Let’s talk about the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Public Scholar grants. For the last few years, the NEH has funded a program designed to encourage humanities scholars and other writers to write books designed to present humanities topics to broad audiences. You have to have published a book, or a few articles geared to non-specialist audiences to even qualify, so it does not deal in pipe dreams or half-baked proposals. Most importantly, this program strikes me as utterly crucial to the survival of the humanities in this country and perhaps also utterly crucial to the survival of the university itself. I have learned the hard way that people, in general, don’t understand the work of being a scholar, and affording them ways to connect with true subject matter experts increases the likelihood of them viewing the humanities favorably.
A quick glance at the recently announced recipients finds a number of topics that are just tremendously fun—books that would catch your eye on a Barnes & Noble shelf and convince you to take them home. “The Lost Laugh: American Comedy Between the World Wars.” “A History of Wiretapping in the United States.” “A Scissor, A Shoe, The Sidewalk’s Slant: Disability and the Unlikely Origins of Everyday Things.” “Howard Hughes, the CIA, and the Untold Story Behind Their Hunt for a Sunken Soviet Submarine.” I would read any of those books and a number of other potential titles that I have not included here. However, none of those proposed book titles belongs to an Art Historian. Indeed, there is only one Art Historian among the recipients this year: Wanda Corn, a very distinguished historian of American art, for her project “From Local Folk to National Icon: The Three Lives of Grant Wood’s American Gothic.”
A look at previous lists of recipients pulls up a few photography-themed texts and another few art history topics. Bette Talvecchia, whose book Taking Positions: On the Erotic in Renaissance Culture I found VERY useful for a seminar paper once upon a time, won a Public Scholar Grant in 2015-16 for her project titled “The Two Michelangelos.” It proposed to examine the lives and works of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, greatest of Renaissance and Baroque painters, respectively, in order to illuminate the history of their eras and suggest “enduring meaning for our own culture.” James Henry Rubin received a Public Scholar Grant in 2016 for “Why Monet Matters, or Meanings Among the Lily Pads.” His intended argument is that Monet’s fantastic abstractions appeal “to something deep in modern consciousness,” and that they must because they were created during a historical period with such intense turmoil. There is one more project on the list of past recipients that is categorized as Art History, but the author is a Communications professor, Kembrew McLeod, who proposes to examine the DIY aesthetic of 1960s and 1970s New York. It’s called “The Pop Underground: Downtown New York’s Converging Arts Scenes in the 1960s and 1970s.”
If I’m being honest, there’s only one of those four projects that excites me, and it’s the one that is not by a self-identified Art Historian. I certainly believe that Rubin’s take on Monet will be meaningful, and I would go so far as to say that many people will find it useful to understand that Monet didn’t just paint water lilies, cathedrals, and haystacks to convey their beauty. I’m sure a book about the Michelangelos will find an audience, and I have also greatly respected Wanda Corn’s previous work. And I wonder if there were other applications from Art Historians that were not selected for funding, or I wonder if Art Historians view museum catalogues as their primary means of reaching wider audiences. I also wonder if my field has not been brave enough to move forward into the public realm.
Art Historians have been chafing against the confines of survey courses for years, lamenting the fact that, to cover 3,000 years of visual expression in two semesters, you hit the highlights. The geniuses! They’re crowd pleasers for a reason, but I would suggest that another book on Michelangelo is not the best way to indicate what Art History, as a field, can do. Where are the visual culture projects, the ones that have direct resonance with what mainstream readers see every day? Where are the projects about the artists working the margins, the ones whose work ends up giving us new ways to see our geniuses? It’s fine to have geniuses, but not to worship them to the exclusion of everyone else. I admit that even I have a copy of that Van Gogh biography from a few years ago that proposed, on the basis of John Rewald’s original notes and a few other sources, that Van Gogh had actually been shot accidentally and had not committed suicide. If that were true, that would be an example of why a new biography could be good. I’m not sure supporting new biographies of our great geniuses actually abets new research, no matter how smart the author is.
I want to see books by Art Historians that have the same bestselling potential as “A History of Wiretapping in the United States,” which will draw immense interest between current events and everyone who’s ever seen The Wire, a seriously learned crew. There must be some topic in the history of art that could drive that kind of interest without capitalizing on the worst clichés of the field. To me, McLeod’s book seems interesting because it will certainly talk about art, but also the broader cross-section of society that influenced the art and vice versa. I wish that I could offer more concrete suggestions for projects I wish had been proposed, but I’m a person who wrote my entire dissertation because I was mad it didn’t already exist. So I hope I’ll know a good Public Scholar project when I see it.