Esther Chadwick: The Disasters of Art History

Esther Chadwick GRD ’15 has been thinking about art for a long time. During her youth in Britain, she studied photography and painting, and when it came time for university, she read Art History at Cambridge.

Now she’s thinking about the discipline more than ever. In her fourth year pursuing a doctorate in History of Art at Yale, Chadwick is focusing on 19th century European art — specifically, the works of William Blake and Francisco Goya. In her forthcoming dissertation, tentatively titled “The Radical Print,” Chadwick examines the intersections of “high art,” printmaking and social critique in late 18th and early 19th century Britain.

But Chadwick brings together art and politics even outside of the library. In addition to her academic work, Chadwick recently began organizing with the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), helping to give graduate students a voice within the University. WEEKEND caught up with her on Tuesday to chat about art, activism and Lady Gaga.

Chadwick is currently a teaching assistant in professor Sebastian Zeidler’s class on Pablo Picasso.
Chadwick is currently a teaching assistant in professor Sebastian Zeidler’s class on Pablo Picasso.

Q. So how’s your day been?

A. It’s been good, busy with reading and GESO meetings.

Q. What have you been working on lately? What’s been your focus?

A. Well, last semester I handed in my dissertation prospectus.

Q. And what’s that about?

A. I’m trying to come to grips with William Blake. I’m coming at him less from a literary side, as most do, and more from the fact that he was a professional printmaker by trade and the implications of that for the rest of his work.

Q. Interesting. What have you been finding?

A. That’s a difficult question. The main problem for me is just how rich the traditions are that he draws on, and I have so much to learn. I need to read my Dante and my Greek philosophy.

Q. Hey, me too! So what got you into art history in the first place?

A. I have always loved art. I studied fine art in high school and read art history at Cambridge. What grabs me about the possibility of art is that while art history may not be able to explain history, you might not fully comprehend a moment in history without understanding the art. I think art and images are sometimes used quite irresponsibly by historians who perhaps aren’t as sensitive as they might be to the complexities of images, of how they work in a culture.

Q. And what do you hope to do with your studies in art history?

A. I really do enjoy teaching and I do hope that I could perhaps get a job at a university. At the same time I’ve been really inspired by the Thomas Lawrence show at the Yale Center for British Art, and I’ve regained my sense of how cool curating can be. My ideal job would be teaching at a university while still curating at a museum or gallery.

Q. Do you still make your own art?

A. I used to really love photography, but when you start taking something more seriously, it can be difficult to balance both. I think I’m going to be more usefully put to work writing than painting. I have a fraught relationship with contemporary art. I’m not entirely convinced that contemporary art can take a stance that is firmly outside the market. I’m also quite suspicious, with the cult of fashion and celebrity that is hand-in-hand with art, that art can break through.

Q. So what do you think about someone like, say, Lady Gaga?

A. I really don’t know. I recognize she’s an important phenomenon, but I’m really bad at following pop culture. I know I should follow [it]. I don’t take pride in not knowing a lot about Lady Gaga.

Q. It’s probably for the best. So who do you follow?

A. Another person I work on is Francisco Goya, and his printmaking. The Disasters of War from 1810 to 1820 were responses to contemporary society, stunning critiques of the visual world that did not really reach a wide audience at all. They are powerful visual statements, and I don’t see anyone doing that today, but maybe that is just because of my ignorance. Sometimes I think contemporary art is not where we should look, that instead we should look at film and news media for those critiques.

Q. Can you talk a little more about what was so special about Goya and Blake?

A. What’s inspiring about William Blake, without wanting to sound too clichéd, is that he had a sense of his own vision that nowadays is so hard to find. He had a belief in the power of his own imagination that nowadays is so hard to come by.

Q. Do you find that belief anywhere in contemporary society?

A. Yes. I’m very interested in GESO.

Q. And how do you see Blake’s vision in GESO?

A. It’s just that it’s so easy to take for granted at this University all the amazing privileges we have — and we do have some amazing privileges. But one thing we don’t have as a graduate student body is an official voice in the dialogue within the University, and without that, we cannot have a properly democratic institution. I’m spending a lot of time right now not really working on my dissertation, but instead talking about organizing. I do see it connected to my work on William Blake because he believed that people can have a vision of something that is better. Working for GESO means getting at the questions of how you change things for the better — and what you believe is better — and those questions are informing my work.

I’m also interested in the question of what radicalism means. Blake’s time was this moment where modern political radicalism really coalesced. “Radicalism” comes from the Latin word for “root;” it means going back to the root and changing things from the root. But it can be a very nebulous term, and it is so often used. It seems you have to use that term in every art history paper, especially if you want to be published in [art history journal] “October.” I’m interested in it as a word that suffers from overuse, and I’m hoping to historicize it.

Q. So do you think your interest in getting to the “root” connects to your interest in teaching?

A. I do. Teaching can be dangerous. It can reproduce assumptions, it can reproduce stereotypes, it can reproduce class structures. On the other hand, teaching has the radical potential to make people question the status quo and give them the knowledge that things might be otherwise, and that really interests me.

Q. Do you worry about art history as a field of study?

A. Yes. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with art history. Art history suffers from the problem that it is deeply implicated with art as a commodity, art as a status symbol, and art historians have a lot to answer for in not being complicit in this role of art. I do believe art historians have a real ability to step back from the moment, in the same way that all academics have that capacity. There’s a great Walter Benjamin quote — “There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.” That’s what I find so interesting about art. It can be at once absolutely complicit with the ruling class in the worst way. It can also be so wonderful, beautiful, inspiring. That’s the difficulty of art — how can something that’s so beautiful also have such a dark side? I always hold that thought in my mind. That’s what makes art compelling. It’s that tension that makes studying art compelling to me.

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