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A Year for the History and Art History Books

Updated: Apr 4, 2021

By Ellen Maidman-Tanner

There is no way to escape the recognition that 2020 will go down in history as a momentous, sad year. The loss of life due to Covid was vast, and the recognition of the racism on which our country was founded, was everywhere evident in 2020 as well. (How many times in the last year was I profoundly thankful for cell phone video capabilities?)

For me personally, while living sequestered through this pensive year, I finally had to come to terms with how racist my family upbringing was. While never wishing black people harm, my parents and other relatives nonetheless saw black people as ‘other’. Sometimes words were used, in Yiddish, that were highly offensive but casually taken for granted. As survivors of terrible persecution, they should have known and done better.

Democracy Undefeated by Christine Zmuda

What does any of this have to do with art and with this newsletter? The events of 2020 helped me better understand something I witnessed in my first artist residency in the fall of 2019. Our little group (12 individuals) was made up of young and old, black and white and red – we had one Native American in our group. I remember thinking at the time, as we all became more acquainted with each other’s artwork, that the work of the artists of color in our group all dealt with color and the history of it in the United States. I remember feeling sad, that somehow this historical burden was resulting in a creative limitation to their subject matter and creativity.

I still puzzle over and grapple with the inclusion of political and historical themes in art. It is a tall order to try to capture the angst and sweep of it. Recently, thanks to Madison Bolls and Danielle Glosser, and the dynamic curator Philippa Hughes, a wonderful and highly political show entitled “Looking for America” was installed at Hera Hub in Northwest, DC. The themes of the works dealt with immigration and racism. It is a beautiful exhibit and a timely one as well.

We are witnessing the necessary process of the inclusion of female artists, trans artists, artists of all colors and ethnicities into exhibits, fairs, and yes, and at long last, museums. The art history books and online research will now reveal a far fuller view of art history. It must, because to ignore the evolution of our collective acknowledgment of the absence of so many talents, some surpassing the white male ‘greats’, is recognized as unacceptable.

Throughout the pandemic, I have been looking for gifts from it. This sad, violent, pensive time I believe, will result in long-sought changes in the world of art. I remain hopeful that the same will be said of the society we live in.

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