This is one of a series of articles that were commissioned in January 2018 in association with For Art History, but due to some unforeseen circumstances, have not been able to be published until now. As such, this interview was conducted in December 2017, while Dr Susannah Walker was a lecturer at University College London. In 2018, Sue is taking a break from teaching to work on the British Museum’s Cruikshank collection.
When the Association for Art History asked TabloidArtHistory to create content around the intersections of pop culture and art history back in 2017, I immediately thought about my former lecturer, Dr Susannah Walker. In my third year of undergraduate studies at University College London, I took an additional second year module on Romanticism, led by Sue. While discussing the wider cultural context of an art movement, or bringing in some pop culture references in the classroom wasn’t at all that strange to me as an undergraduate at UCL, no one brought pop culture into the classroom quite like Sue did. Alexander McQueen and Adam and the Ants were studied along David, Gericault and Friedrich, and Jeremy Deller The Posters Came From the Wallgave us a contemporary parallel to the rise of fan culture in late 18th/early 19th century France. Pop culture wasn’t only a one-dimensional comparison, but seen as a cultural material to bare witness to the legacy of romanticism throughout history, looked at with both passion and intellectual rigour – a methodology which has no doubt influenced me when working on TabloidArtHistory.
In December 2017, I sent Sue a list of questions to inquire further on her methodology, how, and why, she decided to bring pop culture into the classroom. Although I received Sue’s answers promptly, I decided to edit them after I had finished my series on podcast and art history, and after sending in my thoughts on pop culture to Elise for her Rad Pop piece. I realised, through this strange, indirect dialogue brought about by the reading/editing/questioning, that there was a shared feeling, a shared place, many of my peers and mentors had been in. And while this specific shared feeling was difficult to discuss, when talking about pop culture, the conversation came flowing more openly and honestly. This feeling, this place, I referred to, could easily be described as the limbo of Art History, in which properArt History is the house you are looking at from across the field – you can see it, but you’re not quite there yet. As you get closer, you see the door is wide open, but you’re not sure if you can come in, or if you even wantto come in. And even if you did – is the door really open, how long can you stay once you’re in.
Elise wrote in Rad Pop:“Whilst these interests (pop culture) were hardly discouraged it was blindingly clear that within an academic art historical environment they just maybe didn’t quitebelong. It wasn’t that they didn’t get it, it was that they didn’t need to or want to”, and she adds: “It hurts me to think of the self conscious writer I was two years ago who felt completely at odds with the discipline I was so hungry to break into.” When I interviewed Tamar Avishai, from the Lonely Palette podcast, she told me: “before the podcast, I was really done with art history. I called myself an erstwhile art historian. I just felt burned by the discipline, burned by academia (…) and burned by the museum world.”
I took Sue’s class in my third year at UCL, and upon beginning that year I was sure I loved Art History, but I felt completely alienated by the practice – as if I was not supposed to like it, not suppose to participate in it. Loving Art History as a subject in itself, and not only as a way to engage with art or museums, was particularly strange to me, and yet I did love it that way. In the exact same way that joining and growing TabloidArtHistory did, mythird year gave me a strong grounding in myself, and in what I want to bring to my field. So maybe this is why I immediately thought about my former lecturer, Dr Susannah Walker, when we were asked to produce content for the Association For Art History – because I wanted to know: was mixing pop culture and art history the secret ingredient all along? The sugar and spice and everything nice that made me feel like I belong?
– – –
Could you first start by introducing yourself, who you are, what you currently do.
I am a Teaching Fellow in History of Art at University College London specialising in eighteenth and nineteenth century French and British Art. I am currently working on a book on George Cruikshank entitled, Cruikshank in Counter-Culture. I’m also an art practitioner and have regularly collaborated with UCL Art Museum on their Public Engagement events combining Art History and craft practice.
How did you come to Art History, and what was your motivation when becoming an academic and a teacher?
