Message from the Chair and Vice Chair
Greetings from the Department Chair and Vice Chair
2019-2020 upended any notion of a “normal” academic year, though such a thing has never existed nor should it. And make no mistake, the murder of George Floyd, Breana Taylor, and others—the unimaginable numbers of Black and Brown deaths—and the loss, suffering, and health injustices of COVID-19, utterly exceed the format and purpose of this message. But the point to emphatically make is that we must be upended by what has happened this year, and not, indeed, this year alone. We must engage with the struggle against alienation and the wreckage of lives, communities, and collective opportunity.
We believe Black Lives Matter. We reject the racism, violence, and injustice that Black, indigenous, LGBTQI, disabled, and other communities have for so long fought against.
We take up this struggle in our academic department—not simply “out there.” Learning, knowledge, and intellectual freedom, the bedrock of the university, mean nothing without collective recognition, justice, and liberation in our work and learning spaces, in the acknowledging care of our voices and actions, and in our rejection of technocratic reforms and of merely symbolic gestures against hard-structured and defended inequalities. We have deep individual commitments and long-standing practices, but as a department we are responsible to the common good of our community, to the use of power with not over others in the work of equity and inclusion. A politics, then, of our collective future.
2020 was tumultuous even before SARS-CoV-2. We stood in solidarity with the UC graduate student wildcat strike for a cost-of-living increase. Although the pandemic chilled organizing, the harms of academic hierarchy, unfair labor compensation, and unlivable stipends remain and have deepened. Then the pandemic shuttered the campus, sending us into dispersed and unequal spaces and into arduous forms of confined being, uncertain and anxious. Our department faced nothing unique, of course, but the collapse of “business as usual” at UC Berkeley further laid bare the university’s complicity in inequality and its violent past, beginning with its occupation of xučyun (Huichin), the ancestral and unceded land of the Chochenyo Ohlone. The pandemic’s economic destabilization of the campus is horrifying in what it portends even as it further exposes the financial and moral failures of decades-long privatization.
As art historians committed to equality and inclusion, we see these crises saturated with images and bodies, and demanding response. The visual evidence of police murder and brutality; historical images of settler colonialism, slavery, lynching, misogyny, and other categories of oppression, all to be interrogated still and anew. Public statues celebrating white supremacy pulled down by communities and allies in age-old practices of revolutionary iconoclasm. Counter-monuments that visualize, embody, and speak other histories. And diverse artworks that disorient history, vision, and embodiment, or, as Nicole Fleetwood writes, “aestheticize difference as belonging.” We believe in the power of aesthetic experiences and forms to register and shape history, and it remains an honor, pleasure, and our commitment to work as educators, to call History of Art our academic home. Classes may still be online as we await vaccination, and even though we remain exiled from our accustomed spaces in Doe and elsewhere on campus, we report to work with a mandate to join with our brilliant students to examine art from myriad places and times, adopting (and adapting) critical, engaged, and historically grounded perspectives to do so. This is the heart of what we do and value as an academic community.
2020-21 brings focused work on equity, inclusion, and climate, a departmentwide effort to interrogate complicity in perpetuating racism, sexism, and ableism. This work is immediate and long-term, individual and collective. More than merely a review of curriculum, admissions, hiring, student support, and other matters, it is a struggle against silencing, inequality, and harm. We must listen and acknowledge, empower, act, and change. It is not enough to be “resilient” through these crises, and we refuse a “return to normal.” We commit to this effort even as the pandemic threatens our public mission like never before.
Greg Levine, Professor and Chair
Anneka Lenssen, Associate Professor and Vice Chair