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Posted 06/04/03, by Tamara Steinert
By definition, art history might seem to be a discipline focused narrowly on the past. But Adrian Randolph, associate professor of Art History, believes the discipline has important contemporary lessons to share as well.
"Art history provides tools for looking at objects and deciphering visual symbolism," he says. "In a world that has undergone a visual turn, where many of our interactions take place via graphical interfaces, learning how to interpret and contextualize images is very important in learning how to navigate our complex visual environment."
Randolph tries to draw his students' attention to the particular social, political, and historical frameworks that shape art in every era. He contends that the Italian Renaissance, his major area of interest, ushered in a new era of art created for very specific political purposes.
"I'm especially interested in the role of art in public life and politics, not just as an illustration, but as a place where symbolic meaning is actively communicated," he says. Examples of this phenomena continue today, such as with the destruction of statues depicting Saddam Hussein after the most recent U.S. war against Iraq.
Randolph discovered his love of art history while he was an undergraduate at Princeton. His interests go beyond "high" art to other forms of culture. In his most recent book, Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics and Public Art in 15th Century Florence, he examined a broad array of material culture, including prints, small medals, and jousting flags, alongside public monuments and works of art produced by famous masters.
He has always been particularly involved in looking at the importance of gender in the viewing of art. Until recently, he notes, most studies of spectatorship were shaped by an implicitly masculine perspective. But Randolph argues this is historically problematic since women have always been both viewers and users of material culture.
Currently, he is working on a project about gender and spectatorship during the Renaissance, with emphasis on the female experience.
"Florence in the 15th century has sometimes been described as the absolute worst place to be a woman," he says. "Nonetheless, [women's] role in this most active cultural environment ought not to be ignored. By considering, for example, the material culture of the home and women's appearances at public events, one can begin to understand how women, though marginalized, might have participated in activities central to Florentine culture."
Randolph's study of art has made him aware that works of art and other material objects are far from mute; they just communicate in a different way than do texts.
"Art is like a bequest from history," he says. "It sutures up the cuts in time between us and the past."
- Tamara Steinert
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