I’ve always been fascinated by history in a very visual way. I was born in Scotland and so my earliest memories are of very picturesque representations of the past with an emphasis on stories and imagery. I had brilliant history teachers at school and college too. I suppose that I began to strongly identify myself as being “arty” as a teenager and was always painting, drawing and customizing things. I found out about Art History as an academic subject on Art Foundation when I was fortunate enough to be taught by Barry Venning who gave lively and fascinating lectures on Manet and semiotics, which I still remember today. Art History seemed like the perfect way to engage with history on the level of images and cultural narratives.
I was motivated to teach because I found many aspects of academic work extremely challenging as an undergraduate! I was excited by the ideas, the imagery and the whole environment of university, but I found writing essays very difficult. It took me until the end of my PhD to really understand what I wanted to achieve in my writing about visual culture. This helped a great deal with teaching, it forced me to reflect on the process of learning to write and I wanted to pass that experience on. I have taught many inspiring and positive students which keeps me motivated.
What was your relationship to pop culture and art growing up? And what was your education’s relationship to it?
I was very fortunate to have grown up at a time when the barriers between “high” and “low” culture were being challenged. You could listen to music where bands quoted poets and referenced artists or used Dadaist and performance art strategies (as listening to documentaries about the KLF this year reminded me!). Music video and fashion had an incredibly strong impact on me. Here were immediate and accessible cultural forms where visual elements could be connected in disruptive ways. Music criticism and biography were the first texts in which I encountered writing that drew out the connections between contexts, creative processes and ideas. The fact that musicians, film-makers and clothing makers who I identified with were intellectually engaged was important. Feeling that I understood what they were trying to achieve aesthetically gave me confidence and curiosity to learn more about philosophy, art, history and literature.
More specifically, were there any spaces for pop culture when you were an undergraduate?
My undergraduate degree at the Courtauld Institute gave me a deeper understanding of the chronologies, materiality and contexts for images I was already aware of and introduced me to a huge amount of information. I really felt a whole world of knowledge and possibility opening-up and it was brilliant. The importance of situating what you have already encountered in a systematic programme of studying can’t be underestimated. I already admired Derek Jarman’s Caravaggiobut my degree enabled me to position that film within a wider range of texts and interpretations of that artist and those around him. At the same time, the relationship between art and a wider culture was becoming closer and London was a very exciting place to be studying Art History. The Tate Modern had just opened, Tracey Emin had recently been nominated for the Turner Prize and there was a great media debate about her work while artists like Damian Hirst had become celebrities. Finally, I was lucky to have had some amazing friends on my BA (many of them academics and curators today) who also recognised the important connections between academic study, personal identity and popular culture. The sense that we could useand share what we were learning in our own lives was one of the best things that I gained from that time.
Music video and fashion had an incredibly strong impact on me. Here were immediate and accessible cultural forms where visual elements could be connected in disruptive ways. Music criticism and biography were the first texts in which I encountered writing that drew out the connections between contexts, creative processes and ideas.
How do you define as pop culture? (today and/or historically)
I’m currently teaching a course about the complexities of defining “popular culture.” “Popular culture” and the idea of “mass media” or a “mass audience” are often used in politicised or poorly defined ways. Even the idea of a “common culture” that permeates everyday life has become more difficult to define as technology and communications are increasingly personalised. Furthermore, categories of “exclusive” and “inclusive” forms of culture are by no means unproblematic to define. However, I think that it is possible to think about “popular cultures” as being the broadly accessible terms of reference within a given place at a given time
What was your motivation behind bringing pop culture into your classroom? What logistics and methodologies do you consider when mixing up the two?
I am interested in finding points of access for engaging with artworks, ideas and histories. A rigorous understanding of an artwork from the nineteenth century can stem from the feeling that it somehow resonates with our experience today. As Art Historians, we are trained to be cautious about using later interpretations and reconstructions of historical material to avoid perpetuating myth and anachronisms. Although I agree with this point of view, I think the most effective approach is to engage critically yet constructively with non-academic reinterpretations of our archive. We have often already absorbed these ideas before we begin specialised academic study, so we should draw out and interrogate their influence on us. For example, I teach a course on London and Paris 1700-1850, usually many students have seen Sofia Coppola’s Marie-Antoinetteindependently before starting the course. It seems a great deal more sensible to analyse the conscious use of anachronism in this film then to simply close-down any engagement with it. If such sources cannot give us “historical accuracy,” then it is worth questioning what interpretative possibilities they do they offer academics and curators.
