Atreyee Gupta: "Art history, as a discipline, has constantly exploded and expanded what art is, what it can do, and what counts as art."

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February 6, 2024

For our next interview, I will be speaking with Professor Atreyee Gupta of the History of Art Department. Professor Gupta’s area of focus is on Global Modernism, and Modern and Contemporary South and Southeast Asian art. She is also affiliated with the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, and the Center for Race and Gender, and has been a professor here at Berkeley since 2017. 

Hello, Professor Gupta, to start us out, I’d love to hear a little more about your work in the History of Art Department. What does your research currently focus on?

I am an art historian, as you know. I work on the ‘interwar’ and ‘postwar’ period, that is, the historical period between the First and the Second World War—think Nazism, Fascism, imperialism, colonialism—ending in the decades after the Second World War—think the aftermath of the atomic explosion at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cold War, denuclearization movements, and decolonization. It is also in this period that the Third World takes shape, and it takes shape through various political avenues or political networks such as the Non-Aligned Movement, which was a coalition of 30 newly decolonized countries who formed the Cold War’s third front. It is now widely acknowledged that the Non-Aligned Movement was an epochal event central both to the processes of decolonization and the Cold War. As such, its roots go back to the invention of the Third World—or what is now known as the Global South—in the crucible of the Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, where twenty-nine newly liberated countries of Asia and Africa had gathered in the summer of 1955 to speak about international relations, sovereignty, and human rights from the perspective of the still marginalized. This is the political context that my research engages.

As an art historian, I am specifically interested in the intersection between art and politics, but from the perspective of the Third World. My research focuses on how the emergence of the Third World—and when I say Third World, I’m not talking about underdevelopment or poverty but I’m talking about the processes of decolonization that began in the interwar years and posited an epistemological challenge to the Western conception of the universal human subject during the postwar years with the aim of transforming the ontological limits imposed by imperialism on politics, culture, and life itself. I examine how the political context of the Third World impacted artistic and intellectual practices. In fact, many of the theories and concepts that postcolonial studies subsequently took up emerged during this period. Think, for instance, of the writings of Frantz Fanon and others. So the question is, how did this entire cluster of political and intellectual processes impact the ways in which artists made art or thought about themselves and their world? This is the subject of my first book, Non-Aligned: Decolonization, Modernism, and the third world Project in India, ca. 1930–1960, and my research more generally.

Can you tell us more about the term ‘postcolonial’? What is the relationship between postcolonialism and decolonization? What are some things that educational systems, specifically in the US, can do to decolonize their curricula?

This is the subject of the graduate seminar that I am teaching this semester, so it’s kind of the question. Let’s just start with postcolonial. As the word indicates, postcolonial refers to the time after colonialism. But postcolonialism is also a way of thought and a body of critical theory, ideas, and concepts whose genealogy can be traced back to the period I was describing before. If the word postcolonial functions in these two interrelated ways, it is of course also intimately related to the historical process of decolonization. Within the historical context of national liberation movements or decolonization, words like freedom accrue a particular kind of intellectual and political valence. Today, however, we invoke the word decolonization in very many ways—we talk about decolonizing the museum, the garden, the neighborhood, and so on and so forth. When mobilized in this way in the present, decolonization operates in a slightly different manner. 

So what does decolonization entail for our practice as scholars, educators, and learners? How is the present demand to decolonize the curriculum related to the historical context of colonialism? As you may know, decolonizing the curriculum was a movement that began in the University of Cape Town in South Africa with the toppling of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, who was a British mining magnate in southern Africa and eventually served as the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. In this role, he used his political power to expropriate land from black Africans, supported measures that effectively barred black Africans from taking part in elections, and engaged in the exploitation of the African continent under other guises. At the same time, he positioned himself as a philanthropist supporting education. He gave land to the University of Cape Town and he established the Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University for students from former British territories. So you can see how the very systems and institutions of education were entangled with structures of imperialism and colonial dispossession. Not surprisingly, when the decolonizing the curriculum movement began, it began with the toppling of the Rhodes’ statue.

