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).
I want to share my excitement about the offerings at the upcoming 2016 annual conference, taken together we think they represent the diversity of areas on which CAA is focused. We are thrilled to be in Washington DC, home to so many excellent museums and cultural institutions. The conference kicks off with a keynote by Tania Bruguera, an artist whose work, specially relevant in this election year, explores the relationship between art, activism, and social change. Our Distinguished Artists’ Interviews feature MacArthur Fellows Rick Lowe (2014) with LaToya Ruby Frazier (2015) and Joyce Scott with George Ciscle from the Maryland Institute College of Art. We have Jane Chu, Chair of the NEA, and William “Bro” Adams, Chairman of the NEH, to discuss their organizations half a century of supporting the arts and humanities. Jarl Mohn, National Public Radio CEO and President, will speak on the visual arts and the public. We will honor scholars Richard Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History and Dean of Humanities, Duke University and Linda Nochlin, Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at New York University, in two special panel sessions. With sessions ranging from Latin American artists, design, artists working with data, public art, workshops on job hunting, portfolio and résumé preparation, there is something for everyone. I hope you can join us.
DeWitt Godfrey, professor of art and art history at Colgate University and president of the CAA Board of Directors, delivered the following presentation during a panel on trigger warnings at the one hundredth anniversary conference of the American Association of University Professors in Washington, DC, on Friday, June 12, 2015. In addition, Linda Downs, CAA executive director, has written a response to the panel.
Trigger Warning Presentation AAUP
First I would like to thank Joan Bertin and Shaden Tageldin for the invitation to the College Art Association to participate in this panel. I would also like to thank CAA’s executive director Linda Downs, Nia Page, Director of Memebership and Michael Goodman, Director of IT for their support. Special thanks to Angela Gibson, Associate Managing Editor of Book Publications at MLA who created and analyzed the survey results.
I feel it’s just safer, teaching in the state of Texas, to put a clear statement on my syllabus at the beginning of the term. That way, I can point to it and say that the individual had been warned.
This is all new to me, but it’s made me think twice about each and every assignment that contains material that might make one student uncomfortable, but that is necessary for me to deliver the course as I believe it should be taught.
Self censorship is the worst form of censorship.
My concern is for the insidious ways that things like trigger warnings induce doubt, fear and intimidation.
During CAA’s Mellon Foundation supported Fair Use project, we learned shocking fact that 50% of scholars and 30% of artists had abandoned projects due to fear and misunderstanding of copyright. The chilling effects of this restrictive culture of permissions on cultural production and production of knowledge cannot be overstated; how many articles, books, exhibitions and dissertations have been lost to a culture that overemphasizes ownership and unfairly removes works from study and distribution?
I would like to place trigger warnings in the context of other ideological assaults on intellectual freedom, the ways that this brings well meaning persons from the left—often feminist left—into an uneasy (and I hope unintended) alliance with an anti-intellectual conservative right; each marshal oppressive forces of fear to stifle debate.
We are in a moment that requires academics, in my opinion, to reenage with the world, and regrettably the debates around education are currently on terms that are no longer our own. There sounds a steady drumbeat of demands that we justify the value and place of the arts and humanities in our institutions and culture; there are moves to shift already eroding funding and support towards alledgedly more practical, more instrumental areas of education and study with more quantitative deliverables of jobs and careers. And the old arguments that the humanities and arts are “good” for you or even the overwhelming evidence that arts and creative communities deliver measuable economic benefits are no longer adequate. These arguments are reactive and reduce what we do to the adjunctive and peripheral, where we cede the terms of the debate.
So what do we do in a context that can only relate to cultural production in terms of the liberal economic model? What are the counter narratives that lead us away from the place of hand wringing and learned helplessness passively awaiting our eventual destruction?
We must reassert the humanities as the space of speculation and imagination that is at the center of human experience and the creation of culture. Art is where cultures and communities work things out, where we come to terms with the unfamiliar and rexamine the familiar; we are the canary in coal mine and we hold our own string, we help define, create and then transgress the boundaries of the normative. We propose frameworks for discernment, we cultivate the value of small and subtle differences, we consider from more than a single perspective, we look closely, we see through ideologies of stark difference. We explore shifting criteria, ideally we teach our students how to construct their own, we help create the capacity for sound judgement, to understand the contingent nature of such judgements, to be comfortable with uncertainty.