A rigorous understanding of an artwork from the nineteenth century can stem from the feeling that it somehow resonates with our experience today. (…) We have often already absorbed these ideas before we begin specialised academic study, so we should draw out and interrogate their influence on us.
Did you experience any resistance from colleagues or students about your decision? Or, on the other hand, were you inspired / encouraged by colleagues and students doing the same?
My lecturers and colleagues at UCL have always fostered an engagement with popular culture. Helen Weston, David Bindman and Tom Gretton established teaching and research that engaged with a broad spectrum of visual culture. The richness of their engagement with print culture was particularly strong and we were taught in the collections at UCL Art Museum and the British Museum as MA Students. There was access to Marxist and Feminist Art Histories at UCL and most importantly for me, the ideas of the Frankfurt School all of which gave theoretical justification for the study of “popular cultures.” The legacy of UCL’s Art in the Age of Revolutions MA teaching can be seen in Richard Taws’ excellent work on communication technologies in Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary France which he currently teaches in the department. One of my own BA courses now integrates the study of popular culture with methodologies for widening engagement and sharing research beyond a specialised audience in the present. I have been greatly supported in developing this by our Head of Department Alison Wright and UCL Culture, a department that coordinates research with the public outreach initiatives.
What do you think are the difference and similarities between the way we consume pop culture today and the way it was before in the 18th and 19th century?
The most evident difference between popular cultures then and now are often in aesthetics and materiality. The visual qualities of nineteenth century print and popular culture can often seem low key and it can be difficult to reconnect to their visual appeal after centuries of innovation in graphic design, advertising, computer technology and the moving image. However, may of the formats used then have re-appeared in new forms today. There are evident connections between the serialised novel and the soap opera. Nineteenth-century popular theatre already anticipated the West End musical while scrapbooking is echoed in “Pinterest”. In my present research, I’m looking at the multi-sensory book that incorporates musical notation, illustration and poetry within the narrative; Pierce Egan’s Life in London published in different forms throughout the early 1820s being a key example. The idea of having a range of sensory and entertainment possibilities within one object is part of everyday life now in the tablet or smart phone. Meanwhile, Robert Patten’s research has shown that the reception of Cruikshank’s work evidences many trends that are still with us, imitation and spin-offs always followed his successful works, his illustrations For William Harrison-Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppardwhich glamorized a criminal incited moral panic and his temperance series The BottleandThe Drunkard’schildren anticipate today’s media anxieties about addiction and mass-produced imagery that promotes self-improvement and abstinence.
Same goes with pop culture relationship to “high” culture and art, what has changed and what has remained the same?
The internet has been instrumental in disrupting the distinctions between what might have traditionally been termed “high” and “low” cultures. There is unprecedented access to information and an increased possibility for random or contingent juxtapositions of images and texts. As the last few questions suggest, newspapers, the illustrated press and later radio and TV have always offered this to an extent. However, the possibilities have been accelerated and perhaps recognised to a greater degree in relation to internet technology.
I think that this is already resulting in a powerful renegotiation of who controls knowledge in the academic sphere. When lecturing, I am strongly aware that a listener could “fact check” my lecture on a device or research links to the subject even in real time. My research narrative can quickly become integrated with information from other education institutions, advertisements or information from on-line sources like the Wikipedia. Some of the information may be produced by algorithms and corporations but the ideas and input of independent individuals who are posting on-line content will also come into the mix. The acceleration of access to knowledge has its benefits, it can make us more open and see our work within a larger network of sources. However, but it can cut down our “thinking time” and construct connections between reference points almost before we are aware of it. In this sense, it can undo that careful process of understanding mediations and reinterpretations of the historical material that we’ve discussed.
Do you think the different between “high” and “low” art/culture still exists? Did it in the past? Has it been for you, or is it still taboo to like both forms of culture?
