Interview with Paul Duro
conducted by Randy Innes
September 28 2009
Randy: Paul you’ve made substantial contributions to the field of art history, art theory and the study of visual culture. You are currently a faculty member in the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester, and acted as Chair of the Art and Art History department from 2000-2006. Could you describe some of your current research activities and interests?
Paul: It’s appropriate that you mention my years as chair because for me they separate the contributions you mention into a ‘before and after’. Before, when I was working mainly on art institutions and what I call ‘frame studies’ – that is, the role of borders, boundaries and frames in the construction of the artwork – and after, when I’ve been interested in mimesis and imitation, the sublime, and the separation of the decorative in art from the ‘space of painting’. The last three, typically (and problematically for me!), are all very large fields. They have nevertheless given me a renewed sense of purpose as a researcher and teacher after what I think of as the interregnum of my chair’s duties. In particular, they all in different ways address the central question of why we study visual culture: what is the purpose of a visual image, what difference does it make to our perception of the world, and how might it contain a kind of knowledge that no other form of communication is competent to communicate?
Randy: The study of visual culture is now a practice that takes place in a variety of disciplines. It might be viewed as a gateway between disciplinary practices, or a methodology for an interdisciplinary practice. Where do you situate your work in relation to the field that has been opened by visual and cultural studies?
Paul: Interdisciplinarity is foundational to what I do, and of course foundational to the work of the VCS program and the faculty and students associated with it. It is increasingly what this university recognizes to be the key concept in contemporary intellectual work. ‘Inter’, however, should not be confused with ‘multi’ in this context. I work at the boundary of disciplines in order to reveal what’s at issue, what’s left unsaid, about their centers.
Randy: Could you elaborate on this strategy?
Paul: Recently I was fortunate enough to be awarded a University of Rochester Bridging Fellowship to the Department of English, which allowed me to work with colleagues and students in a discipline that has much to teach me with respect to both its methodologies and subject matter. Indeed, in the guise of supervising several English graduate students I was in fact learning from them, taking in their knowledge and transforming my own practice. Importantly, this for me is neither theft nor a melding of disciplines. I am keen to retain what I will call the ‘resistance’ of a given discipline, its integrity – what can and can’t be done. Rather I use the intervention as a tool to cut into the cosy prejudices and assumptions of another discipline – especially that of art history.
Randy: The field of Art History has some very established disciplinary practices, particularly when it comes to studying the history and art of the European academies. As a specialist in this area you’ve had to negotiate these practices. Could you tell us about how you came to the study European art academies? How have you approached what you’ve called the “unsaid” at the heart of western art history?
Paul: When I began my doctoral work I was most interested in the effects of government and power on the making of art. In casting around for an example, I studied the Second Empire in France, and how Napoleon III’s imperial regime manipulated state patronage for political ends. The problem was, the project became very much one of statistics, and that is not my forte! So I moved more to the study of institutions – particularly the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture – that was more flexible, and complex, with respect to its ideological underpinnings, and more open to analysis along Foucauldian and Althusserian lines. From that work I came to realize that what I wanted to say wasn’t open to the blandishments of traditional art history; and while I felt, and still feel, that I am very much in the mould of a traditional art historian, with a proper and sincere respect for archival work, humanistic study, and the situating of art production in its social and aesthetic context, I’ve got to accept that not everyone sees my work in that way.
Randy: How has your knowledge and understanding of this “centre” or methodological core of art history influenced your activities and teaching in VCS? Are there advantages to having a thorough understanding of disciplinary conventions when it comes to the interdisciplinary practice of visual and cultural analysis?
Paul: I’m hesitant to give a categorical ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to your question, but in my case, the answer would have to be categorical. I can’t imagine working in VCS without a sense of where I am. For me the discipline of art history grounds my thinking, allowing me to venture out to the margins of the discipline and beyond, but always offering a home into which I can draw back and test my findings. I’m being careful not to say ‘retreat’ here, as my understanding of a discipline is always based on recognition that what is supposed to constitute its center is unstable, volatile, and liable at any moment to collapse – especially if too great a reliance is placed on it. For this reason I think of art history as a home, a location, and place of comfort, but never a castle or redoubt to be defended. It will serve as a shelter only as long as it is continually rebuilt in accordance with the changing intellectual environment. These are the advantages for me, and I can only assume they would be advantages for others who felt the same way, but a discipline should never be a crutch, a faith, or a defense, and only those who are not prepared to work with change need worry!
