Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Amelia G. Jones

Amelia G. Jones has a mission: to change how we look at art history. Jones, who teaches at the Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California, fell in love with the visual arts in college. She has spent most of her career building awareness of the very narrow lens (European, white, male) through which we traditionally view--and value--art. Instead, Jones wants us to expand our views to include women artists, artists of color, and queer artists, all of whom have been traditionally marginalized or left out of the art history conversation altogether. As Jones explained during our telephone interview, we have to change not only how we view art but also who we're supporting as our future curators and art world experts. Here's more from Jones on how she's working to transform the conversation.

NEA: When was the first time you connected with art in a meaningful way?

AMELIA G. JONES: It was the classic taking an art history survey class in college. It was a much more fun way of learning history than the dryness of the way history was being taught in the early '80s so I really responded to that. It’s the historical context and the connection between art and society that interests me the most so it's a fun way to think about history—through painters, paintings, objects, architecture, things that are made.

NEA: How did you get from there to a career as an art historian?

JONES: When I enjoyed that class, I decided to switch from the social sciences. I was majoring in psychology, and I was really struggling with some of the assumptions and the way the thinking was presented. I realized that I was really a humanities person and that I really enjoyed learning history that way. When I graduated, I got a job working for an art book publisher in New York City. It was a very good first job although I made little money, but it drove me insane having that kind of nine to five job. I was the picture editor so I had to get people's images for the books and deal with other authors. It was a great experience because I [realized] that I had something to say and that I wanted to be the one writing the books rather than just being an editorial assistant.

NEA: What is your job description as an art historian?

JONES: I am actually now working in an art school so I'm not working in an art history department. I'm responsible for all the courses in history and theory for the art and design students in the art school which is within the University of Southern California. We also draw a lot of other students from around the university. I do a lot of programming as well, so arts programming at USC and beyond, and I travel a lot to give talks at other universities and other museums. 

NEA: In an interview in the Huffington Post, you said, "I want to change the field of art history, it is time to have a new narrative and it's time to bring new, more diverse voices to the field." Can you talk about what that dominant narrative is and the ways in which you'd like to see it change?

JONES: Conventionally art history is an interesting discipline because it's connected to an art market where objects are sold; it's different from anything else in the humanities. In some ways it's been more conservative and slower to change in the sense of realizing the biases that are built into value judgments because in fact people have a lot to lose who have collected, for example, art by white men. My goal and my interest has always been to question that and make people aware of the structures of power through which those value judgments are made so that we can maybe make different kinds of art, maybe make different decisions about what kinds of artists are being supported, that's what I'm interested in. I'm not really interested in repeating the same structures of power that have long dominated discussions about art and museums.

NEA: What are some of the ways in which you're trying to change the lens through which we view the history of art?

JONES: I publish articles and I give talks. I curate shows that always look at those structures of power, and sometimes I include artists who have been excluded or work by artists who've been excluded. Other times I address something about the power structure. Doing an event where you're programming performance in a museum, for example, makes people question what is art and what is included and what is not. In the classroom, I have a distilled program where in any class that's on art in the 20th Century or 21st Century, I start the class by going all the way back to the early modern period and by explaining the structures through which what we call art was developed and invented by Europe. [That development] happens at the same moment that colonialism happens and, of course, that's the same moment as well of early capitalism and the beginnings of industrialism. [I want] to help them to understand that art isn't just some transcendent thing, that it's actually a social construction and that it was originally developed as a way of Europeans substantiating their superiority as they were colonizing other kinds of people. Especially for the art and design students, they need to know how to think about that, not because they should be discouraged, but because it empowers them to have more information in terms of where they're going to fit in to what is now a super-developed, very capitalistic, consumerist global art world.

NEA: What are the types of changes that you think need to happen in the field in order for it to become more diverse and inclusive?

JONES: I try to question the way we've developed our standards. For example, there's a really strong tendency in art history departments to think we should only have graduate students who come out of "elite" programs. Most of those are out of reach for the vast majority of people of color or people who are the first in their family to go university. So by definition you're going to keep replicating the same kind of art history because you're basically not changing the way you're thinking about standards. But what if you said, "Well my goal is to admit students who have something interesting to say even though they might not have all of the tools yet because they come out of community college." My goal is not to lower the standards but to think maybe what's interesting is the ideas they have and their potential rather than their score on the GRE [graduate entrance] exam. Maybe what's important is that they're bringing something different to the field rather than that they're coming out of an elite campus. Again, it's not about lowering standards at all, it's about shifting the way we're thinking about it. Sometimes those people do need more help just because they haven't been supported [academically]. So it does take a different kind of work and a different kind of focus, but it's worth it because a lot of my students are now out in the world and they have jobs in universities and museums and galleries and they're changing things.

NEA: You’ve talked about how to create an environment for change as people are beginning their careers. What about people already working in the field?

JONES: It's hard to change people who have an investment in keeping structures the same and there are real constraints. For example, with museum directors, there are serious things they have to think about in terms of fundraising. All I can do is invite them to have conversations. We have lecture series at the art school where I teach and so we bring in those younger people of color who are changing the field and we also bring in older, more well established people in the field, and then we have conversations with them. Most people in the art world now are at least giving lip service to diversity, but my problem has always been it's not enough just to pay lip service to it. It's not enough just to add a couple of black or Latino artists to your stable if you're running a commercial gallery; you have to really change the way you're thinking at the deepest levels.

NEA: Who are some of the artists that you personally champion in terms of people that you think we should know more but don't because of the existing power structures?

JONES: There are dozens because I've had a long career now. I began my career by writing about an artist who was obsessively mentioned by younger artists and curators and writers, Marcel Duchamp, but I critically examined what people were saying about his work and saying about him. But then I I moved very aggressively into feminism. I did a big exhibition in 1996 called Sexual Politics where I showed the work of I think it was 70 women artists in relation to feminist debates that had come up around Judy Chicago's Dinner Party. In that show it was really important to me not just to have the white feminists who had been directly connected to Judy Chicago but also to have work by black feminists and Latina feminists and other women from different communities who had been addressing some of the same issues…. There are a bunch of artists in that show who I've then gone on to write more about. The artist Lorraine O'Grady is someone who is deeply brilliant and not well known enough. She's a black feminist who's also a brilliant writer. I've written quite a bit about Laura Aguilar who's a lesbian Chicana artist from Los Angeles. But I've also moved more in the last 15 years into performance, so I write a lot about performance artists like Ron Athey, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Cassils, and Xandra Ibarra. Often performance artists are by definition already marginalized because performance has this un-commodified marginal status.

NEA: What is the most important thing that you want people to learn from the work that you're doing?

JONES: If we can't try to seek out ways to make the world a place where different kinds of people can feel safe and express a range of creative ideas then there's no point in doing this because that's really the essence of what I hope to do. So to get younger people who are my students to think more critically and people who are my audience to think more critically about art and about performance and its role in society would be the most important thing.

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