Last week I had a Tate weekend - Britain on one day, and Modern the next. Tate Britain has a fantastic nineteenth-century collection - an expansive Turner wing, and all the Pre-Raphaelites you can think of in one room. There were some really great paintings there, but seeing them all together I was suddenly overpowered by the structures of disenfranchisement oozing out of the art. In this case, I was mostly distracted by their sexism, thanks to the Pre-Raphaelite obsession with depicting women of and in the legendary past. They presented a very particular and predominating view of 'history' and 'femininity.' (I'm using 'scare quotes' because these 'words' are fraught with 'meaning.') As art historians we're taught to examine the ways art reflects the culture in which it is made, but the discriminatory attitudes of earlier periods usually get written off with a shrug. Those cultures feel too distant, too different. The more modern works hit closer to home because they still seem in some ways remarkably similar to today.
Sometimes I worry about art history's irrelevance, but then I find moments of value like the above - it helps (me, at least) to look deeper at our history and culture and expectations. You learn how society is made and can be unmade - sometimes quite literally. The "Conflict-Time-Photography" exhibit at the Tate Modern covered photographs of major conflicts over the last two centuries, focusing on different moments of the aftermath. Lives and homes and landscapes were completely unmade. It made me want to cry, punch the wall, and throw things. I have been embarrassed by American stereotypes before but I have never wanted to rip off my nationality like a skin so much as when I was looking at the pictures of Hiroshima. I don't think there's a logical reaction to suffering, only a visceral one.
I go to these kinds of exhibits not because I am a masochist, but because I can't not go. It relates in some way to that George Orwell quote I left at the start: you have to know what society and history are about before you can do anything to change them. You walk out stunned, thinking, what now, what next? How do we stop this from happening again and again? How do we stop people from killing and oppressing on every level of society?
I said thinkable, not answerable.