Professor Griselda Pollock: Graduation Speech 2019
Professor Griselda Pollock, a visual theorist, cultural analyst and scholar of international, postcolonial feminist studies in the visual arts, was awarded the degree of Hon. D. Lit. honoris causa of the University of London in July 2019 in recognition of her outstanding contribution to visual arts. You can read her powerful acceptance speech below:
“I cannot express how deeply honoured and delighted I am to stand here before the graduating class of 2019, composed of undergraduates and postgraduates.
I congratulate each and every one of you for your achievements and commend you also for your choice of discipline to which you have dedicated anything from three to possibly ten or more years of your intellectual life.
I also congratulate your family and friends who have supported and sustained you in these important educational endeavours.
I stand in awe of the remarkable community of scholars who have inspired and taught you. My congratulations to all at this time of celebration.
Garbed in this gorgeous scarlet that represents the honour you bestow on me today, I am minded to quote a famous feminist. In 1936, at a point when women were still not awarded degrees by Oxbridge, and under the shadow of mounting fascism and imminent world war, Virginia Woolf prompted all educated women to question their desire to tag along at the back of the grand ceremonial processions all dressed up in mock medieval splendour of what Woolf, in her class terms, named then the ‘sons of educated men’. She wrote:
For we have to ask ourselves, here and now, do we wish to join that procession, or don’t we? On what terms shall we join that procession? Above all, where is it leading us, the procession of educated men?… Let us never cease from thinking—what is this “civilisation” in which we find ourselves?
What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them?
What are these professions and why should we make money out of them? Where in short is it leading us, the procession of the sons of educated men?”
We are no longer in that position now. We are, however, deep in what Hannah Arendt named Dark Times. The values that underpin democratic polity are being undermined by both our enemies and our friends. The Arts and Humanities are seriously at risk in a manner unthinkable to those sons and aspiring daughters of educated people of Virginia Woolf’s generation, class and empire.
Far from being an isolated specialism confined to the bowels of museums and stacks of great libraries or lecture theatres of elite academies, art and its contemporary histories are now big business. Curatorial practice offers more pathways than shrinking academic futures.
These are challenging times for our subject and our field. Only a few years ago we had to fight hard to save an A level in Art History, which is, however, now taught mostly in private rather than state schools and not at all north of Watford, privator state. I spend a lot of my time defending and promoting the field and the subject of art history which now has had to create its own defence league. What used to be an Association of Art Historians is now the Association for Art History.
The fragility of art history in whatever form we pursue it is the outcome of the dominating ideology of excellence whose key instrument is value. Value entails measurement and calculation: it is the instrument of what we now understand as audit culture. The terms of measurement and calculation for culture now are overwhelmingly economic, financial, monetary. Art is now is traded for investment on a vastly inflated speculative market. Much is stored unseen in duty-free ports on the margins of international airports. With their vast financial resource a handful of commercial galleries determine the shape of our knowledge of art. It is they who build the careers of their chosen stars while museums dutifully follow.
In such a world what other values can we propose to our society by speaking through and with expanded, diverse and inclusive histories of art as we disinterestedly study world cultures past and present?
My relation to the history of art (the discipline) has been somewhat tortured. My often critical stance is not agonistic so much as interrogative (I really wanted to be barrister). It is not political but ethical. I think there are many profound ways to justify our subject and field, our analytical practices, our commitments to art, histories and creativities. Yet they all need to be perpetually questioned as we can easily fall into the trap of playing the value game and selling our subject short. Sure, art is now an economically thriving business, on both art market and through museums and their blockbuster attractions showcasing the international art stars. Sure, it contributes vastly to the economy through tourism and heritage. Far be it from me to deny anyone the right to idealize great white men artists with their ever increasing investment and sale values. Yet as part of the Arts and Humanities, our value as an academic discipline has been not only questioned but undermined, as if we represent a frivolous luxury that economically-realistic societies can no longer afford. If you want to waste your time on art, literature, history, philosophy and so forth, the prevailing ideology is ‘pay for it yourself.’
Yet, what disciplines if not the Arts and Humanities train and educate the future teachers, lawyers, civil servants, politicians, businessmen, in ways of thinking and of grasping the intersections between social, economic, political and historical change and human thought, invention, belief, delusion, fantasy and imagination? What disciplines elaborate the cultural memory of societies in all their diversity, their beauty and their violence? What disciplines situate our children in the many histories of humanity and the environment on which it depends?
As the Arts and Humanities are treated as a cheap surplus to urgent social requirements of societies guided by the marketization of all human activities, Art History can stand against this trend if we stop serving the fundamentally economic investment in the figure of the artist and the real and symbolic value of the artwork and focus on our field as a socio-historical method of analysis that articulates materialities, embodiments, processes of creation and the power of images in a society now saturated by, and enthralled to the promiscuity of digital image culture and its social platforms.
For me, Art History is the name for a transdisciplinary project that has taken me to the limits of my understanding of related ways of thinking– science, theology, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, economics– areas I never studied but now must think with. Once I disowned the bourgeois myths of great artists and a mythic idea of personal creativity – you may recognize my perpetual war against the mythic Van Gogh and other idealized and thus betrayed white artist-men–I learned to see the world with and through art made across of multitude of situations, perspectives, bodies, minds, agonies and desires. In my work I have struggled make known the art created across all the genders, sexualities, ethnicities and geo-political situations that have not been valued monetarily in order to show how they offer meanings and insights beyond value.
Since 2015, we have been called upon by the students of my natal country, South Africa, to decolonize our thinking, our curricula, our minds, our public spaces and thus our imaginations. Art history has been deeply implicated in the perpetration of colonial imaginary while also being a site for this probing, intellectually challenging, thought-inciting and psychologically transformative commitment to critical thought.
So, as you graduate with your well-deserved certificates of achievement at all levels, please ask yourself Virginia Woolf’s question: what parades are you following?
As I receive this honour from The Courtauld Institute, in recognition of what my graduate exposure to art history at the institute incited as a critical trajectory sustained over almost fifty years of dedicated art historical thinking, I encourage you to wander widely but always ask the questions that may place you on the outside of the comfortable but on the right side of a history in which not only the Arts and Humanities will be preserved. Perhaps with our help, we will use our values to ensure that the planet itself survives a looming economically driven disaster, when any kind of education, art or thought will become irrelevant.”
Professor Griselda Pollock
BA.MA (Oxen) MA, PhD (London) D.Litt honoris causa (London)