Public Humanities and the Arts of the Present / Notes on Blackness and Publicness / Tiffany E. Barber

Adrian L. Burrell, “I Am Not Afraid”. Color photograph, 2020.

In this piece, I consider the ways in which Black Studies is always already Public Humanities. I have been thinking about issues of publicity and publicness within the humanities more broadly and within the arts of the present specifically since my first stint as a graduate student at the University of Southern California. After a brief but fulfilling career as a professional dancer, I moved to Los Angeles in 2006 to pursue a Master’s degree in Public Art Studies (the program changed its name to Curatorial Practices and the Public Sphere near the end of my time there). Here I cut my teeth on community-based, site-generated projects that were somewhere between contemporary art practice and policy. Many of these curatorial and administrative projects were grassroots and artist-driven. Some were temporary interventions that extended the legacy of Fluxus and feminist art praxis of the 1960s and 70s. More still were quasi-corporate (I worked in the art department for the LA Metro, which is a public-private entity owned by the County of Los Angeles. Though publicly owned, the LA Metro often enters into design-build partnerships with private developers with the stipulation that a percentage of the budget is earmarked for art projects). Each came with its own set of challenges. 

On the grassroots, temporary front, listening to the quality-of-life needs of residents and historically disenfranchised and underrepresented artists helped my collaborators and I create and support the (infra)structures their needs demanded. Within the public-private sector, I labored to expand the strictures of medium and what public art could be and mean in an urban transportation system. All of the projects were tied to LA’s contemporary art scene in some way, and this work led me to pursue a nontraditional, interdisciplinary Art History degree that allowed me to combine my curatorial and administrative experience with the academic study of art objects. Now as an assistant professor of Africana Studies and Art History, my current research, teaching, and curatorial practice—all of which I see as forms of scholarship—focus squarely on the relationship between Blackness and publicness.

In this capacity, the editors of this cluster asked me to contemplate the challenges and opportunities that emerge from collaborating with and writing about artists and audiences with whom I consider myself in community. Where and how do public humanists identify the personal and public stakes when entering into relationships with their respective publics? What does it mean to bring visibility and recognition to artists whose very being is continuously subjected to policing and gratuitous forms of violence? I take community to mean not only other scholars who work at the intersection of Africana Studies and Art History as I do, but also individuals who look like me as a member of the Black diaspora. When I say this, I do not mean to flatten the many differences that exist within Black diasporic communities. I’ve written extensively about the implications of group membership and identity politics in light of how displacement, forced migration, and other forms of violence circumscribe Black being.1 What I do mean to evoke with this identification is a central tenet of Black Studies as a discipline—the systematic centering of African-descended peoples’ intellectual thought, traditions, and lived experiences. For me this extends to aesthetic thought and practice. Within this realm, I find the relationship between Black Studies and the Public Humanities particularly ripe for investigation.

Traditionally, Art History departments in predominantly white institutions often lack specialists in art of the Black diaspora, and when they are included they are almost always the only ones of their kind. This “incorporation” does a disservice to the historical breadth and complexity that infuses art of the Black diaspora as well as the myriad ways we can theorize art’s potential. It also has implications for how we see the Black world and how we forge (ethical) relations with others. These dynamics are beginning to shift, slowly, even as the number of available tenure-track positions ebbs and flows. Black Studies departments are also becoming more attuned to the importance of Art History and Visual and Material Culture Studies within the discipline. For me, this change is directly tied to the value of visual analysis. One of the things visual analysis necessitates as a method, which I teach in all of my classes, is the ability to see and interpret objects and their makers on their own terms. When we pay attention to form and composition as expressions of Blackness, we fail to reduce Black art to Black identity thereby sidestepping narrow assumptions about Black expressivity and its multiple modes. This type of failure is a good thing! 

In this way, visual analysis helps students, and scholars, understand how Black subjects navigate the publicness of their identities in the past and present. Historically, this publicness has fostered a politics of representation, as scholar Kevin Quashie tells us, where Black subjectivity is understood solely in terms of its social and political meaningfulness rather than as a marker of personhood or inner life.2 Notwithstanding debates regarding Blackness and humanness, I encourage my students to interrogate how Blackness exposes the problems of the visual given the ways Blackness has been so closely and problematically associated with phenotype as a visually apprehensible trait and truth. This type of thinking rhymes with the kinds of disruptions that I think Blackness poses to the social order, and it encourages students to find other ways of seeing the world that are more open-ended rather than teleological. In short, applying visual analysis to the publicness of Blackness expands the reach and impact of Public Humanities just as my ongoing work with contemporary artists of African descent reveals how essential Black study continues to be to understanding the current conditions of civic and cultural life. This is an exciting continuum not typically recognized in the academy. This is where the work begins.

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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. In my essay “Can You Be BLACK and Make This?”, I consider how present-day Black and non-Black artists such as Kara Walker, Dana Schutz, and Sanford Biggers have grappled in various ways with how we account for contemporary artists’ engagements with distant and recent histories of Black bodily trauma and subjugation. For me, the visual art of Walker, Schutz, and Biggers speaks to the ongoing desire for Black lives and art mattering. They also dispute staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for ambivalence, speculation, and other modes of Black image making and being.
  2. Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 4.