights Movement have influenced the current lack of integration efforts. By framing the Civil Rights Movement as finished rather than an ongoing process, white administrators, in particular, have presented integration as an issue that has already been resolved and doesn’t need to be worked on anymore. Consequently, even though communities continue to remain segregated, we white people believe we have already done the work of racial reconciliation and can go back to business as usual. To make a grammatical analogy, instead of viewing historical events gerunds, as something ongoing, we regard them as past perfect, as complete.

If anything, the past four years have made it painfully clear that we have a lot of reckoning to do. And rather than hope that these perspectives will disappear again, back to a safe place where we can cheerfully ignore them, we need to address them now. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time because the next Trump appears to stoke the anger and fear sustaining these beliefs. Indeed, the fact that so many people voted for Trump even after experiencing his administration for four years, not to mention the election of a QAnon supporter to Congress, is sobering.

So how do we fix this? The truth is, there is no simple way to eradicate centuries of exploitation, suffering, and pain. Instead, we (and I mean you, white people), have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, to recognize how we benefit from an unfair system, and, most importantly, agree to create something better for everyone, not just us. I’m reminded of an online panel I recently watched on decolonizing museum practices, hosted by the Illinois State Museum. As Brandie MacDonald, Director of Decolonizing Initiatives at the Museum of Us argued, there is no quick fix for the wrongs done in the past. You don’t get to just say some words, get a merit badge, and be done with it. Deconstructing our supremacist frameworks, like decolonization, is an ongoing process, one that we each have to commit to every day. The election of Biden and Harris may be a relief, but it isn’t going to be an immediate solution to anything.

This is also where an intersectional lens can be useful, especially when we (and again, I mean white people) start feeling defensive about our privilege. As Kimberle Crenshaw, Lauren Klein, Catherine d’Ignazio, Ibram X. Kendi, and many others point out, very few people are exclusively oppressors or oppressed. Rather, we all exist within matrices of advantages and disadvantages, each of which shapes our outcomes in life. To make a quick example of myself, as a woman I have fewer privileges than a white man due to historical gender roles and an ongoing legislative obsession with my bodily autonomy, but as a white, cisgender woman, I attain success and security more easily than a BIPOC person or a trans person. Yet white supremacy hurts all of us, including white people, because it relies on fragmentation to sustain power. Instead of seeing how we all collectively suffer under an oppressive system, we are encouraged to look out for ourselves and remain suspicious of others based on their difference. I’m not saying intersectionality will fix everything, but it can help us better understand how we both benefit and suffer from a system that isn’t designed to value all people.

For a moment though, let’s celebrate (and for goodness sake, wear your mask, we’re still in a pandemic). Let’s recognize Vice President-elect Kamala Harris for her achievements, anticipate her ongoing success, and be prepared to stand up for her when critics root their concerns in racism and misogyny rather than her political record. Let’s congratulate President-elect Joe Biden for keeping his cool in what has arguably been a challenging election, and for offering a platform that relies on a unifying rather than divisive rhetoric. Let’s celebrate all the Black women who have challenged voter suppression: Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, Aimee Allison, and so many others. Let’s also remember all the Indigenous and Latino activists and organizations that contributed to the election’s outcome.

And then let’s get to work, because I for one don’t want to relive the past four years ever again.

Just Go Vote

Note: if you want to skip ahead to the voter information, because that’s the most important part of today’s post, scroll down until you see bold text.

Today’s post was originally going to be about a lot of different things.

Initially, I was going to write a response piece to the 1776 commission and its call for patriotic interpretations of history that instill pride rather than hated for one’s country, to paraphrase Trump. I was going to talk about the importance of confronting histories of genocide, exploitation, and ecological degradation, among other things, not only as a starting point for healing, to summarize Amy Lonetree, but also because these atrocities are still happening.

Then Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away and Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett. So I thought I should write a piece that centered my own experiences with voluntary sterilization to demonstrate how having the freedom to make choices about my reproductive health has benefitted my life. I wanted to tell my story to both normalize exercising autonomy over one’s body, and to bring back some of the nuance that gets lost when choice, and by extension reproductive health, is reduced to a question of abortion.

Then the debate happened, and…I’ve got nothing. Well, nothing that hasn’t already been articulated in other essays and articles.