Personally, I am open to any cultural form that makes me think and it makes sense to draw upon the widest range of sources. What might be termed mainstream “Popular culture” is problematic if it becomes so dominant that it closes access to other experiences. While I accept that this can happen, this interview has suggested that popular cultures can help to initiate us with new ideas. Today generations have grown up with Post-modernism and the combination of so-called high and low cultures has become familiar yet still fresh and exciting. This has been most apparent in curating where museums have become increasingly social spaces and exhibitions combine the old, new, “high” and “low.” The V&A’s fascinating Botticelli exhibition was one of the best recent examples of this.
However, I fear that there is an increased polarisation in how academic work is valued and the study of popular culture has been challenged in this way. With the increased promotion of STEM subjects, cultural studies can be devalued. Sadly, there seems to be a regular thoughtless disparagement of “Media Studies” today. This has potentially damaging consequences. Popular cultures be they broadsides, ballads, cinema or TV have an important role as historical evidence and are fundamental in retaining potentially overlooked voices. I fear that closing-down these avenues of study could make academia and the historical archive that we are preserving today less inclusive. Technology is also inextricably linked to culture. There are ethical debates around communication technologies happening today where learning from Arts and Humanities must be called upon. Moreover, the printing press, music streaming and electronic books are all evidence of an interdependent relationship between technology and the arts. Therefore, I don’t believe STEM subjects can be taught meaningfully without an analysis of media and popular culture.
A feedback I found regularly came back when we discussed your teaching with friends who had taken one of your courses, is that it re-connected us to a subject we had felt disconnected and/or excluded from in our first year(s), often because of our identity or backgrounds, generally being lower income / working class students and first generations. Do you think that has to do with the presence of pop culture in your classroom? Or with your focus on showing different methodologies in art history?
Thank you for your final question, I’m really moved by it and very proud to have played a small part in what you are achieving today. My use of popular culture to provide accessible terms of reference may have been helpful. I also think that my attitude to learning also changed a lot as my studies progressed. At first, I believed that it was all about being “talented” and “brilliant” whatever those words might mean! The more experienced I became, I realised that good research came from turning up every day, building up arguments and ideas from strong foundations, finding clarity and writing with a sense of purpose. These methods are available to us all and I hope to promote them in my teaching.
This last question was necessary – as I said, I had to know if pop culture and art history was the “sugar and spice and everything nice that made me feel like I belong.” However Sue’s answers opened up a whole new perception of the link that flows between pop culture and art history: how we engage with it today, how we have engaged with it in the past, why it matters and how we can inform our practice by looking at past and present “pop” – and that has given me a lot to think about regarding the future of TabloidArtHistory.
Chloe, Elise and I once joked about how we could each be one of the Powerpuff Girls (I’m Buttercut), and now I wonder if we didn’t spilled a bunch of Chemical X into the mix when we came up with the TAH recipe, thus accidently creating TabloidArtHistory in a cloud of multi-coloured sparkles. In this recipe, Sugar and Spice is the art historical practice – that is Art, History, and everything else surrounding it:our education, at school and at home, the barriers and the open doors, our social, racial, gendered and sexual identities, the resources available and those we have had access to, our own pre-conception, and our own learning and unlearning. But Pop Culture isn’t the Chemical X by itself, rather, it’s the mix of pop culture and art history, our reverence to both ideas, both field and material, at the same level, that is.
TabloidArtHistory has never been about an “either/or” when it comes to mixing pop culture and art history, instead, it seeks to champion an equal and balanced dialogue that gives credits to the weight both of these two play onto our lives. It is the epicentre of who we are for now, and it is keeping us grounded into our practice, our passion, and our history, and most importantly, it’s continuously reminding us of the direction we want to move toward. Taking both art history and pop culture seriously, but also passionately, gives each of these topics versatility and contemporaneity, allowing us to move freely into strange territories, and find stability in them. It allows us to bring in our creativity safely, to connect with the socio-political value of what we do, to challenge ourselves and grow from there in order to create a future art historical practice that our community and ourselves belong in.
WORDS BY MAYANNE SORET
FEATURED IMAGE: Visual for Harry Styles eponymous album, 2017 // Water Lilies by Claude Monet, 1919.