Randy: As a graduate student with little knowledge of art history, I struggled in my research and dissertation to develop an understanding of certain aspects of the history and methodologies of art history. It was equally difficult to then identify and make use of relevant aspects of this understanding in the context of my dissertation. There were certainly advantages to this wandering but it was often accompanied by a strong feeling of homelessness. While VCS encourages and supports innovative research that may not be concerned with disciplinary knowledge or building a firm brick house, do you think it is important for graduate students to have a connection with a disciplinary field of study?
Paul: As my answer above suggests, it may be important, even vital, for some, but not for others. It all depends on your particular needs and perspectives. Visual and Cultural Studies is in the process of creating a new discipline. That some people are antagonistic to this aim is I think less to do with fear of adding a discipline than it is a defensive gesture of feeling threatened by growth. This is not new. The ‘liberal’ arts, the traditional subjects of the medieval universities and later the Renaissance humanists, never included poetry, yet later it was included willy-nilly while the visual arts had a much tougher time of it. That suggests to me that we should leave worrying about the status of Visual and Cultural Studies to those who think boundaries define a discipline. I obviously don’t and personally I couldn’t care less.
Randy: There are very few undergraduate departments in visual and cultural studies in North America. As former chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Rochester, could you comment on the potential for academic departments to introduce the interdisciplinary methodologies of visual and cultural study at the undergraduate level?
Paul: Really, it would be difficult not to introduce them! The discipline has changed enormously in recent years. To cite one instance, we no longer use slide to project images via a projector in class but digital images loaded on to a computer. The example may seen trite, but when the means of knowledge retrieval and storage, research and pedagogy are so profoundly affected, its hard to imagine any department not changing. They would have to resist, which takes me back to the defensiveness we were discussing earlier, and for sure they would fail to stay the same. That’s just one way of saying that change is inevitable. The trick is to work with evolution, to make sure you are a mammal and not a dinosaur with respect to technological progress and intellectual development.
Randy: The VCS program has contributed significantly to this process of change. Have the colleagues and students you’ve worked with here influenced your ideas and approach to the study of art and visual culture?
Paul: Yes, in a big way. I feel very fortunate in being at Rochester and part of the VCS program. In fact living and working in Australia in the 1990s I already knew of VCS’s reputation as the leading visual and cultural studies program anywhere. So when I was invited to apply for a position here, I did so with alacrity, as I very much wanted to be part of it.
Randy: How have programs like VCS had an impact on the way art and visual culture is researched and written about today? If you see a change, is it on a small or niche scale, or are these changes now at work within disciplinary channels?
Paul: VCS and similar programs in the USA, as well as programs like Trent University’s Cultural Studies Department, have had a profound impact on the direction of writing on visual culture. Of course, this is not to say that their impact has been equally distributed. There are no doubt departments where such programs have minimal impact. But it must be assumed that these departments are actively resisting change, and cleaving to an old model of Art History or English or whatever. I don’t think it’s ever a question of ‘niche’ changes though; rather it’s all or nothing in the sense that you are either influenced or you’re not. This isn’t a question of taste or preference; rather it’s a matter of a Kuhnian paradigm shift, where enough people are testing the existing paradigm to force change. There is only one possible outcome, and there’s no going back. Change will happen, and it’ll be across the board, ‘at work,’ as you say, ‘within disciplinary channels’.
Randy: Is there field of study that you currently know little or nothing about that you would like to explore?
Paul: Yes, but far too many to mention then all! One field that I have become fascinated by is astronomy. I’ve recently been working on Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting of a lecturer discoursing on an orrery, which shows a group of people engaged in studying a mechanical model of the solar system. Kant was notably interested in astronomy, and included many examples in his philosophy. Of course, astronomers are all competent mathematicians, and Kant was good at math. Unfortunately I am not. I can’t understand my son’s 7th grade assignments, so I fear I won’t get very far!
Randy: Thank you, Paul.
Paul: Thank you.