Chelsy Monie: Embracing Radical Openness in the Classroom

During the fall semester of 2020, I enrolled in ARTHIST 590R as a program requisite. The seminar was similar to other methods courses I had previously experienced as an undergraduate student at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, and as a master’s student at SOAS University of London in the United Kingdom. Although each course offered a distinct experience, they all aimed to equip young art historians with specific analytical and methodological tools for examining visual cultures around the world. In the fall 2020 methods seminar, Gagliardi encouraged me and other students to consider the future of art history as the group discussed and grappled with the discipline’s past. Framing the seminar as a dialogue across the past, present, and future invited approaches to the classroom from a position of radical openness, empowering each participant to be critical of art history, while still imagining alternatives for the future of the discipline.

“Radical openness,” a phrase explored by bell hooks in the 1989 article “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” offers critical language for confronting oppressive structures of power. The potency of the approach rests in its ability to transform marginal spaces into what hooks calls “[realms] of oppositional political struggle.”1 ARTHIST 590R readings and discussions concerning the political implications of citation exposed me to radical openness. Elena FitzPatrick Sifford and Ananda Cohen-Aponte’s reflections on exclusionary citational practices in art history in their coauthored text, “A Call to Action,” especially inspired me.2 FitzPatrick Sifford and Cohen-Aponte propose a number of interventions to foster inclusivity in academia. They also reveal important ways to use citational practices as valuable tools for anti-racist work. I continued to meditate on Cohen-Aponte and FitzPatrick Sifford’s thought-provoking text throughout the semester, and the final assignment presented me with an opportunity to put some of their recommendations to practice.

For the syllabus I created for the final assignment, I proposed a thirteen-week-long course entitled ARTH 101: Looking at Bodies: A Study of Gendered Bodies in Art History. Through my course design, I sought to challenge the art-historical practice of viewing the human body as a mere visual element. To reiterate, yet further complicate, Linda Nochlin’s renowned question “Why have there been no great women artists?” I intended to explore gender identities beyond the male-female binary.3 As an intersectional yet reflexive starting point for novice art history students, the gendered body was placed at the core of my course. Fundamentally, physical bodies mediate experiences in and of the world. Individuals’ bodies are also contested zones fraught with the political realities of race, gender and sexuality, dis/abilities, ethnicities, and class, to name but a few of the myriad intersectional dimensions inscribed onto the body. Infusing art-historical methods with gender studies offered me the opportunity to take a generative perspective, promoting an environment in which abstract theories and readings can be applied to daily lived experiences.

In order to engage better with the messy, fluid, and entangled nature of art histories, I structured my syllabus anachronistically. I recognized that art history need not adhere to a neat and idealistic chronological telling of history. Instead, introductory courses in the discipline should invite students to engage with complex assemblages of ideas, histories, and visual practices, while also confronting foundational theories and questions. My proposed topic for one week of the course focused on visual works representing or closely linked to four unique gender identities that transcend the male-female binary. The works were an image of a Hindu goddess linked to the Hijra community in India; an image by Dayna Danger (Fig. 1) and a painting by Kent Monkman, both of whom are Indigenous Two-Spirit artists from Canada; and a self-portrait by Yuki Kihara, an artist of Japanese and Samoan descent. I selected the artworks based on my own politics of citation, prioritizing the voices of authors who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color. Following FitzPatrick Sifford and Cohen-Aponte’s recommendations, I became aware that including the voices of underrepresented peoples is only a single part in a challenging process of producing scholarship that is inclusive, generative and equitable, and that privileges an anti-racist perspective. My subsequent reevaluation of my own citational politics led me to disrupt the art-historical practice of prioritizing and canonizing a single voice by synthesizing multiple perspectives across various cultural realities.

Person with stereotypical female body holding skull of large deer in front of their genitals with an antler in each hand
Dayna Danger, Adrienne, 2017, photograph (© Dayna Danger; image provided by the artist)

Fundamentally, Gagliardi’s pedagogical approach provided a necessary starting point for me to cultivate a realm of oppositional struggle and to pose questions as well as challenge the foundations of art history that participants in ARTHIST 590R studied throughout the semester. By contrast, my previous studies favored a broad but shallow study of art history that did not accommodate an investigation of the unstable yet politically charged significance of gender in visual culture. My syllabus attempted to bridge a noticeable gap that I had experienced throughout my academic career as well as introduce future students to a continuous process of questioning and confronting the discipline. It was just as important for me to acknowledge the collective effort of imagining more inclusive and multidimensional futures for art history.

For the introduction to this three-part article, click here; to read Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi’s contribution, click here; Faith Kim’s contribution can be found here; and to read the conclusion, click here.

  1. bell hooks, “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 36 (1989): 15–23.
  2. Elena FitzPatrick Sifford and Ananda Cohen-Aponte, “A Call to Action,” Art Journal 78, 4 (2019): 118–22.
  3. Linda Nochlin, “From 1971: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” ARTnews, May 30, 2015 (1971).