A neuroscience colleague at my University put it this way: during a conversation with a group of faculty, one remarked on recent work in his field that seemed to promise, one day, that all of our feelings, emotions and sensations could be reduced to series of well understood electrochemical interactions, the merely mechanical. He replied that in the unlikely event that ever came to pass, we would still have to figure what to do about it, we would still have to decide what it would mean.
Ideological Attempts to proscibe what can and can’t be taught, even those based in good intentions like trigger warnings, put that process in jeopardy.
Very few of us, I suspect, want to deliberately or inadvertantly hurt our students but, as the survey response show, most of us want to challenge them, to provide spaces in which they confront the unfamiliar.
The idea of “safe” space has been transformed so far that the educational mission itself becomes framed as “unsafe.” I write this as a woman who works on difficult material by marginalized groups. I understand discursive inequality and the ways that texts can be experienced as deeply personal. But the “safe” idea has itself become quite dangerous, I think. A student this fall put it best: “I don’t want a safe space to protect me from the world; I want to develop tools to change the world.”
Conceptual art example.
Derived from the context shifting ready-mades of Duchamp, conceptual artists assert that the un-embodied idea alone can be a work of art. As a consequence, anything or nothing can be a work of art. Such realizations can require a wrenching shift in ones entire worldview. One day the cup and saucer on your breakfast table have clear and certain utility and meaning, the next you cannot be so sure, things slide back and forth losing and gaining defining qualities. Imagine your world-view as a completed puzzle, where the many variegated pieces fit neatly into a coherent bounded image. Changing the shape or orientation of one piece, your definition and understanding of what is and isn’t art for example, means that many—maybe even all—the other pieces must be rethought, reshaped and replaced to restore coherence, to reestablish a consistent, workable world-view.
One can understand then where the resistance and rejection of conceptual art’s challenge originates. I do not expect students to necessarily share my reading of art, I do not proselytize, but I do expect that their rejection or acceptance of this mode of art practice be based on an engagement with it, not merely because it doesn’t “fit” their current understanding.
Art often provokes emotional responses ahead of intellectual ones, students—and fellow faulty—are often offended by the challenges presented by the avant-garde, morally outraged.
Conceptual art happened, it cannot be unhappened.
How can we teach such things as war, homophobia, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and violence if we cannot expect students to read such texts or material? How can we educate students about such violence (and thus hope to end such violence) if students refuse to engage with it in the classroom? And what about students who might refuse material that is contrary to other belief systems? For example, might fundamentalist students (of any religion or political philosophy) refuse to read books on sexuality, feminism, or women? In a word, trigger warnings feel like a reasonable issue in terms of supporting student survivors of sexual violence. But what about other kinds of censorship? And painfully, it is the very students who ask for trigger warnings (often open-minded, progressive, well-meaning, feminist students) who dont understand that their feminist request sounds like a conservative one for many progressive teachers.
The appealing dangers of certainty, fanning the conflagration of fear and anxiety.
I have had my share of trauma, but I am not sure if the best way of coping is to have yet another paternalistic/maternalistic authority figure interfering with what may be a trigger or not. Let me be the judge.
I would be very wary of any policy that required instructors to provide trigger warnings, because essentially that would mean the University was regulating certain kinds of speech/imagery and denoting it as deviant or disturbing.
I have colleagues whose experience with students sensitized by such warnings, prepped for PTSD I would say, serves as appalling evidence of the manipulation of young women into self-conscious victim positions and the closing down of discourse. As a life-long feminist and survivor of kidnap and gang-rape myself, who has helped many others cope with the aftermath, I have no evidence that trigger warnings lead to anything but the cultivation of a posture of fear. And the damage to freedom of speech–and simply to education, particularly feminist education—is incalculable.
The shift from Political Correct to Individual Correctness, any one persons trauma is by definition, the greatest of traumas. The right to never be offended.
The “trigger warning”, which forces teachers to change their teaching plans based on calculations about what topics might hurt students’ feelings or make them feel “unsafe”, forces teachers into the work of affirming the narcissism of many privileged students. It also buys into the notion that learning, study and education is a consumer experience, and that the consumers (the students) get to decide whether they like the goods on offer.
How can one predict what experiences students bring so that one can provide the correct warnings? What may seem totally innocent to the faculty member may trigger a reaction from a student. It’s almost as if faculty now have to adapt each course to the number of students enrolled: independent studies would be a more accurate description of a course if accommodations have to be made for everyone.
As someone who teaches predominantly non-white literature that often times critiques white privilege, comments by white students regarding this course material seems to miss the actual point regarding trigger warnings—it refuses to acknowledge (and actually desires to protect) the very privilege that many of the texts critique.
