For the Huffington Post, Jacqueline Bishop writes about art historian Amelia Jones and her longstanding commitment to diversifying art history. Though Jones is largely known as a feminist art historian, the article sheds light on her longstanding commitment to race and trans issues. Read Bishop in partial below, in full via Huffington Post.
“What I am trying to do in my academic life is change art discourse. I want to change the field of art history. It is time to have a new narrative and it is time to bring new, more diverse voices to the field.” So maintains Amelia Jones, the Robert A. Day Professor of Art & Design and Vice-Dean of Critical Studies at the Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Amelia Jones’s focus on diversity took root early. She was born in North Carolina at a time when overt segregation was collapsing. Starting in the fifth grade she was bussed across town to go to school with a largely African-American student body. “That time was hugely formative for me,” Jones said, “because when they integrated the schools a lot of white middle-class children left the public school system, while white middle-class children like myself, whose parents kept them in the public school system, found ourselves in schools that were smaller and with facilities that weren’t as good. I saw the ways in which the black community was underserved and even to my fifth grade eyes, it was super shocking.”
In Durham, where she grew up, Jones would often babysit for a family across the street who was African-American. In fact, the father of the family was a roommate of Martin Luther King Jr. in college, and when she came home with questions about what she was seeing, this family would explain to her what was going on. “In that way I was very lucky,” Jones told me, “because even then the role reversal of a white child babysitting for black children caused me, very early on in my life, to start critiquing structures, and if you look at what I have gone on to do in my academic life, it is largely a critique of various structures.”
Amelia Jones is the author of several highly acclaimed books and she has had a distinguished academic career. This of course does not mean that her path in academia was effortless, because, as she pointed out to me, the work she has done, and continues to do, can be quite threatening. At Harvard University, where she got her undergraduate degree, she found herself an outsider trying to navigate a really privileged world. She happened upon the field of art history because of a longtime love of history, but she liked that images were integral to art history. What she was unprepared for, though, is the lifelong struggle she would always have with the discipline.
“For me, art history is really about studying history through the lens of culture. But the truth is that art history as a discipline remains remarkably conservative and has steadfast ideas about what art is supposed to be — all of which is steeped in its European foundations. From very early on I found myself interrogating the structures of the discipline, by asking such questions as, ‘Where are the black artists? The women artists?’ In my work I also started challenging the neutrality of art history, and I came to increasingly believe that my job, the position I took onto myself in art history, was to find the artists who had not been written about in art history and to make visible the structural, often invisible, biases within the field which led to these artists not getting the attention that they deserved.”
She maintains that this rigid conservative structuring of art history can hurt even white male artists who do not fit into the schemata of the structures and powers that be. “In my honors thesis at Harvard I looked at the phenomenon of Boston Impressionist artists. I tried to figure out why all these painters were not written about. What I found was that if an artist was not from New York, they simply were not written about.”