Public Humanities and the Arts of the Present / Introduction / Kyle C. Frisina, Maryam Ivette Parhizkar, and Adena Rivera-Dundas

Beyoncé and Jay-Z in Apeshit (2018).

Much-invoked and much in vogue, the public humanities aims to bring diverse groups together in civic, intellectual, and creative community. This work should be of significant interest to all of us who study the contemporary arts. If, in the words of the ASAP mission, “what is nearest to hand is hardest to grasp,” the exchange of perspectives is frankly essential. And since the contemporaneity of our subjects can generate notable overlap between academic efforts, audience experiences, and creative endeavors, we may already be doing more public humanities work than we explicitly name (whether engaging practitioners in a public forum, for example, or sustaining our own artistic practices as complement to our research). Our investments in issues of production, circulation, and reception, moreover, are well-aligned with a critical interest in the public humanities as a staging ground for the interplay between art and its publics. For these reasons, among others, this cluster suggests that we who are committed to the arts of the present have an important role to play in theorizing the public humanities—and in expanding its contours. 

Public humanities projects focused on contemporary arts raise questions of form, relationality, and resources that are substantively different from those emerging in the public humanities work of other fields. To begin with the most obvious, our subjects are often living: people with whom we can collaborate, on the one hand (e.g., in interviews or on curated shows), and who may be enmeshed in their own public humanities-like enterprises meriting analysis and/or support, on the other (e.g., book tours, Twitter, socially-engaged art projects). Developing public humanities projects linked to the arts of the present may thus necessitate new temporalities of working as well as new forms of expression; it may require us to navigate various dynamics—logistical, intellectual, aesthetic, emotional—that are evolving and collaboratively authored. We must meanwhile grapple with the fact that college- or university-run public humanities efforts can potentially confer vital material benefits on artists and communities, or, more damagingly, displace important work being done outside of the academy.  

While this cluster centers the conceptual, methodological, and practical dimensions of public humanities as it relates to the contemporary arts, its backdrop is the unfolding history of the public humanities writ large. The public humanities is often best defined through example—as in a collaboration between Shift Collective, the University of Maryland, and the University of Virginia called “Documenting the Now,” which develops tools to catalog social media data for a diverse public comprising “archivists, activists and researchers.” Yet many frame the public humanities instead as a series of actions—researching, teaching, and so on—whose common goals include “amplifying community voices” (Daniel Fisher) and “help[ing] to produce an informed, critically thinking populace” (Farah Jasmine Griffin). While public engagement has long been the work of museums, libraries, foundations, historical societies, and community centers, the current emphasis on public-facing activity in higher education can be tracked back roughly fifty years. Robyn Schroeder reminds us that in the early days, following the establishment of the NEA and the NEH, public humanities was championed by quite divergent politics, utopian goals aligning with pragmatic hopes for funding and with reactionary concerns about the divide between higher education and the public.1 The past several decades have seen what Schroeder calls the “fieldification” of the public humanities, with degree-granting programs and interdisciplinary centers now established in academic settings of all kinds. Amy J. Elias does not overstate the case in her essay for this cluster when she describes critical reflections on the subject as vast. Recent and ongoing examples of this active discourse alone include national organizations, symposia, working groups, seminars, and edited folios and collections dedicated to public humanities theory and praxis.

We sketch this brief history of the public humanities in higher education in order to acknowledge our editorial locus as scholars and scholar-artists employed in university contexts, even as this cluster emerged from conversations about how universities might offer better training for work bridging away from the academy. The “Public Arts and Humanities Writing Workshop,” the first iteration of our thinking, ran at ASAP/10 and ASAP/11 and brought together ASAP’s varied constituency of scholars, writers, artists, and editors to exchange feedback on writing for multidisciplinary, non-academic publications.2 We gathered on the premise that despite the many reasons it can feel urgent to write for broad(er) publics, it takes practice to develop the skill. We were also motivated by a public humanities-inflected imperative to find new ways of working in real time together. The workshop provoked questions of craft, collaboration, the efficacy of public scholarship, and the array of methods with which we come together around art, ideas, and politics. This cluster displays some of those methods to invite reflection both on why we do this work and how—to investigate the concept of the public humanities while offering models that may encourage more questions down the line.

Contributors to this cluster bear an assortment of identities: activist, adjunct, artist, center director, curator, critic, editor, graduate student, producer, and professor, among others. They consider public humanities projects ranging from public writing to artist-audience collaborations, from partnerships between universities and cultural organizations to activism within and beyond the university. They also take up the important subject of teaching as well as art-making practices largely disconnected from traditional markers of scholarly productivity. Notably, these varied perspectives situate the public humanities as relatively more or less embedded within academia, providing a capacious definition of our subject that encompasses efforts subversive to the institution. Indeed, as Conor Tomás Reed’s and Jhani Randawa and Teo Rivera-Dundas’s essays note, the public humanities can reorient attention toward creative practitioners not only as subjects of study but as valuable producers of knowledge. This has the exciting capacity to amplify many cultural workers’ efforts to dehierarchicize structures of power residing in gatekeeping systems like museums, publishing, and, of course, academia.