Then Trump got diagnosed with Covid, and in the wake of his publicity stunts, I thought about writing a piece expressing how angry I feel most of the time living in this pandemic. Angry that Brandon and I and countless others have been following protocols to keep everyone safe while others disregard those precautions, extending the overall duration of the pandemic for everybody. Angry for Brandon because he couldn’t go to Florida to meet his niece, who was born in May. Angry for all the museums, archives, and other cultural institutions that have suffered in the wake of the pandemic. Angry for essential workers, teachers, and others who risk their lives every day. Angry for living with an administration that has failed to address the virus effectively. Angry for the normalization of pandemic anxiety. For all of the people who have died. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. ICE. The list goes on, and on, and on.

And it was around this time I realized it’d be at least November before I got back to sharing my life and research as a Ph.D. candidate. You know, the reason why I set up this website in the first place.

So rather than tell these stories right now, because let’s be honest, if you’ve gotten this far without skipping you probably already agree with me at least in part, and if you don’t, one blog post isn’t going to change your mind, I’m sharing voting information:

For national information, including registration, click here.

If you’re a Virginia voter, click here. To skip to registration, click here.

If you’re a James City County voter, click here. To skip to registration, click here.

If you live in the City of Williamsburg, click here. To skip to registration, click here.

Important dates:

October 13: Last day to register to vote. That means you have one week from today, October 6, to register if you haven’t already.

October 23: Last day to request a ballot to be mailed to you

October 31: Last day to vote absentee

November 3: All polling places open 6 am – 7pm.

I voted and got my sticker; where’s yours?

Maybe I’ll tell those stories in the future, but not today. Go cast your ballot. Vote as if your life, and the lives of those you love, depend on it, because they very likely do.

Comprehensive Exams: Reflecting on my Experience

On September 9, I officially passed my comprehensive exams. In terms of degree requirements, this means I am ABD: All but Dissertation. Mind you, I still have a ways to go before completing the degree because I still have to research and write the dissertation, but finishing the exams is a major milestone as it’s one of the last things you do before being cut loose to research and write. Today then, I’d like to reflect on the exams and the process I took to prepare for them.

For graduate students: I’ve included my lists as downloadable PDFs at the end of this post, so if you’re putting together your own reading lists and seeking inspiration, please feel free to download and consult them.

How I felt after finishing my written exams.

In the American Studies Program at William & Mary, the exam consists of both a written and oral portion. The written section is taken at home over four days, one day for each list. On the morning of each day, you receive a set of questions for a specific reading list. You then select two questions to answer from that list and spend the next six hours writing two essays. This means you write a total of eight different essays over four days, with the length depending on your typing speed and loquacity (I wrote about 88 pages total). Most of the questions lend themselves to a standard essay format, but there are usually a few creative options as well, such as drafting a proposal for an exhibition or undergraduate course. Regardless of the format, you’ll answer the question by citing appropriate readings from your respective lists.

The oral section is considerably shorter. Once you hand in the exams, your committee reads the essays. About a week later, you’ll come together for an hour or so to discuss the essays in more detail. I’ve heard of some programs having pretty intense orals, but my experience at W&M was more laid-back. It’s less an intellectual grilling than an opportunity to expand on your arguments or discuss points that you wanted to address but didn’t have time to delve into due to time constraints. Historically this part is done in person, but given the circumstances of COVID-19, we did it over Zoom.

I’ve heard nightmare stories about exams, but mine went about as smoothly as one can hope. I had little difficulty answering the actual questions or thinking of appropriate readings to reference, and I was able to articulate myself during the oral part. My committee was also positive and supportive of my work and ideas, which made the process much easier. The hardest part was maintaining the physical and mental stamina to complete the essays, as sitting and typing for hours on end is pretty draining. For each day of writing, I found that setting aside one of my allotted hours to outline each of my two responses really helped. Writing the introductions and conclusions for each essay first also made things easier, as it meant that regardless of how much I wrote, I had an articulate beginning and end to each piece.

What else enabled me to pull this off?

A significant part of my success stems from privilege, which made the whole process easier for me to complete. As a white, able-bodied, childfree, cisgender woman with a decent economic standing, I could focus on reading without worrying (relatively speaking, given the state of everything) about my personal safety, my bills, the well-being of any children, and so forth. Since Brandon does most of the cooking and grocery shopping, moreover, I didn’t have to spend all of my downtime on domestic labor, which meant that I could recharge from my reading through exercise, pursuing different hobbies, or resting (again, relatively speaking, all things considered). All of this meant that I entered the exams feeling adequately rested and prepared.

Previous experience also influenced my results. I’ve had to discuss my academic work before at committees, whether for my undergraduate thesis (not necessary to graduate but I was an overachiever) or the qualifying paper for my M.A., so the idea of talking about my work with faculty doesn’t intimidate me as much as it could. My work experience at museums has also demonstrated that I am capable of doing a lot of different things, whether supervising the day-to-day logistics of a curatorial department or conceptualizing and completing a large exhibition, so I felt confident that I could handle this too. In other words, the more you do, the more comfortable you feel with doing other things.

