The Controversy and Innovation of Art History at Wesleyan and Beyond

A Talk with Professor Nadja Aksamija

Professor Nadja Aksamija is one of those rare people blessed from a young age with the ability to know what she wants to do, and how to do it. Since the age of ten, Aksamija told me, she knew she wanted to be an art historian. This dream was inspired by childhood immersion in the world art. Her grandfather was an architect, and she fondly recalled hours spent watching him work, as well as numerous trips to art museums. In her studies as an undergraduate, “the core was always art history” she said, “and everything else I did plugged into that.” These “other things” ranged from languages like German, French, Italian and Latin, to subjects like Sociology, History, and Religious studies. She began taking Italian her freshman year of college, went to Italy in her junior year and fell in love with 16th century Italian Art. The whole experience was “life-changing”, as she put it: travelling with friends by train throughout Italy, seeing artworks in person, and losing oneself in the culture and daily rhythm of life. From that point on, she had a direction, a focus, and a passion that would carry her through the rest of undergrad and eventually lead her to graduate school, a PhD, and a career. Today, her research focuses particularly on villa architecture, ideology, and literature during Counter Reformation, but she also is interested in late Renaissance landscapes.

Pursuing a career in the field of art history isn’t easy. As most careers in academia, it requires not only years of work, but also a certain amount of luck. Aksamija told me that at a certain point “you just have to have faith” that the ten to fifteen years of time and effort put into obtaining a PhD will pay off. This is particularly relevant as academia moves towards a model that has less and less tenure positions available, and rather having adjunct or visiting professor positions which are essentially “underpaid labor.” According to a 2017 report by the National Center for Education Studies, about half of the entire nation’s university faculty works part time. Additionally, a 2015 report at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, 25% of part-time college faculty nation wide are enrolled in public assistance programs. If tenure doesn’t work out, it can be “devastating, and it’s important to keep in mind the reality of that.”

Other than simply a lack of available work, there are other aspects of the discipline which need improvement. One of these aspects is diversifying the field of scholars. Luckily, and happily, there is much less of a gender disparity today in the discipline, especially when compared to the 70’s or the 80’s. Aksamija recalled how, when she was in graduate school, change began to happen before her very eyes and the playing field between men and women began to level. When she started, only two professors of art history in the entire department were women, but by the end it was equally distributed. At Wesleyan, the department comprises of eight professors, three men and five women. Additionally, Aksamija was happy to point out that even the classroom demographic shifted from being a primarily a female-student male-professor environment to a greater balance of men in the classroom with women as professors.

However, the remaining frontier is the representation of minorities in the field. These are both trends supported in national data collected by the Humanities Indicator: as of 2015 women have earned 61% of all masters and professional practice degrees in the humanities, and 54% of doctorate degrees. This is a huge leap from the data from 1966, when only 19% of doctorate degrees in the humanities were being earned by women. However, the Humanities Indicator group also examined racial/ethnic distributions of higher education degrees: the data shows that only 14.9% of master's degrees and 10.5% of doctorate degrees are being earned by underrepresented minorities. Although this is an improvement from 8.2% and 6.4% respectively in 1995, there is still a significant disparity. As noted by Aksamija, this is an issue that is “built into the educational process.” Although institutions like Wesleyan try to hire diverse faculty, there currently is a somewhat homogeneous reserve to choose from, which conceivably should evolve to be more inclusive in the future.

The issue of diversification in the field of art history extends even beyond academia. Recently, the Brooklyn Museum in New York appointed Dr. Windmuller-Luna, a white woman, as the curator for African Art. This decision has sparked much controversy and statements from groups like Decolonize This Place characterizing the selection as “tone-deaf.” Although Dr. Windmuller-Luna’s credentials are extremely impressive, with a bachelor’s degree from Yale and subsequent M.A. and PhD degrees from Princeton, as well as curatorial work at museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Still one cannot help but feel uncomfortable with her appointment. A 2015 report by the Carnegie Mellon Foundation found that 84% of art museum staff (Curators, Leadership and Educators) were white, while only about 4% were black, a statistic which only emphasizes the lack of representation within the field as a whole. The controversy surrounding the appointment at the Brooklyn Museum should be taken seriously, as it represents a larger issue in the field as a whole. There is significant potential for a demographic transformation within the field, starting from the ground up.

Although certain aspects of the field need improvement, at Wesleyan and beyond, art history is valued for its unique lens on the past. There have been some exciting new directions of scholarship which try to take on a more global, inclusive focus on art. For example, for 16th and 17th century Italian art this lies in the uncovering of women artists and patrons. There is also a push for a more global lens to be implemented in analyses, where cross-atlantic, cross-cultural connections are being utilized not just in the context of colonialism, but as a dialogue to uncover new meanings to artwork. New methods of study are being developed which can help with data collection, and ask new questions about many of our shares similarities. These new methods require a more diverse and interdisciplinary skill set in order to uncover many new frontiers for research. Currently, the department at Wesleyan is looking for a Medievalist who has particular skills in technology in order to pursue a greater scope of research which is not so heavily literature-based in the future; it is an attempt to lead to new ideas and a greater sense of connection for all. There’s also no reason to regard the field as boring or dull, as it holds even an entertaining value. I asked Aksamija which artist (dead or alive) she would have dinner with if given the chance. Her answer was Benvenuto Cellini, a 16th century Italian sculptor who wrote his own autobiography and “was a great exaggerator,” and whose life was full of “escapades and drama.” She was quick to state that he wasn’t her favorite artist, “not the best sculptor, but he’s fun, he’s my favorite character from the 16th century from how he talks about himself.”

Maya Hayda, Spring 2018

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