Interview with Thomas E. Crow
Interview conducted by Isabella Boorman (MA 2016)
So, to begin with, how does it feel to be an Honorary Graduate of The Courtauld Institute of Art this year, in 2016?
It’s a wonderful honour and all the more gratifying because of the seven years my family and I spent in the UK when I was teaching at Sussex in the 1990s. That was a terrific time for us, and I’m grateful for the generosity of friends and the kind of intellectual exchanges I wouldn’t have found anywhere else. That gives this occasion special meaning.
What does The Courtauld Institute of Art mean to you?
The Courtauld is the home of colleagues I very much value and an institution that has shown how a great legacy programme can change and renew itself.
What current projects are you researching and working on at the moment?
The main task in front of me is completing the talks that I’ll be as giving as Paul Mellon Lecturer at the National Gallery this coming January. For the moment I’m giving them the title, “Modernists and Others in Postwar London: Style, Music, Art, and Intellect”. The Intellect part is the best word I could think of for the emergence of cultural studies and the new art history, which I see as bound up with art making and its correlates.
You studied your PhD under the teachings of T. J. Clark and O. K. Werckmeister, and after graduating in 1978, your book Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris was published shortly after in 1985, for which you were awarded the Eric Mitchell Prize. To what extent do you feel these early experiences in art history have impacted your career since?
I don’t think I could have had a better postgraduate formation than what was uniquely available at UCLA. Tim Clark’s arrival just as I was starting opened up perspectives that nobody in the United States had seen before. Far from being narrowing around any particular Left perspective, he contrasting combination of Werckmeister and Clark offered tools for expanding art history in unforeseen directions. The recognition that Painters and Public Life received came at a moment when I had good reason to feel very isolated in the face of the American old guard. I believe it helped other younger art historians see through that resistance, which quickly ceased to matter.
After having such a highly distinguished career as an Art Historian, if you had to pick any, what would you describe as your most prominent career highlights?
I would genuinely say that the years I spent at Sussex, what I learned and how I felt I was able to grow. I owe a lot to Marcia Pointon and John Barrell for opening that door. Emulation, the Rise of the Sixties, Modern Art in the Common Culture, and The Intelligence of Art were all written while I was at Sussex. More recently, it would be the sympathetic company of colleagues and students at the Institute of Fine Arts, along with the opportunity to give both the Andrew Mellon Lectures in Washington and shortly the Paul Mellon Lectures in London. Re-immersion in teaching and advising while doing my best to communicate in these public forums has I think taken my work to a new place.
During the first part of your academic career, you focused closely on eighteenth and nineteenth-century French art, then in recent years you have turned to focus further on modern and contemporary American art. Why was it that you decided to shift your research towards this area of art history?
It was a shift I embraced, but it wasn’t entirely in my hands. Before the positive reception of Painters and Public Life occurred, it was proving impossible for me to receive any fellowship support for further work abroad. Having written the essay “Modernism and Mass Culture” as a kind of sidebar along the way, people in the later modern field were far more receptive and encouraging, so there were lots of opportunities to pursue work that didn’t require long periods away from home, and I could also stay close to a young family. But I returned to earlier art for the Washington Mellon Lectures, which were on the theme of European art in the post-Napoleonic Restoration, and that will shortly be in press.
You were Director of the Getty Research Institute from 2000 to 2007, how would you describe this experience for you?
It was a remarkable experience for seven years of dreaming up projects and events, then having the means to realize them. It was possible to assemble many people I admired in various fields to be Getty Scholars in residence and connect them into the artist and intellectual life of Los Angeles. The GRI had a large and wonderful staff doing all manner of creative endeavours, including building a major research collection.
You have been working as the Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts since 2007, how have you found this position?
Everything has been positive about coming to the Institute and NYU, having all the support I needed from the university and our faculty, bringing the ambitions I had for the GRI to the teaching and advising of a significantly large number of postgraduate students. There was a finite amount to be accomplished working with one’s peers in a think tank setting but no limits to how young people can transform what’s possible.
Are there any tips you would give to any aspiring art history students?
Be confident and optimistic. Don’t listen to the doom saying about the future of the humanities. The visual arts as a broad component of the culture are only expanding, while other subjects grouped under the humanities are static or contracting. Their difficulties are their own concern. Opportunities will be there for you.
And finally, a question to finish, what are your plans for the future? Are there any other research areas of art history which you are keen to explore further?
That one I’d like to pass on. The book versions of both Mellon series are going to be occupying me for as far as I can see ahead. New directions arise out of that kind of work that can’t be foreseen. I’ve always been happy with that kind of uncertainty.