The most significant contributing factor to my ability to complete the exams though, was the preparation itself. I spent eight months getting ready, with the last month alone focused on reviewing, so I had a good amount of time. I’ve always been pretty good about scheduling my work time and staying on task, so setting up a regular reading schedule and sticking to it was also doable. To keep myself from burning out, I worked only during the week, taking the weekends off to relax and spend time with Brandon. My previous coursework had also helped my refine my note-taking skills. For each book or article, my notes included subsections discussing argument, methods, evidence, and relations to other readings, an approach I picked up in my Mobilities seminar last year. In addition to these notes, I wrote flashcards that I later used for daily reviewing. Readers of this blog will also remember that I wrote posts about each of my reading lists and the sublists within them, which let me reflect on the readings both individually and as a group.

The month I spent reviewing was especially helpful. I reread the notes I took on each text, which enabled me to get reacquainted with general arguments as well as remember key details or case studies. I also reviewed my flashcards regularly, which meant that for the last month, I reviewed each text at least once a day, five days a week. I also created mindmaps identifying major theoretical or topical frameworks connecting readings not only within individual lists, but across the four lists as well, encouraging me to think through a more interdisciplinary lens. This meant that when I was writing my essays, I could not only connect them to their specific reading list, but could also discuss texts from other lists, or even previous courses, which demonstrated that I was not thinking about these readings in isolation.

Perhaps most significantly, I knew what to expect from the various members on my committee. Throughout the reading process, I met with each faculty member at least three times, with each meeting discussing a different group of readings. During these meetings, we would brainstorm potential questions in addition to discussing the texts, which gave me a sense of the angles each faculty member would likely take. Some sent me practice questions to get me thinking about how to group readings, and for my infrastructure exam, I actually wrote my own questions, a process that really encouraged me to think about the major themes and ideas of that list. In short, by the time I took the exam, I was confident that I could answer the questions because I knew what to expect and had plenty of time to get comfortable with the readings.

So what did I get from this process, aside from reading about a lot of cool different subjects? Basically the exams are there to help you get acquainted with the major questions and debates of your fields of interest. You won’t come out knowing everything, of course, but you’ll have a better sense of the context for your academic work. Since all research builds off of other scholarship, it’s important to have this contextualization. Beyond the broad strokes of the field, you’ll also a better sense of how different scholars put their arguments together, what evidence they use and how they use it, and so forth. You’ll also start noticing which scholars you tend to admire or not, and which ones you’d like to reference or emulate moving forward. Basically, the exam preparation helps you to better understand your place in the field, and what kind of intervention you’d like to make. Of course, this process is ongoing, but it’s an important beginning.

At least, that’s what I’ve gotten from it. I can’t speak for everyone who has undergone this process, but for me, it was worthwhile. After spending years working on exhibitions, focusing on day-to-day museum tasks, or more recently completing required coursework, it was a refreshing change to just read and think about scholarship that speaks to me and my specific research interests. I was definitely ready to be finished once I took the exams, but overall I’m glad I did it. Now on to the next phase, writing the dissertation prospectus!

Reading list downloads for anyone interested:

New Digital Project: Facemask Drawings

I’ve been in a holding pattern since finishing my written exams on August 27 because I still need to complete the oral component, which is happening this Wednesday. In the meantime, I’ve been catching up on nonacademic projects that I’d sidelined while reading for comps. My main website, for instance, now features a brand-new page about my curatorial and academic writing in the main menu. On this page, I’ve not only included links to open-access materials published online, but also provided downloadable PDFs for all my exhibit brochures and other print-only materials.

Another important project that I’ve recently made available is more personal. This is the online exhibit Facemasks: Drawings of COVID-19 Face Coverings, the latest addition to my Digital Projects page, and it’s what I’d like to talk about today.

This exhibit is a collection of drawings I’ve made depicting various COVID-19 facemasks. I initially started making these drawings because sketching has always been an important way for me to process my thoughts and emotions. I initially had little desire to draw because I felt overwhelmed, but I finally took an interest in sketching again when I began taking a closer look at the facemasks in our house. Brandon had brought home several cloth facemasks made by employees working in the textiles department at Colonial Williamsburg, and over time, I became interested in their visual qualities. One day, I draped one of the masks over some pushpins I’d applied to the wall in my study, and started sketching. I liked this display method because it mimicked the effect of them being worn while also suggesting the appearance of pinned butterflies and other natural history displays. In keeping with those presentations, I decided to draw the masks in a naturalistic way, with an emphasis on their physical presence as conveyed through modeling and cast shadows.

