Liberal Arts on My Mind by Charlie Zieke

Note: This article originally appeared in the Mission Chairs December 2016 newsletter

The Office of the Endowed Chairs for Mission was pleased to support The Women’s Art Institute’s three-part series, "Art on Our Minds: a bell hooks listening experience", hosted in the Visual Arts Building on the St. Paul campus.

 bell hooks lecture, San Francisco Art Institute archive #848, digitized and photographed by Anna Garski, February 13, 2015.

bell hooks lecture, San Francisco Art Institute archive #848, digitized and photographed by Anna Garski, February 13, 2015.

The Women’s Art Institute (WAI) was founded in 1999 to “create the art the world has waited five thousand years to see”, explains director and associate professor Pat Olson. The Institute brings a diverse roster of artists, art historians, and critics to campus, as well as leading a woman-directed studio intensive in the summer. WAI’s work has directly influenced hundreds of students, including Anna Garski ‘13, who is working towards her second MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute [SFAI], as well as acting as coteacher with Olson during WAI’s Summer Studio Intensive. While working as an archivist as part of her graduate program, Garski came across a tape recording of a bell hooks lecture given at the 1992 SFAI’s Summer Art Writing Conference. Unarchived, hooks wrote this lecture before publishing her esteemed collection Art on My Mindvisual politics. At a recent listening event, Garski asked the audience if Art on My Mind would have even come to fruition if SFAI hadn’t asked hooks to speak to the experience of marginalized people with art. Garski describes hooks’ theory as “subversively accessible”, a sentiment many Feminist Theory scholars share. hooks speaks specifically about growing up in the recently desegregated
South and being exposed to only white art, at school and home.

In the unnamed lecture, hooks discusses how a lack of representation within mainstream art leads to the devaluation of art in Black communities. Without recognition of themselves in the art world, hooks says, the Black community has little to gain from white-made art that perpetuates racism and colonization. As a way of countering this internalized bias for future generations, she urges her community to establish diverse teaching methods that incorporate art into education: “…to move to a decolonized self, we must set our imaginations free.” hooks goes on to explain that within a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, white folks have better access to Black art than the Black community themselves. hooks is a proponent of switching this access through the diverse model of liberal arts teaching methods in order to promote marginalized representation in the art world, saying “the way we experience art can enhance our understanding of what it means to live in an unfair world.”

While sitting in the lecture hall, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s warning of single stories and who has the power to tell them came to mind. Adichie, a Nigerian-born feminist, author, and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, is wellknown for her theory on the dangers of reducing groups of individuals to an isolated and biased narrative. In her 2009 TEDTalk, Adichie remembers growing up in Nigeria reading only Western children's books, with characters and objects foreign to her. Although her daily life was not represented by these authors, she idolized these books and sought to replicate them. By failing to recognize herself in the pages she loved, she felt isolated, later concluding that “[its] unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature.” Adichie’s theories speak to how power interacts with social status, specifically what story will define a group of individuals. Adichie’s and hooks’ experiences are examples of when institutions refuse to recognize diverse communities as complex and nuanced.

Through WAI’s work, a space is created that not only allows analysis of power structures, but also shifts discussions into solutions. A liberal arts education rejects the narrative of a single story, in art or in the classroom. Students well-versed in the liberal arts aren’t satisfied with the simplistic idea of dehumanizing complex individuals to fit in boxlike narratives. Ultimately, allowing a group of individuals just one facet of their rich and complex story robs them of dignity, and reduces others’ perceptions of their experience. The mission of our University has long held that diverse voices reflecting the makeup of our body will lead to better opportunities and education for everyone. Our work in the Mission Chairs office seeks to embrace difference and move beyond tolerance into a radically inclusive community. We are so grateful to have an incredible community, formed by feminist revolutionaries like hooks (and Mother Antonia), come along with us on this journey.