Thursday, November 11, 2010

Critical Issues: Taste classifies...

and it classifies the classifier....See the full quote at the end of this post.

I recalled these words of Pierre Bourdieu as I read an article recently about the permanent collection of Harvard (not to be confused with that of the Fogg Art Museum). The basis of the article is this alarming statistic: "Of the approximately 750 oil portraits that grace the libraries, dining commons, and undergraduate residences of the nation’s oldest university, roughly 690 were of white men, as of a 2002 inventory by the curator of the university’s portrait collection." The article further posits that "only two portraits, commissioned in the 1980s and ’90s, were of minorities. The remaining portraits were of white women — Radcliffe professors, benefactors’ family members, presidents’ wives." What of our very own permanent collection--how does it compare? We do not have a wealth of portraits. We have several (close to 20) portraits of former presidents of the college. We also display busts of esteemed educators and donors (for example, the bust of J. J. Rucker, the faculty member who led the efforts to integrate female students into the population thus making GC co-ed.)

In contrast to Harvard, at GC, we do not have funds to actively commission works of art for our college's permanent collection. But we are fortunate to receive donations of works of art and, in some cases, add works to the collection as the result of a collaboration or project (such as the series of portraits of students, faculty and staff for a curatorial project entitled Me, Myself, and Art as well as a series of photos of the GC campus, London, and Dublin by GC alum, Hannah Davis.) Would the large banners that bedeck several campus buildings, including the Wilson Fine Arts Building, serve as portraits in our collection? If so, to what ends?

According to Sandra Grindlay, former curator of Harvard's portrait collection, “People tend to think, ‘Oh, the portraits. Nobody looks at them.’ But they do have the power to represent the institution, insofar as when some students look at them, they think, ‘If this is Harvard, what am I doing here?’’’ The thought of changing the face of the collection -- literally, by adding portraits to show the complexion of the college community is an interesting one.

I pose the question to blog followers, then:

  • Who would you nominate to be depicted as a portrait to serve as a representation of our institution?
  • And, secondly, in what ways do you think that the art on the walls (however narrowly or broadly defined) classifies the institution?
From above: In the words of Pierre Bourdieu, "Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed." (from Distinction). Note: Students from "The End of Impressionism" class should remember that quote, over which we labored for several days.


Prof. Darrell Kincer said...

I'm not going to touch the first question, but I have considered the second for years, even going back to when I was a student at Asbury.

I've always noticed the artwork on the walls. At Asbury, I wondered if the art in our Art Building was supposed to be inspiring, or if it was just left over work that students forgot to take home. I wasn't sure whether to respect it or not.

One of the things I LOVE about SCAD is that their library contains and displays primarily faculty artwork. I did truly respect the pieces and looked at them often.

I've wondered the same about Georgetown and questioned why we don't have more faculty work on the walls, not only in the LRC, but also in the WAB!

People stop and look when we hang things on the walls. I wish we had excellent work, perhaps faculty work, on display all the time. I think it's a bit strange that, in some regards, we don't practice what we preach.

art gal said...

Campus and community members can see former GC art students' work in the new, Wow! Grille, in Admissions, and in the Chapel.

Earl Grey said...

To Prof. DK's comment about putting art on view on our campus: I think all art has a shelf life (needs to be refreshed from time to time) and needs to be documented so as to inform the viewer, particularly in our learning environment. Even if someone "just wants a pretty picture" to put in their office in Giddings (or other admin or academic building), a wall text should accompany the work to tell who made it, and, further, something about the piece. Together the work and the writing offer something to latch onto -- a visual and verbal cue to ponder, provoke, instill, and inspire viewer after viewer. (Note, I put those words in quotes be/c I am pragmatic, not because I like the phrasing...)

Mexifem said...

This post made me remember a great program that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has where students can temporarily borrow works of art from the university galleries' collection to hang in their dorm rooms for the academic year.

I had a meeting once with the director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center back in 2002 and while we were talking in his office, I noticed a framed (I believe it was) Joseph Stella print behind his door. He told me it was a print a student had returned and then told me about the program.

They have a specific collection of over 400 mostly prints, photos and multiples that make up the Student Loan Collection. They add to it each year so it is a growing collection. Each September, they put all of the works on display for a short time and students fill out an application listing their top 3 requests. They have a lottery and match up the works to the students. Each available work of art is assigned to the student for the academic year.

I'm still constantly amazed at the level of trust that this program places on the students. But I'm also impressed by the efforts to integrate the art collection into the private, as well as public, spaces of the campus and to allow the students a sense of "ownership" (however temporary) and the opportunity to get to know individual works of art on such an intimate level.

I have to say, though: having been a Georgetown student once myself, I'm not sure I could ever bring myself to allow a piece of the permanent collection to hang on a wall in say, Anderson Hall. No offense, guys. : )

Earl Grey said...

Like the MIT example that you gave (thanks!), Oberlin College has had tremendous success with their lending program over the years. And, there are notorious stories of students waiting in line for hours to be the first to select. My hunch is that technology has enabled a shift in how they organize their program, now, however (maybe you can browse the works online and text your requests in order of preference?).

A few years ago one of the art history students, KLev, wanted to start a lending program. But the idea was put aside because not all of the items had been accessioned and by the end of her senior year, her focus had, rightfully, shifted toward thesis writing and database entry. But, the interest was there. A few years before that, actually, the Student Government Association of GC approached me as the head of the dept and galleries about organizing such a program. I provided them with information and guidance, but there was a lack of interest when new officers were sworn in and nothing came of it.

I do think, however, that we should consider instituting a lending program for students, in addition to the one that we have for faculty and offices, at GC. We would need to have limits on which works could be lent from the collection, how many at once, and other parameters. Maybe we could have a group of art majors as a trial group to give this a test run in '11-12? Just a thought.

Artgal, what do you think?

Mexifem said...

What a great art history thesis project that would be for someone who was interested in museum work/registration.

Prof. Darrell Kincer said...

Just noticed that we may have our own type of portrait collection, in the Hall of Fame room at the student center. Just take a second to look at who is represented on all those plaques. Hmmm...interesting.

Earl Grey said...

Prof DK: That's a great point. And, the fact that it's called the HoF room is interesting, too.

I'd be curious to know more about the selection process and criteria for these individuals. These may be located online. I am not sure.

It's interesting to think about the image that is chosen as the representation for the individual as well. There's no context given. What was this image taken from? Who was the painter or photographer? Or is it a montage?

Another point: to me, it's sad that it took until 1994 for a female to have been inducted.