I drew the masks using pen and ink with ink wash and paint, arguably my favorite way to sketch. In drawing the masks, I thought about them primarily as sites of labor and expression. I wondered about the choices made in fabric selection, the time needed to complete them, the labor that I had been spared by having these masks available for use, and whether I would ever find out who made them. I also thought about facemasks within contemporary American visual culture, and their associations with public health, individual freedom, distrust of authority, and personal expression. Through these drawings, in other words, I began to process my feelings about the pandemic.

The first mask I drew once I got the idea to start sketching them. This is Brandon’s alternate facemask. He doesn’t use this one as much because the material is thick and itchy, but I liked the marbling effect on the fabric.

Around the time I started drawing facemasks, I came up with the idea of an online exhibit. As a curator, I’ve been following how museums have reconfigured their collections through online exhibits, and while I’m currently not working in a museum environment, I wanted to use my previous experiences as a museum professional to explore new ways of sharing material. Since I knew there would be an online component to the project, I also decided to expand my collection by inviting my contacts on social media to send photos of their masks. I also encouraged participants to send any text they wanted to include about their mask in the form that worked best for them, whether as a caption, poem, short story, or something else. The captions that you see come directly from the users who submitted these images, and is used with their permission. 

This mask was sent to me over social media by Karen Strange, Brandon’s aunt. Since I was working from a photograph, the ties took on a more dynamic quality in jeeping with the original image.

Admittedly this took longer than anticipated. Soon after I conceptualized the project I developed tendonitis in my dominant hand and had to halt all creative activity for several weeks. As much as I wanted to get on with the exhibit, I knew working through the injury would only make it worse, so I reluctantly put the project on hold until my hand healed (for blog posts and comps notes, I actually switched to voice typing). I’ve since been able to resume my usual activities, albeit with greater attention to rest and stretching.

Once I finished my drawings, I turned them into high-quality JPGs using a fantastic portable scanner that Brandon had gotten me for Christmas a couple years ago (I also used it to create the PDFs on my writing page). I created the actual exhibit on Omeka because it’s a popular platform that I’ve been wanting to learn how to use. During a few afternoons, I figured out how to add items, create collections, and from those repositories, form exhibits. Like a lot of digital platforms I’ve used, I learned through trial and error, but between my own tinkering and the online tutorials available, I figured it out enough to create this project.

Facemasks in its current form is an intimate project with eight different masks and stories on view. I had initially hoped for more submissions, but I’ve also come to appreciate its small scale, given the importance of intimacy in digital humanities projects. As digital scholars such as Roopika Risam and Jacqueline Wernimont argue, small projects provide a crucial counterpoint to large-scale undertakings because they remind us that quantity alone is not the sole measure of quality or significance. Given the emphasis on big numbers with pandemic research, it’s important to counterbalance those statistics with more intimate data that highlight the humanity of the pandemic.

This mask, with its rainbow stripes, reminds me of a Morris Louis painting.

Not that the project has to end here. On the contrary, new submissions are always welcome. If you would like to participate, all you need to do is take a picture of your mask and email it to scwoodbury@gmail.com, along with any text you’d like to see featured alongside your mask. Submit your thoughts as a caption, a short story, a poem, a song, or any other form that suits you. You may also include any information you feel comfortable sharing about yourself, or remain anonymous. I’ll draw the photo you send me and add it to the site, along with any other information you choose to include.

I initially made this project to work through my own feelings, but as a space for sharing, I hope that it will also benefit other people.

Navigating the Media

During my freshman year in high school, I took a class on contemporary young adult literature. Keep in mind, I went to a charter school that offered a fairly eclectic array of classes, including Latin, marine biology, and the course that would change my life, art history, so this course wasn’t especially usual to me. In retrospect though, it was remarkable for three reasons:

My high school yearbook photo from freshman year ca. 2000-2001; I had very long hair.
  1. This was the first and one of the only times I’ve encountered modern and contemporary YA literature being taken seriously in any sort of academic environment. I’ve only recently come to appreciate how unusual this is.
  2. The syllabus had no master reading list. Instead, each student proposed a topic for a research project and chose books in accordance with that theme. In my case, that meant nearly all of the books I read were written by women and focused on the experiences and perspectives of women and girls, whether they were aspiring writers, burgeoning detectives, or even navigating the challenges of OCD. Again, it would take me years to realize how (sadly) unusual that was.
  3. Critical thinking was a key point of the course, with a focus on analysis rather than the simple regurgitation of narrative or plot. In reading these books, we weren’t just expected to summarize their events, but to interrogate the kinds of values they were espousing or not, and why.

