I want my students to understand that when art is disruptive, even offensive, it offers us the opportunity to break from old habits and replace them with new patterns of thinking and being.

Roger Rothman

A melted clock hangs over the edge of an antique suitcase in Roger Rothman's office, a gift from a friend who knows of the art history professor's interest in Salvador Dali. The clock sparks conversation and contemplation, which Rothman says is exactly what Surrealism should do.

"When I think about the significance of my discipline, and in particular when teaching my students, I think about the importance of being exposed to radically different ideas," says Rothman, the Samuel H. Kress Professor of Art History.  "Many artists of the past hundred years were less concerned with beauty than with challenging us to think and value differently."

For Rothman, the most important works of art are those that repel or disturb us. "Modern and contemporary art force us to come to grips with the fact that the ground we are standing on is a lot more unstable than we like to think it is. At the same time, these works invite us to build a new, and hopefully better, ground for us to stand on."

Rothman publishes widely on European modernism before the Second World War, with a focus on Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism. His first book, Tiny Surrealism: Salvador Dali and the Aesthetics of the Small, was published by University of Nebraska Press in 2012. He is currently researching Fluxus, a post-World War II movement made up of an international network of artists who were interested in blending different media and disciplines. He is also co-editing a volume on alternatives to the critical mindset of contemporary artists and art theorists.

Fundamental to most accounts of modernism is the idea of critique — the notion that artists should use their art to expose and debunk repressive regimes and ideologies. Rothman's interest in Fluxus lies in its opposition to such practices. "Many of the Fluxus artists, as well as those who have been influenced by them, were not interested in exposing and denouncing repressive forces," he explains. "Rather, they were interested in developing productive environments — however small to begin with — and then building upward. Their intentions were less critical than utopian and visionary."

When teaching, Rothman hopes his students learn from artists who actively sought to shake things up. "I want my students to understand that when art is disruptive, even offensive, it offers us the opportunity to break from old habits and replace them with new patterns of thinking and being. To me, what makes the study of modern art so important is that it floods us with ideas, often crazy and seemingly impossible ones, and in so doing inspires us to explore new paths in life — paths we didn't even know existed in the first place."

Posted Sept. 23, 2015

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