14th December 2020

Book in Focus

Engaging Art

Essays and Interviews form Around the Globe

By Roslyn Bernstein

Cambridge Scholars Publishing are delighted to launch our new author-penned 'Book in Focus' blog series, wherein we invite members of our author community to share some thoughts on their work with us. In this edition, Professor Roslyn Bernstein reflects on her 'Life as a Cultural Journalist' and how this resulted in her wonderful book, Engaging Art: Essays and Interviews from Around the Globe.

My Life as a Cultural Journalist

Let me begin by breaking one of my own cardinal rules, one that I always told my undergraduate writing students: Do not tell the reader what you are not going to do. Rather, tell the reader what you are going to do: where you are going, and why.

Broken rule NUMBER ONE: I am not a critic, and I do not want to be a critic. There are more than enough critics in the world, especially in the visual arts. 

I am, however, an arts and culture journalist—a writer whose passion lies in deep reporting, in tracking the history and context of an artist or an exhibit, an arts issue or an arts organization. Often, I try to answer difficult questions: Why does an artist set off on a certain path? Why does a curator resist local or government censorship to mount a controversial exhibition? What provokes arts activists to take on powerful authorities? Why do certain artists focus on public art and architecture rather than on commercial venues?

Over the past decades, in print and online, in books and in articles, I have pursued many of these off-the-beaten-path narratives with political and economic overtones; stories frequently missed by the mainstream art press. 

Much like a detective piecing together clues, I have tracked down curators and artists around the globe, in an effort to unearth how and why they do their work. I have interviewed them in their homes and in their studios, and I have followed them around the galleries as they talked about their work. I have spoken to art professionals who fund programs and art activists who fight for funding. Always, my goal is to create a rich tapestry that provides readers with an in-depth understanding of the art and the artist.

Engaging Art is a collection that includes 60 articles written for such venues as Guernica MagazineHuffington Post, and Tablet. It is divided into five sections—Art and Politics; Artist Spaces (studios, centers, and communities); Denizens of Downtown NYC; Art and Photography; and Reporting with a Personal Outlook.

What follows is a little preview of several of the exciting reporting pieces that I included in this book.

In Chapter 4, “Between Underground and Above,” I trace my 1,100 mile trek from north to south to explore the contemporary art scene in Vietnam. The trip began in Hanoi with an interview with Suzanne Lecht, dubbed by many as Hanoi’s “original art dealer.” Research had led me to Lecht, whose gallery was then housed in her home, a typical White Thai house on stilts that she had brought down from a mountain village and set on a new base in the city.

I knew little about the history of contemporary art in Vietnam and Lecht knew a great deal. She was a superb resource, tracing the history of contemporary art in the country she had called her home for decades. As a cultural journalist, I have learned that finding the right source early on is crucial to the success of one’s story. Especially valuable to me was Lecht’s deep understanding of the intricacies of government censorship of the arts. As I continued reporting the story, several Vietnamese artists and gallerists confirmed her words. One Vietnamese-American artist, Phi Phi Oanh, described how her Black Box series—coffin-like boxes where the lids were paintings that might have been censored as problematic—eluded the censors because the works were seen as over-sized coffins. Throughout the country, artists commented on how easy, how not-so-easy or how downright difficult dealing with authorities was for artists. 

Phi Phi Oanh, Lacquered Projector

I spent several years doing cultural reporting in Pittsburgh, PA, a former Rust Belt American city which had gone through a dramatic decline, but which ultimately emerged as a vibrant community where there were abundant jobs for college graduates and where culture was thriving. Among the many stories that I wrote about the city was Chapter 23, “Museum as Laboratory,” an in-depth look at the modernist past of the city’s architecture based on an exhibit at the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art. This time around, my essential source was Raymund Ryan, the Center’s curator, who introduced me to Rami el Samahy, a Boston-based architect who worked with Ryan on the show. El Samahy walked me through the exhibit, commenting on every detail and answering all of my questions about their architectural dig into the city’s modernism. Critics rarely get to understand this dimension of an exhibit; cultural reporters often do. 

First person interviewing transforms my work from an opinion piece into a thoughtful investigative essay. This is certainly true of studio visits where I am able to see the artist at work. A subway ride up to the Harlem-based home/studio of photographer Shawn Walker (Chapter 52: “Shawn Walker, Cultural Anthropologist”) provided me and my readers with remarkable insight into Walker, who told me that the camera saved him “from the pull of the streets.”

Shawn Walker at Home

Moving through his home involved shifting from one collection to another—clocks on his kitchen walls, wood carvings on a side table, African masks, paintings and photographs. Walker was a founding member of the Kamoinge Photography Workshop, a collective of African American photographers which he calls his “Sorbonne.” He is 80 years old now, and his archive has recently been purchased by the Library of Congress. A major exhibit of Kamoigne art, originally up at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, was displayed at the Whitney Museum in New York City through November, 2020.

Engaging Art is a book that is full of surprises. The photographs of poet Allen Ginsberg. The public architecture of Giancarlo Mazzanti. Artistic squats in Paris. Political exhibits in Colombia.

At a moment when art lovers cannot travel the world, they can do so in my book.

Roslyn Bernstein is a Professor Emerita in the Department of Journalism and the Writing Professions at Baruch College of the City University of New York. She holds a PhD in English Literature, and was the founding Director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program at Baruch College. She is the author of Boardwalk Stories, a collection of 14 fictional tales set from 1950 to 1970, and the co-author of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo, written jointly with the architect Shael Shapiro. Since the 1980s, she has been reporting from around the globe for such print publications as the New York Times, Newsday, the Village Voice, New York Magazine, Parents, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has also reported for various online publications, including Medium, Tablet, Huffington Post, and Guernica, focusing primarily on cultural reporting and contemporary art, with in-depth interviews of artists, curators, and gallerists.

Engaging Art: Essays and Interviews from Around the Globe is available now in Hardback, Paperback, and Ebook formats. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout for a 25% discount.

For those hoping to learn more about Roslyn's life and work, you can visit her website.

All photos have been reproduced with the kind permission of Shael Shapiro. You can read more about his work by clicking here.