Ideology, like theory, bends and twists all available material into the pursuit of its own agenda, and casts out the rest. Its uses are by definition limited.
We seem to be in a golden age of passive aggression, whereby the speech of others can be controlled or stopped if one feels ‘uncomfortable.’
PTSD is real, accomodations can be made as they already are for other conditions that impact a students participation, performance and evaluation.
I feel that students should assume agency and talk to their professors about any personal needs. To offer blanket trigger warnings sends the message that some triggers are more important than others. I don’t believe it is pedagogically useful to sanitize spaces of learning of anything that could cause discomfort. The “real” world does not come with trigger warnings.
DeWitt Godfrey, professor of art and art history at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, is president of the CAA Board of Directors.
CAA is moving ahead on several strategic goals. After a year of investigation and discussion with over 200 artists, art historians, curators, editors and reproduction rights officers, Professors Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi are drafting the new Code of Best Practices in Fair Use in the Visual Arts which will be reviewed by the Task Force on Fair Use, the Committee on Intellectual Property, the Professional Practices Committee, and an independent Legal Advisory Committee. We anticipate that the code will be presented at the Annual Conference in February 2015.
At the October 26th Board meeting, the formation of two task forces was approved: one to review CAA’s governance structure, and one to review its professional committees. As a greater number of faculty are now part-time, the board and committee requirements have to be adjusted so that the best expertise is brought to CAA within the most economical timeframes. The Board also had a lively discussion on the best directions to be taken regarding advocacy and how CAA can respond quickly and efficiently to issues that affect members’ daily work. We are exploring the creation of a task force on advocacy.
The CAA Board and senior staff held a day-long retreat which focused on a vision for the future of the annual conference—a more flexible structure, greater opportunities for interdisciplinary discussion, serving the needs and interests at each stage of a career in the visual arts, and the ability to quickly address issues that arise in the field, have an international perspective and participation, and reach those members who are not able to attend the conferences.
New, updated volumes of the Directories of Graduate Programs are now available through CAA’s website. From the data published in the directories, CAA will draw statistical information about all the visual-arts subdisciplines, mapping important changes in the field regarding enrollment and employment. We plan to make information from the past four years available to members in the coming months.
The September issue of The Art Bulletin features the third essay in the “Whither Art History?” series, as well as essays on Jan van Eyck and commemorative art, Hans Burgkmair and recognition, Watteau and reverie, and contemporary Indian Art from the 1985-86 Festival of India. The latest issue of Art Journal includes a forum called “Red Conceptualismos del Sur/Southern Conceptualisms Network,” featuring articles printed in their original Spanish and Portuguese alongside new English translations—this is the first foray into multilingual publishing for CAA. Art Journal Open’s first web editor, Gloria Sutton, associate professor at Northeastern University, has commissioned features from the artist Karen Schiff and the new-media historian Mike Maizels, as well as a dialogue between the curator Becky Huff Hunter and the artist Tamarin Norwood. The vision for this website is to provide an online space for artists’ works, experimental scholarship, and conversations among arts practitioners. And caa.reviews, now open access, includes nearly 2,500 reviews of books, exhibition catalogues, and conferences on art, as well as an annual list of completed and in-progress art history dissertations. Thirty-four field editors commission reviewers to address new publications, exhibitions, and exhibition catalogues and videos in every area of the visual arts. The new copublishing relationship between CAA and Taylor & Francis that supports all three CAA journals will complete its first year this month with a marked increase in readership. We are encouraging authors to use the multimedia resources offered at Taylor & Francis Online as well as its citation app.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded CAA and the Society for Architectural Historians a grant to cooperatively carry out research and develop guidelines in digital art and architectural history for promotion and tenure in the workforce. With the increased use of digital platforms in research and publishing there is a need for guidelines that reflect the best practice in evaluating digital art and architectural history. A task force will be formed of two art historians, two architectural historians, a librarian, a museum curator, a scholar from another humanities or social science field with expertise in digital scholarship, and a graduate student or emerging professional in art history or architectural history. CAA will hire a part-time researcher to gather information on current practices from faculty members throughout the country. Please see the Online Career Center for the listing.
CAA, like other learned, membership societies, faces significant challenges and opportunities for the future. The changing landscape of publication, academic workforce issues, advocating for the arts and humanities, serving a changing membership and the field are areas where CAA has and will continue to make a difference, by building on our legacy of leadership and embracing the necessary changes required to meet our mission and vision.