I feel this last point is especially pertinent. As an adult living in the times that we do now, I wish critical thinking was taught with the same eagerness as that course had espoused, and not just in public schools. Given the preponderance of misinformation, disinformation, and overall distrust of anything in terms of content and authority, learning to recognize not only the point of view of various articles or stories, but how they seek to grab and maintain our attention through relaying facts, stoking our emotions, or both, is crucial to navigating the so-called Information Age. It’s bad enough with all the pandemic misinformation circulating around social media, but with an election coming up in a couple of months, the outbursts of accusations, falsehoods, and rumors will only get worse.

Today then, in honor of my old high school class, I’d like to use today’s post as a primer on critical thinking, and more specifically on recognizing misinformation. In terms of point of view, I’m writing as a white American living in the United States, and I don’t claim to be an expert on teaching the subject. Instead, I’ll share some of the tips I use to navigate the ever wild-and-woolly world of media.

When it comes to the media, emotion rules. As Nato Thomson argues in Culture as Weapon, everyone from politicians to entrepreneurs appeals to the public through emotion because arguments based on affect rather than reason are more likely to invoke a stronger, more passionate, and lasting reaction. If you find that a social media post or article is trying to stoke your anger, recognize that it’s been designed to do that, and take a step back.

Recognize that you might feel angry at articles that challenge your worldview, but don’t let that anger keep you from accepting factual evidence. Since politics often get conflated with feelings, it can be extremely difficult to change opinions based on facts alone, especially if they conflict with our worldviews or lifestyles. It’s why we shut down during discussions of climate change, deny the pandemic’s existence rather than change our behaviors, or use platitudes like “but not all (insert term here).” As I learned in the book Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Difference, people with strong political inclinations on either side of the spectrum are more likely to manipulate facts to fit their established worldview than to change their perspective to reflect new data. Change is hard, it really is, but don’t let that stop you from accepting new facts or realities.

Know your source. Where did your article come from? The New York Times? Fox News? The Guardian? The Federalist? No source is entirely neutral and every article has a point of view, but some sources are more inclined toward one end of the liberal/conservative spectrum than the other, which will definitely influence its interpretation of events. Know where your article is coming from in terms of platform, and better yet, read from a few different sources rather than limit yourself to one.

Don’t stop at the headline: read the entire story. Media outlets know that we have short attention spans, and use inflammatory headlines to get our attention. If you don’t read the rest of the article though, chances are you’ll be missing a lot of vital contexts. So say you saw an article called “Pope Eats Babies.” Maybe it’s actually about the Pope’s fondness for baby carrots (I don’t know if he actually likes them, so don’t quote me), but if you never got past the headline, you might assume he was an infanticidal cannibal. Then you share that article on social media, where your viewers probably won’t read it either. Pretty soon you have a mass of people angry at the Pope for liking vegetables, except they don’t know that because their reading stopped at the headline.

Same goes for images. Did you notice that I posted a high school picture at the beginning of this post, only to end up talking about something completely different? I did that on purpose. I know from tracking the blog stats for this site that pictures of me nearly always result in more views of my posts. Like those pesky catchy headlines, articles, posts, and other media use pictures to get your attention, if not necessarily keep it. As stated in the previous point, a lot of inflammatory media depends on short attention spans and emotional reactions to obliterate nuanced analysis in favor of broad assessments. Defy expectations and look at the images in the entire article, not just the first one.

Pictures also have a point of view. Photography is often touted as capturing things as they really are, but since its inception photographers have used the medium to tell specific stories. This can be as simple as cropping a scene, but in the age of advanced photoshop and film editing, it’s become easier than ever to create new, seemingly objective realities via digital editing. Once again, this is why it’s important to not only read the entire piece but to check its sources, including image credits.

Check the sources. I can’t stress this one enough. Whether what you’re reading concerns politics, the pandemic, or something else, check the sources. If there are no data or citations to support the argument, chances are it’s fabricated. This is especially prevalent when it comes to memes, quick stats, and other bite-sized chunks of media meant to be seen and processed quickly. I’ve seen a lot of people post statistics about gun control or immigration online, for instance, only to find through a quick search that their claims have no factual basis whatsoever. The next time you see one a meme like the one I’ve posted below, go to Snopes or another verifying source and see whether it has any factual basis. It doesn’t matter if it affirms your personal beliefs or attitudes. If there are no data to back its claims, you’re only doing harm spreading these things around.

