Profiles in Art: Beth Harris, Smarthistory & Khan Academy
Beth Harris is executive editor and co-founder of Smarthistory and faculty emeritus at Khan Academy. Before turning her attention towards internet-based content, Beth previously worked as the Director of Digital Learning at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and was an Associate Professor of Art History and Director of Distance Learning at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). Based in NYC, you can reach out to her on Twitter @bethrharris
Interview conducted by Tiffany Chan
Edited by Steven Zucker, Morgan Moore, and Tiffany Chan
Cover image provided by Beth Harris (Amiens Cathedral in Amiens, France)
Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with your current field? How did you know you wanted to be in education?
I’ve always loved looking at pictures — they were the way I escaped. I used to go to the library and sit among the art books and look at pictures, but I found that, more often than not, the art history books did little to help me understand the images I loved. So, in a way, Smarthistory is for my 15-year-old self, who wanted to be able to understand art. Also, growing up in the suburbs of Long Island felt very isolating, and art was a way for me to be part of a bigger world. And I knew I wanted to be an educator when I saw for myself in the classroom the power of it — that I could have an impact on student’s lives — and also when I realized I had something of a natural talent for it.
Q: What was your professional path like? Can you tell us a funny story from your graduate school days?
I knew I wanted to study art history when I was 15. So I majored in art history as an undergrad, got an MA and then a PhD. But it took me a long time to finish my doctorate. After being in school for so long, it was hard to imagine the next phase of my life (for that problem I highly recommend therapy).
Smarthistory is unthinkable without my long-time colleague Steven Zucker. We met while we were both grad students, finishing our dissertations and adjuncting. Having like-minded colleagues to collaborate with changes everything. Unfortunately, art historians too often work alone.
Funny grad school story: When I was attending a CAA conference here in NYC as a very young graduate student, Linda Nochlin (who later became my dissertation advisor) was giving a lecture on Courbet’s Origin of the World. I walked in late, and the painting was on two enormous screens in front of the room. I was completely unfamiliar with the painting, and assumed I had walked into something like a pornography convention, and quickly closed the door and left!
Q: How did you become involved with Khan Academy?
We had founded Smarthistory in 2005, but we were working on it part-time, while we held full-time positions (Steven at Pratt and me at MoMA). In 2011 I sent a snarky tweet to get Sal Khan’s attention—Sal was doing (and still is doing) such important work and we were following what he was doing in the press very closely. Soon after my tweet, Sal checked out Smarthistory, admired what we were doing, and we went to work for Khan Academy full time (I left MoMA and Steven left Pratt). We are very grateful for the years we spent there and for Sal’s support of our work, and several years later we were able to get our own funding and become independent once again.
Q: What is the “origin story” of SmartHistory?
Smarthistory started in 2005 when Dr. Steven Zucker and I made some audio recordings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art for our art history students (we were then teaching at SUNY); we also took the materials we were developing for our online courses and decided to not put them inside a password-protected course site, but to make them available on the web to anyone interested.
Soon we made videos and found that recording on-site (in museums, chapels, archeological sites, etc.) was more engaging and could help transport students to these places. All Smarthistory videos since that day have been conversations, and never a talking head (and you don’t see our faces on the videos).
Q: How would you characterize how social media/the internet has changed how we teach art history and the humanities (for better or worse?)
Well, of course social media connects Smarthistory to its audience and to a network of contributors. But more importantly, the web and the ability to easily and cheaply make and distribute videos to a wide, global audience has made it possible for us—in art history—to help transport students to a chapel in Rome, to the Acropolis, to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, or the Archaeological Museum in Mexico City. Instead of learning art history with one or two images per work / monument, we can now use dozens of high-resolution photographs, since we don’t have the restrictions of a print publication. The days of needing a large camera and complicated audio recording technology is over. All we use is a small hand-held audio recorder, a pocket-sized camera, and consumer software for editing and production.
The ability to easily access high-resolution images of works of art means that we can create much richer experiences for students (and 360 degree images in the case of architecture or an archaeological site). Museums have increasingly made their high-resolution, public domain images available for non-commercial use, and websites like Wikimedia and Flickr have been invaluable for us. A lot of museums focus on making the images available, but what’s more important is what we do with those images. Thanks to Creative Commons, we all have a way we can easily license and share the things we make. Smarthistory uses a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Q: What does a normal day look like for you?
I wake up and make coffee and begin to work — often on editing an audio, producing a video, or editing an essay from one of our 250+ contributors. Every day feels productive and creative, and that’s because I sit in far fewer meetings than I used to when I was a faculty member or worked at MoMA. I like feeling productive! I often work from about 8am to 8-9pm—with breaks for yoga, walking the dog, cooking, and eating.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced in arts education on digital platforms?
It is not so much about the challenges I face, but really about the challenges that students face. Art is one of the ways that we define what it means to be human, and yet it is the among the least supported disciplines in all but the most elite schools. We take art and its history for granted, and because it is often (and incorrectly) associated with wealth, we view it as elitist and without practical utility. This is nonsense. Art’s history is our shared human experience. It belongs to all of us. We use a digital platform simply because it can efficiently distribute complex ideas in an engaging way.
We worry about poster sites and other sites that present unreliable information. This is why it’s critical for art historians to be actively publishing on the web.
Q: What is one unexpected skill you had to learn “on the job”?
I had to learn how to edit audios and make videos, and work with Photoshop to make things like maps! They don’t teach you those skills in graduate school, unfortunately. I also had to become something of an expert on image copyright and permissions.
Q: What are the greatest rewards of your job?
