SAN DIEGO — Shifra Goldman's lecture Thursday night at Mesa College will be part expose, part prescription. Titled, "How to Collapse 500 Years of Conquest and Border-Making into 60 Minutes," the talk will trace how the European conquest of the Americas in the 15th Century launched a process of domination that continues today in politics, culture and academia. Works by two San Diego-based art collaboratives, Las Comadres and the Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo, will be featured in the slide presentation.
Goldman, a self-described "activist art historian," has been trying to make a place for the dispossessed of art history for the past twenty years. Those left out of the history books have not been marginal, Goldman argues--they are the modern artists of major countries and continents, including Africa, Asia and Latin America.
In 1968, when Goldman proposed to write her dissertation on postwar Mexican art, her professors at UC Los Angeles were not amused. They refused her request for several years, until a new faculty member came aboard and "was willing to trust me." In 1977 she received her Ph.D, the first to be granted at UCLA for art historical research on a modern Latin American topic.
"I was an older woman returning to school, and I knew what I wanted," Goldman said in a recent interview. "They had to confront me. I'm an activist art historian. As an activist, you have to be scrappy, and it has served my discipline well."
Goldman, now 66 and teaching at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana, initially studied to be a studio artist in New York and Los Angeles, then became active in civil rights work before returning to graduate school. Much of what she does now in the academic arena of art history embodies the same concerns for justice and equality that motivated her efforts on behalf of civil rights. Hierarchies, like those that separate classes and races on a social and economic basis, are also deeply entrenched in the field of art history, placing the art of Western Europe, for instance, high above that of Latin America, or the art of men over that made by women.
"We really have to rewrite the history of modern art," Goldman said. "That's the tall order that many of us have set for ourselves. You have to insert the modern art of Asia, Africa and Latin America."
Without sufficient experts teaching such subjects, however, not enough art historians, curators and critics will be trained to write about such work and organize exhibitions of it.
"The ball is in the court of the universities, and they have not picked it up to date. Now there's pressure, and the system is under duress. Universities are looking for people to teach these areas, but there aren't people out there because there aren't \o7 programs\f7 teaching those areas. The people who work on these issues work on them alone."
Gradually, Goldman and others in the field are forging ahead, breaking the borders that she says isolate them from their peers. Her articles have been widely published in art journals internationally and her second book, a collection of essays, will be released next year. Earlier this year, the College Art Assn. honored her with the Frank Jewett Mather Award for distinction in art criticism.
Unfortunately, some of the progress that has been made in opening art history to a broader spectrum of voices has not been made gracefully or honorably. Numerous exhibitions of Hispanic and Chicano art toured the United States during the 1980s, but the shows came about primarily for political and economic reasons, Goldman said. These include "Art of the Fantastic: Latin America, 1920-1987," organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and "Hispanic Art in the United States," organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
She believes the U.S. government, through the National Endowment for the Arts, promoted Latin American culture to soften sentiment on its free-trade agreement with Mexico and to enhance relations with Latin American countries opposed to American intervention in Nicaragua. Major corporations sponsored exhibitions of Latin American art to take advantage of a growing Hispanic market, and such shows also helped fuel the soaring international art market of the 1980s.
"This was the decade of the modern Latin American art show, but the curators made lots of blunders. They didn't bring aboard Latin American curators to work jointly with them. They manufactured their own aesthetic and their own rationale for that aesthetic. It's a kind of arrogance."
How curators conceptualize, mount, organize and publicize such shows is all part of a continuum of conquest that Goldman said started in the 15th Century with the arrival of Europeans on the shores of the Americas.