Start from culture

It's All Over The City by Wols, 1947Robin Kelsey, who hosts a series of informal meetings with students this term, talks about his role as dean, the history of photography and the art on his mind since the election. 

By David Kurlander '17

Last semester, I met with Robin Kelsey, the dean of the Arts and Humanities, at his spacious University Hall office to discuss his thoughts on arts pedagogy at Harvard, the election and his journey towards his present role. Kelsey is bespectacled, tall and calm, with a Minnesota drawl that makes even the most esoteric utterances feel downhome. He has served as the dean of the Department of History of Art and Architecture, published a number of works on photographic history and theory, and now oversees the faculty and curriculum of the 19 formal concentrations under the Arts and Humanities umbrella. He gave a brief rundown of his hopes to expand the Ethnic Studies and Environmental Humanities programs and provide further art-making space for students. On Feb. 2, Kelsey hosted the first of four informal noontime meetings with students (and cookies and coffee) at the Arts Café in the Barker Center. The next ones take place: March 6, April 11 and May 1. Everyone is welcome. In November when we spoke, it was just before the Harvard-Yale game and 10 days after the presidential election. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.  

When it comes to the elections, what do you anticipate in conversations with the humanities staff? 
I do not anticipate a divisive atmosphere, not because we are politically homogenous, but because I think there is widespread agreement about the general institutional mission of Harvard and the mission of our division. I think one aspect of that widespread agreement concerns the importance of inclusivity, supporting all of faculty and students regardless of their social circumstances or identification. 

Dean Robin Kelsey
Dean Robin Kelsey
How would you position the history of photography in relationship to the social media moment we occupy? 
There are some lines of continuity between photography and social media, including the democratization of the field of representation and communication. But I also think that there’s tremendous disruption. For example, for most of its history photography was associated with a belief in the evidentiary robustness of certain forms of documentation. That belief was undoubtedly not entirely defensible. But the turn toward a post-truth politics is fundamentally inconsistent with the worldview associated with photography for most of its history, it’s fair to say.  


Do you think the humanities at Harvard have a special responsibility right now? 
The arts and humanities have to play an enlarged role in light of this recent election. No matter what one’s political predilections, I think its clear that we have a divided country on certain basic political outlooks. And I think the arts and humanities have a role in rebuilding a sense of common purpose and common culture. I mean, political change is cultural change. And I think we tend to forget that. You can start from politics, but you can also start from culture. 

Has your scholarship led you to this realization about the relationship between cultural and political change? 
I’m the son of two anthropologists, so the relationship between culture and politics was a part of my upbringing. And I’m also a kid who went to public school in the Midwest – an urban public school with diverse student body – and I have always been aware of what a bubble Harvard can be. It’s been very interesting for me to have conversations with my elementary school and high school classmates when I go back to Minnesota and see what’s happened to their lives

Wols image
"It's All Over The City" by Wols, 1947
and their children’s lives. Many of the people I went to school with are from working class families and it certainly gave me some insight into this election. What has impressed me most is just how hard their lives have been – the opiate addiction, being forced out of working class neighborhoods in the city because they’ve grown too expensive. So they’ve been dispersed to various suburban communities that don’t resemble the suburban ideal or rustic retreat in any way. 

Has any art that given comfort of meaning in the last two months? 
The surrealists have been on my mind. The photographs of the German artist Wols, for example. Data tells you only so much. To understand humans, you need to understand their dreams. I also saw the Theater Dance and Media show – August Strindberg’s A Dream Play – and thought it was astonishing. They knocked it out of the park.