Profiles in Art: Patricia Berman

Patricia Berman is the Theodora L. and Stanley H. Feldberg Professor of Art at Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA. She researches the visual culture of art from the late 19th century through present-day with a focus on  European and Scandinavian art at the turn of the century.

Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with your current field of study?
A great teacher.  As a student at Hampshire College — a studio art major — I had the great good fortune to take classes with a Renaissance and Baroque art specialist at Amherst College.  His teaching made me realize that the study of art history is entangled with the study of politics, philosophy, literature, economics and just about any branch of human knowledge and expression imaginable.   His complex ways of thinking and his obvious love of art catalyzed me as a student.
Q: What was your professional path like? How did you get to this job?
My path was not super straight.  It included house cleaning, ghost writing, graphic design, Avon sales, daycare work, and anything that could pay the rent, and increasingly small and then larger jobs in museums.  As a grad student in NY, there were opportunities at the Met, the Brooklyn Museum, and MoMA and I grabbed them.  I also taught summer school at NYU and when this job opened, I applied, figuring that it would be good experience to be turned down.  Almost 30 years later, I am still wondering how it happened.
Q: What are the greatest rewards of your job?
I feel privileged to hold the job I do:  I love art and visual culture and I get paid to look at it and analyze it for a living. I love teaching and mentoring students, particularly students as thoughtful and committed as you all (Editor’s note: Wellesley College students).  I take particular pleasure in knowing that the women I teach (and the men) have the dynamism and critical abilities to work with others in turn.  I also love research and writing.  As part introvert and part extrovert, I have the privilege of spending my time in museums and archives, libraries and bookstores in engaged silence, and I can share ideas with thoughtful people in classrooms and conferences.  Finally, I have some of the greatest colleagues anyone could ask for.  I enjoy robust dialogues about art, but perhaps more important, about politics and ethics, and always walk away enriched.  How great is that?
Q: Can you tell us a fun/funny/memorable story from your time in grad school?
Grad school.  Fun?  Hmmmm. I had the greatest advisor anyone could ask for, Kirk Varnedoe, who became the Director of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was also his assistant.  This is kind of a nerdy answer, but I visited him once in his office at MoMA to note that he had one of my favorite paintings by Jasper Johns hanging over his desk and got so befuddled and so engaged in talking about the painting with him that I forgot to hand him some work that I owed.
Q: In your opinion, what is an under-researched topic in the field?
My field of modern art was more or less invented by German art historians around 1900, shaped by Europeans and Euro-Americans, and forged into a canon primarily by Europeans and Euro-Americans.  Art produced by and for non-Euro-Americans is deeply under-represented and under researched.  Newly emerging art historians have a world of images, artists, practices, and ideas to bring into focus.
Q: What advice would you give to young art historians just starting in the field?
First of all, believe that the study of art and visual culture is crucial as a way of navigating our visual and built environments.   What you do is important and often misunderstood.  We are not cocktail party poseurs; we are cultural critics.  Next, be open to serendipity.  Be willing to grab opportunities as they pop up.  Jobs are scarce, but if you keep your eyes open, you will find a productive path and be able to assert your voice.  Go to museums and galleries to see what is old, what is new, and what can use a fresh voice to interpret what is displayed and how it is displayed.  Take artists seriously and help them to be visible and viable.
Q: The class of 2021 was recently accepted to the college. If you could address them, what would you tell them about why they should study Art History?
Visual literacy is one of the most important skills any student can attain.  We look at or experience human-made materials every time we touch our phones, walk into a building, or take a selfie. Every image and object carries meanings.  The study of art history is the study of material culture, its histories, and its meanings….and how it shapes belief and behavior.  If you want to think intersectionally about the material texture of your everyday, study art history.
Q: As you probably know, the new proposed federal budget eliminates funding for the National Endowment for the Arts as well as many other cultural/educational organizations. If you had to address the general public, why is arts/art history education important for the average American?
I hope I just answered that in part.  We are all subject to the cavalcade of images and objects all the time and every day.  In order to master the analysis of images, so that you are not mastered by them, take an art class, visit a museum, engage with the arts directly.   More important, the NEA helps to fund arts experiences and expressions in all kinds of communities, so the disappearance of the NEA and its allied State Councils on the Arts and local organizations means that vast swathes of our population will have few opportunities to engage with the arts.   The NEA and NEH help to keep libraries, school programs, museums, local historical societies, local theaters, kids’ dance classes, etc., alive.  Without the NEA and the NEH, only a relatively small elite will have access and opportunity.   How dystopian.
Q: What is one contentious/debatable issue in the art world that you are very passionate about?
Saving the NEA, NEH, and PBS for one.   Tied in with that, making art and pathways toward expression as accessible as possible.  Finally, supporting the freedom of expression – this I am passionate about and this means that sometimes I come down on the side of supporting an artist’s right to exhibit or install contentious works, and sometimes it means bumping up against artists whose work impinges on the freedom or rights of others.
Q: Has the recent socio-political climate influenced your teaching in any way? Are there topics that you are more or less likely to cover in your classes?
I realize that I am choosing different case studies to use in class than I did last year.  I also speak out more about my own position and politics.  I do not want to impose my beliefs on my students but I want them to understand with transparency how I shape my interpretive frames.  I also realize that I use the word “evidence” more than I used to do.   Finally, I can’t wait to teach my propaganda course again, but I need to re-learn everything I know, as the current political climate is also a new information environment.  This I need to understand in a fresh way.

Just for fun…

Q: Can you recommend a wine and/or cheese to us?
Hmmm. I do enjoy a good bottle of Barbera and a chunk of Piave cheese – rich and creamy but with a bite like aged parmesan.  Getting hungry just writing this.

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