Destigmatizing Art History

At the end of the 2022 academic year I attended Black Graduation at the University of Texas at Austin. It was a joyous affair which, like other convocations, was attended by admiring friends and proud families of those closing out their undergraduate and graduate educations. One of the considerations that makes Black Graduation so special and so poignant is the extent to which the Black students assembled represented triumph over discrimination, given that the University of Texas at Austin has a pronounced history as a Jim Crow institution, steadfastly unwilling to admit students of color until legally obliged to do so in the mid-twentieth century. (Incidentally, Charles White’s 1946 drawing Can a Negro Study Law in Texas? is directly related to court battles that reached the US Supreme Court and ultimately ruled that African Americans did indeed have a legal right to gain admittance the University of Texas at Austin.) While there is of course a considerable way to go to achieve greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in a great many of our universities, the ever-increasing tally of participants in each successive Black Graduation signals an encouraging trajectory. Not surprisingly, numbers of graduating students have availed themselves of important opportunities to take classes and seminars such as Origins of the Carceral State, The Black Power Movement, Introduction to African American History, and Rights in Modern America. But a near negligible number, many of whom are among the brightest and most ambitious young people drawn from across the state of Texas, the rest of the United States, and the world, had ever elected to take an art history class.

While I believe that the history of the United States—and the history of race in the US—can be extensively understood and learned through the prism of particular art history classes, I am not suggesting that these Black graduates should have inevitably gravitated toward Division of Art and Art History curricular offerings such as Art, Identity and Racial Difference, Contemporary Artists of the African Diaspora, or African American Artists of the Twentieth Century Century. What I am suggesting is that the wider gamut of art history classes represents a rich, fertile, and rewarding range of curricular offerings that virtually all students can benefit from, if only they were so inclined or encouraged to take them. Attending Black Graduation obliged me to accept that far too few students of color ever consider taking an art history class, let alone majoring or minoring in art history. Simply put, art history frequently has an image problem that prevents many students, including students of color, from regarding it as a viable, worthwhile, and rewarding area of study. To be sure, art history departments across the nation need as many students as they can get, including, of course, the ones who currently sign up for our classes, but the dominant demographic of undergraduates is in urgent need of being pluralized. Art history has an image problem and one of the priority tasks of the moment must be to destigmatize it. I am grateful, as I am sure all of us who teach are, for those who elect to study with us, but it is inarguable that much can be done to diversify what those who fill our classrooms and lecture theaters look like.

A strategy that progressive institutions of higher learning might enact is the introduction of dual degrees, for example, Latin American studies and art history or African diaspora studies and art history. Of course, students can elect double majors or can major and minor in such disciplines, but unless universities undertake bold and radical steps toward the introduction and furthering of such dual degrees, there are huge swathes of gifted, committed, and ambitious students of color who simply do not bring art history into their prospective class choices. Some art historians of color have had affirming experiences of being mentored and supported through otherwise all-white higher education programs, but a great many other art historians of color have had painful, difficult, and wounding experiences battling their way through higher degree programs in which whiteness had an assumed and structural centrality. If we wish to see greater diversity in our graduate programs we need to begin with encouraging far greater numbers of undergraduates to look less cynically at art history. We need, more earnestly, to destigmatize the field.

The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers’ “Destigmatizing Art History”, Art Journal, Winter 2022, 81:4, 5-7