An example of the “stat-sharing meme” I sometimes see on social media. The meme includes no citations whatsoever, and a quick search on Snopes reveals that the claims made here are false.

Check your sources, part two. You should also pay attention to the sources in longer articles . Who are the authors quoting in the article? Are there any references to any recent scholarly works? If yes, who are they? Are they mostly white men, or are they also including women, Black perspectives, and other viewpoints? If there’s a reference to a specific book or article, can you find it easily? If it’s a Wikipedia article, are there citations and a bibliography at the end sharing sources? If so, what kinds of sources are they showing? If it’s a pandemic piece, are they quoting certified doctors or medical researchers and including the evidence and observations of research to back their claims?

Verify, verify, verify. Don’t just rely on one news article for a story. Read and compare articles, and note their similarities and differences. Are they consistent in the basic facts? What are their perspectives on the events? In the age of niche audiences and customization, it’s especially easy to get caught in an echo chamber when it comes to political information, so going outside of your usual sources can be one way to broaden the spectrum.

About social media sharing. You may have read that entire article and verified its sources, but a lot of your followers will not. If you’re worried about spreading misinformation, either provide a brief summary or encourage them to read the whole thing. It’s not a surefire prevention technique, but it’s better than simply posting with no explanation or context if you’re concerned about misinterpretation.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it’s a start. Does this sound like a lot of work? It is, but it’s important and we need to make the time for it. As we head into what is most likely going to be another ugly election cycle, it’s crucial that we remain vigilant about the information we consume, particularly when it comes to voting, representation, and accessibility. Let’s all do our part to prevent misinformation, whether it’s related to the pandemic, politics, race relations, something else, or all of the above.

Looking for more resources? Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Allsides shares news from left, center, and right perspectives, allowing you to see how different points of view shape the interpretation of events: https://www.allsides.com/unbiased-balanced-news

The University of Michigan put together this chart mapping out popular news media outlets across the political spectrum: https://guides.lib.umich.edu/c.php?g=637508&p=4462444

For a great comic discussing the backfire effect, check out this comic from The Oatmeal: https://www.theoatmeal.com/comics/believe

To check out a school curricula approach to teaching disinformation, here’s an article from The Guardian about what Finland has been doing: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/28/fact-from-fiction-finlands-new-lessons-in-combating-fake-news

PBS also has programs about fake news and promoting media literacy: https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/collection/fake-news/

For a discussion about the distinction between misinformation and disinformation, click here: https://lifehacker.com/misinformation-and-disinformation-are-not-the-same-thin-1839290006

For information on the pandemic, here’s a compilation from the CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/communication/print-resources.html?Sort=Date%3A%3Adesc

For quick fact-checking, there’s Snopes: https://www.snopes.com/


Predisposed: https://www.routledge.com/Predisposed-Liberals-Conservatives-and-the-Biology-of-Political-Differences/Hibbing-Smith-Alford/p/book/9780415535878

Culture as Weapon: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/culture-as-weapon-nato-thompson/1124484327

Nato Thomson also discusses his book in thi interview with The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/01/culture-as-weapon-nato-thompson/514712/

Thinking (and Reading) About Cultural Politics

When I was an intern at the Dallas Museum of Art, the museum attempted to buy at auction A Grand View of the Seashore, a large seascape painted around 1774 by the French artist Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789). This wasn’t any ordinary art purchase. A Grand View of the Seashore is actually the companion piece to another Vernet painting, Landscape with Approaching Storm, which is part of the DMA collection. The paintings meditate on the interactions between humanity and nature. A Grand View of the Seashore offers a peaceful scene conducive to human commerce and other activities, with its warm palette of peach, yellow, and pale blue underscoring its sense of calm. Landscape with Approaching Storm, by contrast, explores the more tempestuous side of nature, with craggy mountains, a darker palette of blues and grays, and diagonal rainclouds bringing a foreboding, energetic quality to the scene and sending its tiny humans running for shelter. Commissioned by Lord Lansdowne, the paintings had been separated since 1806 after being sold to separate private collections. The upcoming auction represented a rare opportunity to reunite the paintings for the first time in over two hundred years.

I was there when the bidding for A Grand View of the Seashore took place. I remember crowding into my supervisor’s office with my fellow interns in the European and American art departments to watch the auction online. We were excited because we thought the museum had a good chance of getting the painting, which would be a boon to scholars and art enthusiasts alike. To have these paintings reunited in a public collection; how art historically significant!