Hearing from people who find our work meaningful. One AP art history teacher sends us Valentines cards from her students—how could that not make our day? Sometimes, people will recognize our voices when we are in the museum, and that’s especially wonderful.
Q: What inspires you? What motivates you?
I love unlocking art for people — making it understandable and meaningful. I think art enriches our lives, but art isn’t easy. We tend to think we can just walk into a museum and understand a 14th century Sienese painting, or a Japanese sculpture of a Bodhisattva, but even a few of the tools developed by our discipline—art history—can help enormously. Considering that all human beings make things—art can help promote cross-cultural understanding. What could be more important in the world we live in today?
Q: In your opinion, what is an under-researched topic in the field?
Nearly everything is under-researched. Humans have been making art for more than 100,000 years. Art history has only been around for a few hundred years and has for most of that time been preoccupied with the art of Western Europe. There is a lot of work to be done particularly outside of the Western canon. We have only just begun to write the histories of art.
Q: What is one contentious issue in the art world that you are very passionate about?
I worry about image copyright and the damage that’s done to our discipline. Unlike other disciplines, art history needs to reproduce images. Sometimes museums have “over-reached” and charged for reproductions of works of art that are in the public domain, or sometimes there’s just a lot of legal language one has to contend with when using an image—making it worrisome, difficult, and expensive for art historians to publish in traditional journals and also on the web. This is changing though, and we’ve been very glad to see that.
Q: Were there every moments throughout your career when you doubted yourself and what you were doing? How did those moments resolve?
Oh, I doubt myself all the time! I’m a girl from Brooklyn, I went to a State University for my BA, and the City University for my PhD, and art history is unfortunately one of those disciplines that can sometimes feel elitist. Also, I made the decision to focus on education, instead of my own scholarship, and often (in pretty much any discipline) those of us who work to popularize it and make it understandable to a wide audience are held in less esteem than others who do research. These feelings of insecurity don’t really go away, but I deeply believe in what I do, and it is central to my identity. So, in some ways I don’t have a choice. This is who I am. I’m an educator and an art historian.
Q: What advice would you give to your younger self or someone just starting in the field?
I think making grand, long-term plans often doesn’t work. Instead, taking things one step at a time, and at each step, making sure it feels right.
Q: The arts and humanities often get the reputation of being elitist, irrelevant, and detached from the so-called “real world”. How would you respond to someone with these assumptions?
While it is true that the discipline of art history, like the sciences and the other humanities, has elite origins, the idea that art’s history is somehow inherently elitist and unimportant could only be true if we have so devalued our humanity that the rich history of our creative work is no longer important to us. Even just a moment’s reflection shows how uninformed this notion is. Museums are crowded. People value the history of art. What we have not done well is to make evident that the work of the museum is based in large part on the scholarship of art historians.
Images are all around us, human beings have always made things with symbolic meaning, and the discipline of art history (and related disciplines like archaeology and the important work done by museum educators) makes them meaningful. And for decades, art history has been engaged with very real issues of how works of art (and the institutions of art) engage with power (think of Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock for example). So to say that art history is not engaged with the “real world” is simply false.
Here’s a great quote from Griselda Pollock:
“All the big issues: class, race, gender, sexuality, power, fantasy, the body, the city, utopias, passion, fear, story-telling, imagining other worlds, encounters with other times, places, cultures, history, memory, horror, trauma: all these are what you learn about when you study art’s many histories. It is the subject if you want to learn to look, to learn to see and to learn to understand the world, past and present, here and there.”
—Griselda Pollock, Professor of Social and Critical Histories of Art, University of Leeds
Q: What is your advice on how to introduce someone to the information and skills within art history if they are skeptical and do not view themselves as the “type of person” who would be interested in the arts or sees it as irrelevant to their day-to-day lives?
This is the critical issue. People too often feel that since they can see a work of art, its meaning should be immediately available to them. That all of its meaning should be clear and evident, or the work has somehow failed. Interestingly, when a layperson sees a complex mathematical equation or some other highly technical language, there is no sense that they should be able to read it without specialized training — but when it comes to art, there is this misconception that it should be immediately accessible, or it has failed. Art has a long history and is often self-referential. It also draws on many other specialized disciplines. That doesn’t mean that someone can’t simply enjoy a work of art without study, but if the richer meanings are to emerge, the viewer needs to commit to understanding the world in which the object was made. We need to do a better job of emphasizing the “history” part of the term “art history.” We need to support museum education departments. We also need to make art history more accessible in K12 education. All this will help.
Q: What is one (or two) things you would like the general public to know about your field of study or art history in general?
Oh, art history can open up so much of the world to us. Our world is obviously saturated with images, and the discipline of art history can help us understand how images work. I think the discipline of art history is undervalued, and the more of us who do it and make the case for its importance—publicly—the better! Images are deeply powerful things for human beings (imagine this thought experiment, for example: deface an image of a person you love—scratch their eyes out. We recoil at the very idea of this terrible act. This is because images remain powerful to us, they are not fully divorced from the things they represent.) By understanding how images have worked throughout history, art history helps us see our own nature.
Q: Some parents may discourage their children from following a creative path, out of concern for financial stability (or at the very least, worry greatly about their children). How would you address those parents/their concerns?
Well, happiness is most important in life, right? I vote for finding your path one step at a time, and not worrying about these things. Also, remember that art is in fact a huge economic driver, despite its bad rap.
Just for fun…
Q: Can you recommend a wine and cheese (any comfort food/drink combo) to us?
Chocolate donuts—I ate a lot of them while writing my dissertation.
Q: What do you do for self-care?
Iyengar yoga has changed my life (thanks to the amazing teachers I have had including Kristen Davis and Eve Holbrook). Also knitting and gardening!