College Art Association

CAA News Today

A Call to Action

posted by DeWitt Godfrey — Feb 16, 2016

DeWitt Godfrey, President of the CAA Board of Directors

A Call to Action

That there are many things wrong in and around our current cultural, educational, and political institutions goes almost without saying. But students of color and their allies at my university and across the country are saying and naming many of the endemic failings of our institutions, refusing to remain silent in the face of systemic racism, inequalities, and oppression. These protests demand redress, unquestionably deserved and long overdue, refusing to let the status quo resettle into old and harmful patterns. There is much anger, much emotion, and sometimes even much empathy. In the pursuit of new paradigms and patterns, territories are marked out, language crafted seeking discourse that ideally cannot support or makes impossible the reification of old injustices.

In the quest for these new spaces, in the specificity we believe will prevent and dismantle these systems of oppression and in their focused intention to redescribe and reframe the terms and debate around the responsibility of institutions and individuals, there also exists the possibility of curtailing and preventing the very conversations that might productively contribute to a process of recognition, acknowledgment, and critique of these pernicious systems of privilege and inequality. In the face of these very real grievances, in a climate of anxiety and fear, all around us the collective is at risk of fracture, dispersing into self-referential self-reinforcing pockets that create false senses of common purpose, aligned against a shared enemy composed of those who refuse or who are excluded by the preconditions of inclusion. In the final irony, this fracturing of the collective along clannish lines most suits those who opportunistically exploit the fears of those who fear losing their spaces of privilege, in a zero sum game predicated on the notion that to gain someone has to lose. We are weaker divided, and the institutional spaces, such as those enshrined at the heart of the university, a collective under which many disparate forms of knowledge production can find common purpose and support, grow also weaker, creating conditions under which the entire enterprise of higher education comes under attack as irrelevant, disconnected, and even antagonistic to the ideologically oriented common good.

Rather than arguing and debating ideas we are reduced to defending positions, constructs that by design resist and reject critique in conditions that neuter dialogue. While these constructs are created out of real conditions—real pain, suffering, and oppression—we should not counter by discounting or mediating the raw feelings at the center this experience. But we might be careful not to fall into a trap of our own design, in which debate and conversation can only occur with those in our likeminded cohort.

What does this have to do with CAA? Over the past decade the largest learned societies such as CAA and MLA have experienced steady and sometimes rapid declines in membership, while smaller discipline-specific societies’ memberships have grown.

From a peak in 2010 of 13,000 members, our current individual enrollment has fallen to 9,000. Conference attendance in New York, historically the highest and most consistent, was down 25 percent from 2013 to 2015. There are many substantive reasons for this downward trend: some are demographic (research shows that millennials are not joiners), so we restructured our membership categories when we launched our copublishing agreement with Taylor & Francis. The great recession of 2009 sharply reduced institutional support for research and conference travel and transformed hiring practices—a lot less of you are here interviewing candidates or seeking jobs than in years past. But beyond that, the fact remains that for many of our former and even current members, CAA is no longer relevant. For many the answer is to gather with like-minded individuals in narrowly defined subgroups. This has tangible consequences for CAA, but I also believe this current trend of atomization is a threat to the difficult cross-disciplinary, cross-identity, and cross-cultural conversations that must be supported and preserved that are less likely to be taken up by insular groups.

So what do productive and viable institutions make possible? What can large institutions provide that small ones can’t? Specifically, CAA carves out spaces of debate and conversation, opportunities to talk across difference, to bring focus and attention to issues that cross disciplines and fields. Our Mellon-funded task force produced guidelines for the fair use of third-party images in teaching, publishing, and creative work could not have been undertaken without the broad reach, constituency and intellectual reputation that we have at CAA. In the past five years our partnership with the Getty Foundation has gathered ninety art historians from over forty-five countries in every conceivable area of art and art-historical inquiry for a one-day preconference. The plurality and heterogeneity of our membership should be seen as our greatest asset, how a diverse spectrum of practitioners and scholars gather at the annual conference, through our publications and programs from across the range of arts, artists, art historians, museum and arts professionals, designers, and educators.

What I have offered above is a frank appeal for your support and advocacy for CAA, an appeal for an association that has been, in particular for our academic members, at the front lines for over a century, for an organization that has played a critical role in the integration of art history and studio practice into a frequently resistant academy. Times have changed, battles have been fought and won, and while there are standards to be defended, CAA must face a future where many—even most—of our colleagues no longer have access to the institutional resources which were once the norm, to advocate for the fair and equitable treatment of part-time and contingent faculty, to lead the debate around how education will be delivered, to keep education affordable, to protect and preserve a higher-education system that despite its flaws remains the envy of the world. We must also imagine a CAA that reaches further beyond the academy than we already do, as relevant to the unaffiliated artist, designer, and even art historian, as we are to those of us who hold academic positions. Our task force on design, design theory, design education, and design history has uncovered exciting potential for greater advocacy for our design colleagues and how to reimagine our structures and programs to strengthen and expand our association, acknowledging the growing stature of design in our culture and in our institutions. Artists without a permanent or sometime itinerant academic connection have long been, despite specific outreach attempts, on the periphery of our association because we have yet to clearly articulate what the benefits of membership are. CAA will need to clear new spaces for such new contributors and membership

Change is frightening and nearly everyone despises ambiguity—conversely conditions in which art and artists thrive. In the midst of an election cycle that has upended assumptions on both the left and right, now more than ever art matters. And I mean matters more than instrumentally—not merely as an economic driver and not as an adjunct practice that increases student’s math scores or that it is somehow “good for us.” Art matters because artists work and thrive in the interstitial spaces between disciplines, around institutions, who assume the permission to ask questions that cannot be formulated from inside the confines of a particular, single point of view or perspective.

This speech was first delivered as opening remarks at the CAA Annual Conference Convocation Ceremony on February 3, 2016. A Keynote talk by artist Tania Bruguera followed (Watch on YouTube).

Filed under: Advocacy, Annual Conference