Now, how is a curriculum to be decolonized? Do we just change the syllabus and that’s it? Arguably, decolonization is a little more complicated than that. For at least a good 10 years, universities have actively tried to expand their curricula and diversify their faculty. My own department, for instance, consisted of an all-white faculty not long ago. But the student body was not all white—-this is Berkeley after all, a university recently designated by the U.S. Department of Education as an Asian American, Native American, and Pacific Islander (AANAPISI) serving institution! But for long, there was a kind of miss-match between the student demographic and the faculty demographic. So is diversifying the faculty tantamount to decolonizing the curriculum? Not from where I stand.

Often, we tend to think that decolonizing the curriculum merely involves including histories, philosophies, cultures, and literatures that were formerly excluded or marginalized. But the fact of inclusion and diversity is also not quite enough. You’re going to learn more about the world, and more parts of the world, possibly from faculty members from diverse backgrounds. But that’s about it. From my perspective, this is not enough. Because decolonizing the curriculum must precipitate an epistemological shift via recourse to different methodologies, different ways of thinking about the world, and different philosophical traditions and analytical frameworks. For long, we have tended to take European art, philosophy, theory, and history as the norm and this has shaped disciplinary interests, structures of thought, and modes of knowledge production. I would go as far as to say that this Eurocentrism has become part of our intellectual habit. I understand decolonizing the curriculum to mean breaking this habit and learning to think in ways that we do not know already.

Art history, as a discipline, has constantly exploded and expanded what art is, what it can do, and what counts as art.

Something that I’m very interested in is the distinction between what is and isn’t considered art. It always interests me that there are many different definitions people have for the term, ‘literature’ and how there can be a lot of elitism and political associations with what does and doesn’t become attached with the prestige of ‘art’ or ‘literature’. What makes something art? What is the difference between an image and a work of art?

Art history, as a discipline, has constantly exploded and expanded what art is, what it can do, and what counts as art. For instance, in my own department, Professor Emeritus Whitney Davis has actively thought about visual studies, which is somewhat distinct from art. Visual studies encompass very many media—anything that’s an image. At the same time, artists themselves have moved in many different directions just as new visual technologies have significantly expanded the visual world. Through these processes, the zone of practices that count as art becomes bigger and bigger. At the same time, scholars broadly engaged in theories and practices of decolonization—myself included—have argued that mediatic concerns of art are necessarily intersectional and we must look far beyond the artwork in front of us in order to adequately engage the formal and material questions of art history. These may include questions of race, gender, sexuality, dispossession, domination, and more. When approached in this manner, sometimes we may find that artworks lead us to histories that we do not know already, not just histories of art but histories of the image, even histories of looking. I am, for instance, incredibly invested in analyzing vision itself and what it means to look, gaze, or see. I think it’s safe to say that art history may have begun with artworks but today it is really a discipline that is engaged with the image itself: art, yes, but the visual world that we inhabit more generally. This is a discipline that has proven itself to be flexible, expansive, and self-reflexive in so far as its methods, methodologies, and interests are concerned.

Art history, I believe, teaches us to see critically, which is not very different from reading critically. 

Another thing that I’m interested in is listening to different people’s perspectives on ‘how’ one should look at art. With literature, there’s lots of theories on how to be a ‘good reader’, and I assume the same can be true with visual art. One of my main questions would be, do you think the ‘purpose’ of looking at art should be to teach you something? I guess I was wondering how what you take away from art is affected by the way you’re looking at it. 

What you take away from art is affected by the way you’re looking at it, yes. We all look, but what we see varies. What you may see in something, I may not; what you take away from this visual encounter, I may not. Every act of seeing is distinct and different. But sometimes, art historians may help you see more than you previously saw in the same object, image, or artwork. This is why sometimes, in art history, we find the description of the object, image, or artwork shift. For example, say an artwork, or a painting, is discussed in certain terms in 1910. By the time we come to 1920, that same artwork is being described in entirely different ways, and now, in the present, we may think of that same artwork as something else altogether. What emerges, then, is a history of vision itself. Because the act of seeing is always already conjunctural, contextual, and therefore intertwined with social and political aspects. 

