When I was a Master’s student at Williams College, my classmates and I attended lectures at the Clark Art Institute. Aside from the promise of free food, these events offered graduate students opportunities to see senior scholars share work in progress and receive feedback, something we’d all have to do for our Qualifying Paper. One of the livelier sessions involved Manet’s A Bar at the Folies Bergère, a painting that art critics and scholars have debated since it was made because it features a distorted mirror reflection. During the Q&A, one person who disagreed with the author walked up to the PowerPoint and started dramatically pointing at the painting while refuting their argument.
For all the discussion’s liveliness, I recall neither the scholar’s argument nor the particulars of the debate that followed. To be honest, I only remember thinking “who cares?” I saw two old white men arguing passionately about a white male artist who’s already gotten a lion’s share of scholarly attention. Dismiss my response as the underappreciative reaction of youth, but all I could think was that in the larger scheme of things, who gives a damn?
The Big Question: Who Cares?
On that day I turned my critical, youthful eye to my peers, but recently I’ve focused on myself. Something many (if not all) academics confront at least once in their career is the question of relevance. The anti-intellectualism entwined throughout American culture doesn’t help, but even without taking that into account, it’s something I’ve grappled with on more than one occasion. Does my work make any difference in the world? Does the fact that I care about my research justify doing it? Should I help society more directly?
When I first came to William & Mary, I remember thinking my work quite relevant in light of decreased arts support from the federal government and other entities. I still think the question of arts access merits attention, both in terms of whether people are getting it or not, and if so, how they’re getting it. But a lot has happened in the world since that first semester. We’ve had to live through a pandemic. Systemic racism remains, well, a systemic problem. Climate change remains a critical issue with a lot of talk and not enough action. The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a decision that has already caused harm. In light of these developments, is it really that important to study the history of how museums have rendered their collections mobile?
No Simple Answers
The simple answer would be yes, absolutely. My work matters and you should be interested in it. But the honest answer is…I don’t know.
When I’m doing the research itself it feels important. When I’m going through archival documents and taking note of what they add or omit, what works get included or excluded, which communities get visited or not, and who gets a voice in the archive or not, I feel like I’m doing important work. The people who developed these programs certainly felt their work had meaning. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen community art centers referenced as “protectors of democracy,” or “agents against fascism,” by serving as places to experience the fruits of democratic culture and the art it inspires. Reading through these documents, you get swept up in it a little bit.
But does that mean it’s relevant to today’s issues? After all, museums and related organizations have been rightly called out for upholding inequality rather than challenging it through collecting and staffing policies that maintain white supremacy. Perhaps museums aren’t the best model for providing art access and we’d be better off looking at other examples. Instead of researching historical exhibitions, maybe I should do something more proactive in the here and now.
Working, but for whose benefit?
And yet…I’m still here, and I’m still working. Partly it’s because I don’t know what else to do, that I’m either too afraid, complacent, or invested in my work to change what I’ve been doing. But I’d like to think that’s not the only reason. I can’t single-handedly save the world, but I can research and interpret archival documents. I can’t change museums overnight, but I can explore how their histories shape current practices. I can’t provide universal art access, but I can study how people have attempted to in the past, and whether it provided the results they expected. My contribution to the world may not be the most urgent, perhaps, but I’d like to think I’m still offering something worthwhile.
Then again, maybe what I consider relevant and timely is trivial in the larger scheme of things. My peers at conferences and related events may find my work engaging, but what about the world at large? For all I know, my research means as much to anyone outside of museum studies as those two guys arguing over Manet meant to me.
So goes the internal debate. If you were hoping for a neat, tidy answer to today’s topic, I don’t have one. I question the relevance of my work, and as much as I like to think that what I’m doing is important, I wonder if I could be using my time, skills, and resources in better ways. I intend to complete the Ph.D. program, but the long-term future is always subject to change. The only thing that’s certain is uncertainty, which rarely equates to simple or permanent answers.
For now, though, I’ll continue on my current trajectory. I’ve always said that I’d leave the museum field if I ever got to the point where I could no longer explain why I was in it. I haven’t gotten to that point yet. Maybe I will in the future. Or maybe I won’t. For now, though, I still think I have something to offer, however modest it may be.