On Sept. 15, Carmenita Higginbotham, Ph.D., steps into her new role as dean of VCUarts. She was previously chair of the McIntire Department of Art at the University of Virginia.
Higginbotham is also an art historian who specializes in 19th and early 20th century American visual production. She examines the impact of urban culture on representation, and the ways in which new technologies change the way we look at and perceive the United States.
In a Q+A with VCUarts, Higginbotham talks about her research, how she challenges students to seek out unasked questions, and why the arts are critical to understanding and addressing today’s social and cultural environment.
Tell us about your research, and your exploration of race and representation.
A large part of my work has been focused on the ways in which the representation of the Black body has been deployed in historical moments and is representative of a kaleidoscope of issues that aren’t solely about the oppression of the African American individual. It’s about race as a language, and how this language has an impact on the way people look and categorize culture.
Race is not static. It doesn’t simply reflect an incident or historical incident or a political event—although those are very important. Rather, it is a deeper, well-thought-out system of communication that builds on itself, and can extend into a variety of creative realms and arenas of popular culture, as well as high and fine arts. As such, it is just as important to understand the way race is represented in cinema as it is in gallery painting or sculpture.
Where did your interests originate?
When I started graduate school, I was really dissatisfied. I wasn’t comfortable with the narratives that I was given about the history of art, and I often took that discontent into the classroom. Then one day a colleague, another graduate student of color, said to me, “Aren’t you tired of looking at all those white bodies all the time?” And that was what I was seeing every day. It was then I realized that there was very little in art historical scholarship or the discourse that attempted to discuss the “other” bodies that existed within the representations I was seeing, or the choices that artists were making and that critics were writing about.
I was frustrated with a field that I absolutely loved. I had great respect for the creative process, but there was a recognition that the field was failing to ask the questions I felt needed to be asked—and it certainly wasn’t answering them.
Has that influenced your teaching in any way? Do you encourage your students to find their own unasked questions?
I encourage students to think about material in novel ways by shaking off how they have understood art and visual culture to function. And to ask hard questions. Our role in the classroom is not to state whether art is necessarily good or bad—although as art historians, for example, we do offer considerable amount of criticism. Rather, we must spend time on the questions that underpin the images and interrogate the choices that are made by cultural producers, and the impact of those choices.
You mentioned the importance of studying popular culture. Where does Disney, specifically, fit into your work?
When I was an undergraduate, I had the privilege of taking a course with an esteemed Disney scholar. I didn’t appreciate all that she was trying to teach me, and I performed horribly. I always promised that I would go back and revisit that material because I recognized years later that I missed something critical in her teachings. So, when I had the opportunity early in my career, I taught a class on Disney and it took off.
Disney springs naturally from my own research interests. It has a significant amount of cultural weight, and it really rises to the social and visual forefront of the 1930s. Disney is also a cultural form that routinely resists interrogation. In many ways Disney operates as a “closed circuit” that appears to answer all the questions you ask of it, but when you start probing deeper, you realize it’s not answering anything. It’s affirming its own cultural position. I find that fascinating.
Pushing on Disney in that way, exposing its insular nature, requires students to challenge what they have previously learned about American culture and society. Not to abandon it, but to interrogate its foundation a little bit. That’s what college is for, I believe; to ask and probe ideals that we have normalized in our daily lives.
What excites you about coming to VCUarts?
It is absolutely thrilling to be part of this university, and to be on the forefront of such an amazing school that has built and sustained an impressive reputation in the arts. There’s this boots-on-the-ground quality to VCUarts, an authenticity that exists among its students, its faculty, and its staff where everyone is committed to the arts, working toward the success of their work and the school.
We are entering a key cultural and social moment in the United States and around the world, with so many questions being engaged, questions that are pivotal to the arts. This is a rich opportunity to not just respond, but to create. The mission we undertake in the arts will be dynamic. It will be difficult. It will be painful at times. But I cannot stress enough that such creative work needs to take place.
This is more than an exciting time to be leading an arts school. This is a necessary time.