The DMA’s bidding limit was two million dollars. Think about that for a minute. Two million dollars for one painting. For comparison, that was double the entire annual budget of the Roswell Museum and Art Center when I was working there. Despite our optimism, the DMA never stood a chance. Within a minute of the opening bid, private collectors annihilated our prospects, and the painting ended up going for about 8 million dollars. While the painting was loaned for a temporary exhibition, that day was one of the most disheartening of my museum career up to that point, and it underscored the significance of money to the art world for me. While museums and other institutions often downplay the monetary value of their collections to the public, the truth is, money is key to their success as cultural institutions. Whoever controls the purse strings arguably controls the culture, or at least the ones considered mainstream or normative.

I’ve been thinking about that day a lot as I’ve been working through the final section of my art history reading list, which focuses on cultural politics. Several of these readings focus outright on the significance of money to the art world, and the influence that private and government donors alike exert over culture when they’re the ones funding it. Mark Rectanus’s Culture Incorporated looks at corporate sponsorship as a significant means of cultural production in globalization. He examines how corporate sponsorship influences culture through a variety of media, including museum exhibitions, advertising campaigns with artists, supporting cultural events, globalizing museums, or advocating for technology. In Artwash, artist and activist Mel Evans considers the connection between big oil and the art world as articulated through the various branches of the Tate Museum in the UK. In the wake of declining government support, big oil has stepped in to provide funding to museums and other institutions, an act that is ultimately self-serving on the part of the businesses doing philanthropy. Evans argues that BP uses art and museums as a way of legitimizing its business practices by distracting the public from their operations to focus on their art sponsorship, a process she calls artwashing. As a result, art institutions not only implicitly express their support for an ecologically and socially destructive business that reinscribes colonial inequality while destroying ecosystems, but also constrain their ability to speak out against social injustices because they allow such industries to influence their programming through the money they give.

While many of the texts I’ve looked at focus on private sponsorship, others consider government funding. In Federalizing the Muse, Donna M. Binkiewicz looks at the history of the National Endowment for the Arts and its antecedents. Her overarching argument is that the arts benefited from federal involvement, and that while much-maligned today, the NEA actually accomplished quite a bit given the constraints it experienced. She also complicates our understanding of both the NEA and the politicians who supported it. For example, she posits that the NEA was a more moderate institution than conventionally portrayed by neoconservatives. She notes that it often supported projects aligned with Abstract Expressionism, an art form that by the 1960s was no longer avant-garde in the way that say Pop Art, Feminist art, Black art, and other postmodern forms were. Instead, the NEA took an uplifting approach that aimed to educate viewers in the forms of high art rather than popular culture, while simultaneously espousing such supposedly American ideals as individual liberty and freedom, qualities that were believed to be best encapsulated by the individuality and seeming apolitical nature of Abstract Expressionism.

I’ve also been reading about the so-called culture wars, or the debates over arts funding that took place in the 1980s and 1990s in response to backlash over exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography or Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. Art Matters offers an anthology of essays from artists, activists, as well as scholars. Each of the chapters explores the culture wars from a different vantage point, including the AIDS crisis, race, or the privatization of culture. While there is no singular argument underpinning this text other than the culture wars changed art funding in America, arguably for the worse, two themes recur throughout the text. First, the authors argue that the people defending artists during the culture wars oversimplified matters by focusing primarily on the First Amendment. In other words, by stating that artists were entitled to say whatever they wanted because of the First Amendment, a counter-argument stating that the arts should not be funded if they do not express the majority opinion could be mounted. In other words, you are free to say what you want, but not on my dollar. Instead, defenders should have explained the importance of the art, demonstrated to audiences how it conveyed the message it did, and how they address broader social issues such as systemic inequality. Second, the authors argued that the culture wars reflected an ongoing conflict between white supremacy and underrepresented voices. By focusing on the culture wars as a question of taxation, conservatives diverted attention away from the oppression that was taking place with regard to LBGTQ voices, and other perspectives. As a result, decreased funding made these underrepresented voices even less likely to be heard. These authors conclude that a democratic form of arts funding in the United States would be a model that enabled artists to create the work they need or want to do, regardless of content or potential offense to the government, conservatives, and other groups.

Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America, written about twenty years after Art Matters, takes a different perspective reflecting the passage of time. He offers an intellectual history underpinning the debates regarding religion, education, feminism, race, and other prominent subjects within the culture wars. He takes special care to explore the intellectual underpinnings of both sides of the debate, from the arguments of the New Left and the neoconservatives of the 1950s and 1960s, to the new social history,  to the growing presence of fundamentalist Christians on the political right. Through these different explorations, Hartman argues that the culture wars represented an ongoing debate between two different versions of America. The conservative version, or the normative one, espoused white, middle-class values regarding race, class, gender, and religion, while the liberal view supported pluralism. He concludes that while liberals and conservatives alike have largely recognized the new pluralistic vision of America that developed out of the 1960s, the pluralism we experience today was by no means guaranteed during the culture wars period. Published in 2015, Hartman originally concluded that the culture wars were finished, but he has since published a second edition in the wake of the 2016 election.

While the culture wars arguably represent one of the most dramatic national manifestations of the ongoing debates over art in America, cultural politics can also influence on the regional or local level. When I was in Roswell, local cultural politics definitely influenced the way I curated shows. As a municipal museum, we could and did exhibit controversial content, but we had to be mindful of where we placed exhibitions or individual pieces. Given Roswell’s overall conservative political culture, I usually had to make sure that the most visible galleries in the museum, particularly those that were located near classrooms, had so-called family-friendly content from a cisnormative perspective. Any works with violence, nudity, or critiques of religion and other institutions were exhibited in less prominent spaces, and with plenty of signage so that visitors could choose to avoid those galleries.

The most subtle instance of cultural politics within the museum happened when I curated Power: New Works by David Emitt Adams. Based in Phoenix, Adams is a photographer who uses historical methods like wet collodion printing and other techniques to take images of landscapes. His work channels the great landscape photographers of the 19th century, but whereas those pieces endeavored to present a seemingly pristine version of nature, Adams exposes that myth by examining the interconnectivity between culture and environment. One way he does this is by printing his images on cans, metal, and other detritus he finds in the landscapes he photographs, for example.

The exhibition I worked on, Power, featured a new body of work Adams had made focusing on oil refineries. Traveling around the American South and Southwest, Adams had photographed various refineries and printed them on used oil drum lids, with the streaks and other imperfections of the wet collodion process suggesting the liquid nature of oil itself. When I saw these images, I personally interpreted them as a commentary on the obsolescence of oil as an energy source. By using an antiquated printing method, in other words, Adams’ photographs seemed to meditate on our reliance on a fuel source that is itself finite and out of date.

Yet even as I read these photographs as a critique of the oil industry, I didn’t want to alienate local visitors by making this the official interpretation. After all, southeastern New Mexico’s economy has relied on the petroleum industry for decades, and a lot of Roswell’s prominent leaders and influencers are involved in oil in one form or another. The Roswell Museum also owes much of its existence to oil, with nearly all of its most prominent donors and philanthropists making their money through petroleum. So while I saw a critique when I viewed these photographs, I knew many of our local visitors would interpret these works through a more nostalgic or celebratory lens. When I wrote the exhibition text then, I focused primarily on the wet collodion process and the works’ dialogue with the history of photography, which Adams himself focused on when discussing his artistic practice. In essence, I deliberately left the actual interpretation of the works up to the viewers. An activist like Mel Evans would likely interpret my decision as enabling artwashing, but given Roswell’s cultural politics, encouraging viewers to produce their own interpretations provided the most leeway with regard to showing these pieces.

An example of one of Adams’ photographs. This depicts a refinery in Artesia, a town about 40 minutes south of Roswell.

Cultural politics will also play a substantial role in my dissertation research. Throughout its run, the Community Art Center Project and other endeavors from the FAP faced criticism for using federal money to support the arts, a seemingly frivolous expenditure compared to roads or infrastructure (the Leftist sympathies of many of these artists didn’t help). Local politics also shaped the programming of individual institutions. As I’ve noted in previous posts, the Roswell Museum and Art Center was a site for debate between the FAP and the local A&H Society, as they both had very different visions for the institution. Whereas the FAP wanted the museum to be an art appreciation space, with a focus on producing and consuming contemporary art from around the country, the A&H Society wanted the museum to be more site-specific by concentrating on the history and culture of Roswell itself. Undoubtedly other art centers experienced their own cultural politics, and getting to know these better will only enrich my understanding of this program.

Well, that’s a wrap on my posts about reading lists. I have to say, working through these different texts has been an enriching experience. I’ve learned a lot about a variety of subjects, and more importantly, have gotten a better sense of the major scholarly arguments within my fields of interest. While I’m looking forward to being finished with exams and getting started on the dissertation in earnest, the comps preparation process has been enjoyable in its own way. And hopefully, all of you readers have also gotten something out of following me on this journey.