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Dr. Roann Barris
Department of Art Chair
Art History, Professor
B.A., University of Michigan
Ph.D., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
One of the frustrating questions that art historians get asked is, “what do you make?” The person asking the question usually wants to know whether I’m a painter, a sculptor, an artist who makes things... I’m not, so I usually answer that question by saying “I write about art.” And it goes without saying that I also teach the history of art.
Generally my teaching practices involve considerable use of digital media and web material – I’ve been multimedia for a long time. It’s a challenge lately to try to make art history seem relevant, and media helps, but it’s not the solution, especially when the latest romantic heroes in best sellers and movies are art historians engaged in searching for the answers to mysterious, ancient Christian rituals. But why not use these in class as opportunities to question the role of narrative in critical interpretations and to suggest that every interpretation is fictional? Still, in history as in literature, some plots are better than others.
I’ve been traveling more in the past few years and this has had an impact on my teaching. Most obviously, it’s much easier to talk about how brilliant or exciting a work of art is when you’ve seen it in person rather than in a textbook or online. Less obvious are the connections we can make between the lived context of the work of art and how that work “fits” – something you can never get from a book, maybe a little bit from a movie, and only rarely from a class. But as I travel more, my goal is to bring that lived perspective into the classroom as often as possible. I love teaching and I love what I teach but I also love doing research.
The area I have studied for as long as I’ve been an art historian is Russian art and theater in the 1920s. I was initially drawn to this area because of my desire to study a period of revolution – revolution in both art and life -- and certainly Russia met this desire. When I began, I had no idea how consuming this passion would become and that it would truly dominate my work almost forever. When I choose to look away from Russia, I find that I am drawn to questions about disturbing imagery, attempts made to suppress art, and artists’ responses to those attempts. Some of my most recent work concerns memorials to unsettling events (the Berlin memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in particular) and representations of female slaves in American art. As different as these may seem, they are united by an emphasis on the audience (as is all of my work). In short, art and the public’s responses to it together have a lot to teach us about society. My goal as an art historian is to examine the implications of that fact.