Justin Wolff: Presenting art as a common experience

Justin Wolff is a professor of art history at the University of Maine. He teaches courses on modern, contemporary, and American art as well as art theory and criticism. His research focuses on 19th and 20th-century American art and culture. Wolff’s new book titled “Rufus Porter’s Curious World: Art and Invention in America 1815-1860” was published in 2019 and accompanied an exhibition Wolff co-curated at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Can you describe the purpose and impact of your work?

Hopefully, my work presents the artists and artworks I write about as belonging to common experience. If my scholarship shows art and culture as public matters, then I have succeeded. I am proud of the fact that I have shared my scholarship in different sorts of venues, including academic journals and university presses, popular newspapers and magazines, and academic conferences and public libraries. I am suspicious of cloistered knowledge and am therefore pleased that my publications have been reviewed not just in art history journals but also in popular media, such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and public radio.

Could you explain the interdisciplinary nature of your work?

Like many others in my field, I research a diverse range of material productions including not only so-called “fine art” but also photographs, prints, amateur films, and literature about visual culture. To do so one must be interdisciplinary and methodologically nimble. As an undergraduate and a graduate student, I was taught that art history is driven by interdisciplinary inquiry — the discipline is really an open range where objects and ideas commingle. I study this range through the lenses of art history, American studies, literary history, documentary studies, political history, postmodern theory, and the history of science and technology. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I have found that curiosity is key. Most simply put, I am opposed to of false dichotomies — between high and low culture, art and the public, and intellectualism and pragmatism.

Have you had to pivot your process and/or methods due to COVID-19?

Yes, for sure. First, like all faculty everywhere, I have had to set research aside to learn new teaching platforms and technologies, and to develop new pedagogies to maximize learning in the virtual classroom. Also, I am just starting a new book project, tentatively titled “Terrible Sights: American Art and Catastrophe” and have been looking forward to making significant progress during my spring 2021 sabbatical. But because of travel restrictions, I will be unable to travel to the museums and archival repositories to conduct the research I had planned on. At the moment I am looking into how I can obtain digital scans of rare manuscript material. I love archival research — visiting libraries and reading rooms, and handling manuscripts, being buried in actual material — so it’s an obstacle and definitely discouraging to be on lockdown. But I am doing what I love and am grateful to have uninterrupted time for research.

What is the most rewarding aspect of teaching for you?

I love sharing my curiosity and watching students develop their own curiosity. It’s deeply satisfying. I also believe that good teaching is absolutely necessary. My classroom is a place where young adults can learn that art, which admittedly can seem far away at times, is in fact intertwined with the politics, ethics, and identities they are fashioning. Not only is art intertwined with these discourses and processes, art literally gives form to them – art materializes ideas, giving us new ways to experience them. Being with students when this becomes apparent is the most rewarding thing I do, because transformative knowledge is inherently communal. It must be shared, back and forth. Nothing I do matters without students.

Wolff continues to work on his new book project “Terrible Sights: American Art and Catastrophe.” This new research draws from literature on apocalypse and disaster from art history, literary studies, evolutionary psychology, and ecocriticism, Wolff says. It will assess how Americans have visualized events that challenge our sense of living in a “united state.”

Contact: research@maine.edu