Art is a mutable thing, and the inherently indefinable nature of creative expression means that defining the rules of what defines art history could be ruled a futile endeavor. But the fact is that art defines culture, and it puts into perspective the values and visions that give our lives meaning. Art is a reflection of how every society lives, and that means that art historians need to be willing to adapt with every passing year and to approach the full breadth of human expression with an open mind and a willingness to accept standards that were once outside the realm of their discipline.
As we move into 2019, the eyes of art historians should be on diversity. After all, human experience spans every culture. While the discipline of art history was initially rooted in a white European perspective of the world, the academic community has made significant strides in recent years. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t more progress to be had. That means drawing more distinct voices into the discipline. The cost of higher education has resulted in an art history world that’s overwhelmed by privileged white men, but the field is slowly reaching higher levels of parity. Women now represent 60% of art museum staff in prominent positions like leadership and curation, but people of color are still woefully underrepresented. But that could be changing in 2019. Black historian Denise Murrell recently had an exhibit at the Wallach Art Gallery exploring the role of black muses in the traditional art world – and while equitable representation for non-white people will not happen overnight, 2019 should see more progress made.
And while bringing in more women and voices of color can create a more rich chorus of voices, there needs to be more diverse representation in our galleries and classrooms. Many say that means creating inclusive art spaces rather than segregating cultural exhibits into separate gallery wings. Some in the community are already taking steps in this direction. One of the most important examples in the past year came from Charles and Valerie Diker, who presented their collection of Native American art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art only under the stipulation that it be presented in the American wing and contextualized as part of the broader American experience.
Art history was once a field that was largely white and homogenous, but that’s fortunately changing. We see aggressive movements to create a vision of art history that includes voices that were previously marginalized and silenced, and it’s not a trend that’s likely to change anytime soon. 2019 is bound to see more diverse voices pushing the boundaries of what’s considered art and what voices should be allowed to be canonized in the larger historical experience.