The stakes of this work rest, as always, on who does it, who is compensated for it, and who is served by it. One complicating factor with public humanities projects, which can be admirably motivated by a desire for broad reach, is that marginalized voices, minoritized politics, and precarious laborers all stand to be passed over when “the public” is taken to describe the largest swath of people. Another is that the formal and political experimentation intrinsic to public humanities is often the privilege of those with job security, especially as such work can be difficult to fund. (This remains the case even as the abysmal job market makes it increasingly necessary to demonstrate public humanities experience; and even as public humanities does—or should—offer a valuable platform for folks with critical agendas but no institutional affiliation.) In some instances, the necessity of securing funding may flatten a given project’s radical politics. While this need not always be true, it is certainly a danger when art suspicious of institutions is institutionalized.

In our current moment, particularly as the fracturing violence of the pandemic falls disproportionately on people in tenuous positions and on people of color, it remains essential to continue grappling with these concerns. These same difficulties, however, demand that we keep doing the work. The public humanities have the potential to do a great deal of good: demystifying elitist assumptions about—and features of—the academy, bringing scholars into collaboration with the communities they want to champion, and compensating artists and scholars. At its best, the public humanities offers opportunities for collectivity and innovation that have not only weathered the pandemic but in some cases have flourished because of its constraints. Moving events online, for example, has enabled wider access, and the (at times thick, at times fleeting) “we’re in this together” spirit of the past year and a half has enriched creative ways of coming together. Contributors to this cluster invoke many of these positive possibilities and also challenge our assumptions about what the public humanities does and can mean.

Tiffany E. Barber opens the cluster with the powerful argument that the public nature of Blackness and the work done by Black Studies to center the thought and experience of Black people means that “Black Studies is always already Public Humanities.” Informed by her experience as an art historian, a curator, and an administrator working at the intersection of art and policy, Barber articulates the pedagogical importance of engaging with the visual medium. “One of the things visual analysis necessitates as a method,” she writes, “is the ability to see and interpret objects and their makers on their own terms.” For Barber, this promise of visual analysis illuminates the continuum between Black Studies and the public humanities and teaches us how to embrace each field for its open-ended possibilities.

Other scholars attend to specific events enacting the ethos of the public humanities. Reflecting on inclusion and invitation, Amrut Mishra and Meli Kimanthi discuss Feedback: a suite of free, experimental courses from Carolina Performing Arts, the producing/presenting arts organization affiliated with University of North Carolina. Bringing together small groups of artists, scholars, and members of the public on the subjects of “Liveness” and “Arts Economies,” Feedback fostered community in the pandemic through the medium of Zoom. One surprise following from Feedback’s intimate format was the looped nature of the invitation itself: artists and scholars were as equally invited to witness the performance of their ostensible audiences as audiences were invited to witness the more standard reverse.

Amy J. Elias adds to our institutional history the important perspective that the late twentieth and early twenty-first century rise of the public humanities within universities has coincided with “a reformulation of art perspectives around participation, relationality, reciprocity, and engaged art and scholarship.” This synchronicity inspires her work as director of the University of Tennessee Humanities Center (UTHC). Taking as her case study “In a Speculative Light,” a pre-pandemic, in-person symposium on writer James Baldwin and visual artist Beauford Delaney (cosponsored by UTHC and the NEH and presented in collaboration with a group of cultural organizations calling themselves The Delaney Project), Elias argues that humanities institutes have the opportunity—in fact, the responsibility—to reset the conversation around higher education as a “public good.”

Conor Tomás Reed outlines a different genealogy for the public humanities, one that tracks alongside scholarly and activist formulations of exodus from and/or pessimism towards the institution. Cautioning against a leveraging of the public humanities as “an intellectual retouching of existing conditions,” Reed’s essay urges readers to reclaim the radical tradition of “collaboration between the university and the universe(s) outside.” Through an investigation of the City University of New York as a public institution that has long been a site of educational struggle, Reed articulates how a nexus of students, scholars, and their communities practice a revolutionary vision for an education in arts.

Jhani Randhawa and Teo Rivera-Dundas, editors of the digital zine rivulet, explore their relationship to the public humanities through a lens of relative skepticism. They argue that the “generative mess of a thing” that is rivulet exists in spite of, counter to, and yet still in conversation with academic humanities. Bringing together artworks that “make a tangle of contemporary criticism and theory” in a publishing forum that emphasizes creative process rather than critical mastery, rivulet raises the questions of what the public humanities can do for those with limited (or nonexistent) ties to established institutions and to what degree institutional alignment might dampen their artistic efforts.

Finally, Annie Berke takes our cluster back to its ASAP writing workshop roots, drawing on her experience as the film editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books to offer guidance for the development of public-facing writing. Adding her incisive viewpoint to the growing body of literature aimed at scholars writing for non-specialist audiences, Berke also tackles the undertheorized editor’s role in developing work of this kind. Her essay revises traditional academic notions of credit and credibility in the context of public writing and provides bracing practical advice for anyone looking to get started.

Taken together, these pieces propose myriad ways to question, critique, celebrate, and enact the public humanities. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do and that you find in them as much inspiration.

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This is part of the cluster Public Humanities and the Arts of the Present. Read the other posts here.

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  1. Robyn Schroder, “Introduction,” in Doing Public Humanities, ed. Susan Smulyan (New York: Routledge, 2020), 7–21.
  2. We three cluster editors led the workshop together in 2019; Arthur Wang was a co-organizer with Kyle Frisina in 2018.