Art history, I believe, teaches us to see critically, which is not very different from reading critically. Where art and literature differ substantially is that, while in literature there are textual nuances and analogies and so on, the modes and means of the artist, broadly conceived, is different. Moreover, certain artworks may tell a story that’s dissonant from what we encounter in social, political, and economic histories. And sometimes images are able to convey politically subversive messages that other forms of expression cannot. An image has a lot of leeway: it can contain hidden messages, it can tell subversive stories, it can narrate a history that didn’t take place. All of these aspects are especially important to bear in mind as we are bombarded with images. And I’m not just talking about advertising and commercial images, but images of war, of death, of environmental degradation. Because we are surrounded by a dense image world, I think now more than ever, visual literacy is incredibly important. And this falls within art history’s purview. 

How has digitization affected art history as a discipline? And have you seen AI affecting your students’ scholarship yet? 

That’s an interesting question; but I think that’s a question that can’t be answered yet. The digital has impacted art history in quite substantial ways. For instance, we are now able to create 3-D models of monuments and objects in places that we can no longer visit. We can also create 3-dimensional objects from photographs of structures, or monuments, or objects that no longer exist. So the digital dimension can make art present again where it is not. The question about AI is somewhat more complicated. No doubt AI will shape art history in very many ways, but we don’t really know how just yet. 

And are there any ways in which the commodification of art has affected the discipline of art history? What are some things that academic institutions, or individuals within these institutions, can do to counteract this? 

Personally, I’m tempted to say we do nothing to counter the process of commodification of art. Art has always been a commodity. Admittedly, with the coming of salons, exhibitions, and the emergence of an independent modern art world, artists were no longer working for an individual patron. But even then, a patron was necessary. How else would an artist survive? So, I’m tempted to say, ‘Well nothing, we don’t counteract it at all.’ But with a caveat. There have been some studies—not a lot—that have shown how scholarship on particular subjects or artists ended up creating a market for a body of works. This is incidental of course. While the product of art history can sometimes create an art market, you cannot also control the ways in which knowledge flows. So I don’t think there’s anything to be done, except to be aware of this connection. That said, there is no outside to capital. The only thing to keep in mind is, an art historian, or a scholar, or a student is not a handmaiden to the art market. That is not our job.

What do you think a student who isn’t majoring in the arts/humanities could gain from taking classes in the History of Art Department? 

Art history is, at the core, an engagement with vision as such. Aside from ophthalmology and optometry, I think art history comes closest to questioning how vision operates. That is, what we see, how we see, and what we make of what we see. This is far more basic than art, in a way. For example, if you think back to George Floyd or the BLM movement, the question of race comes to the foreground. This question, however, has a lot to do with vision, which I take to be a site of intersectionality that mobilizes an entire social, cultural, and political system of epidermal-based assumptions based on a logic of the ocular. Criminals and degenerates, it is sometimes assumed, look a certain way. So, when we see someone, we make certain assumptions based on whatever it is that we think we see. Now, cultural or social aspects of vision really is part of art history’s purview. At the very least, Art History courses offer an opportunity to learn to see critically and to analyze critically whatever it is we are seeing. That is far beyond art; rather it’s not necessarily only restricted to art. This is something that every art history class offers, and it’s a life skill. It’s a life skill that you are going to use in every avenue of your life, and not necessarily when you are thinking about art. Art history’s beginning is through an image, through an object, through an artwork, but the conclusions that can be drawn have implications that go far beyond art as such. And this, I think, is something no other discipline can claim to offer. 

And then for my last question, what book would you recommend reading this interview? (Gupta recently adopted two dogs!)

The two books that I would suggest reading are The Forever Dog: Surprising New Science to Help Your Canine Companion Live Younger, Healthier, and Longer by Karen Becker and Rodney Habib and Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond by Alexandra Horowitz. The first is a scientific study based on years of scientific research in medicine and nutrition, the second is a more sociological perspective presented by a cognitive scientist and goes into questions of ethics, environmental perception, and so on. Both speak in depth about inter-species relationships from various perspectives. I believe that if we can re-address our relationship with the animals in our life—the “other” of the human—and learn to engage in meaningful dialog with them beyond rote commands, tricks, and treats, then we would have learned a lot, not just about decolonization but about the critical, cognitive, and sensory aspects of vision—the domain of art history—as well.