This month marks the launch of a new art journal with UT Dallas’ The Athenaeum Review, a quarterly print and online publication produced by the UT Dallas School of Arts and Humanities and co-sponsored by the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History (EODIAH). Under the leadership of Editor Benjamin Lima as well as EODIAH Founding Director Rick Brettell and Dennis Kratz, the Dean of Arts & Humanities at UTD, the Review aims to occupy a somewhat rare space in the world of academic publishing, with writing designed for a general audience, emphasis on interdisciplinarity, and particular focus on its immediate community, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
Glasstire contributor Jennifer Smart spoke with Lima about what readers can expect from the Review, the state of interdisciplinary writing in academia, and the divide between regional, national, and international art scenes. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Jennifer Smart: Can you start with just a bit of the origin story of the Review? I’d also like to hear from you about why you think UT Dallas is in a unique position or has an advantage when it comes to producing an interdisciplinary journal such as The Athenaeum Review.
Benjamin Lima: Rick Brettell and Dennis Kratz have the authoritative origin story, since I came aboard after the train was already moving, but Athenaeum Review was made possible by the amazing gift of Edith and Peter O’Donnell that created EODIAH. I believe that Dennis and Rick agreed on the need for a journal that would both be another public face of the arts and humanities at UTD, and all that is happening here in that respect, and give serious, thoughtful attention to the arts in Dallas, through publishing long-form criticism by leading scholars in a form that commercial media isn’t much able to do these days.
It does seem more common for a university to have a journal with a more specifically literary focus, as in Reunion or the Southwest Review, whereas our particular combination of fields is more unusual. One reason is that at UT Dallas, both the STEM focus and the interdisciplinary approach go back to the beginning of the university and continue to be particular strengths. In our first issue, you can see that emphasis if you read the exciting and provocative pieces by Ming Dong Gu on digital games and science fiction, and Charissa Terranova on evolutionary biology, sculpture and bioaesthetics. Another distinctive aspect of our approach reflects the interdisciplinary research centers whose directors sit on our editorial board: so we expect to have particular emphases on, e.g. China, Latin America, Holocaust studies, translation studies, art history and science, and values in the STEM fields, for example.
JS: Let’s talk about the continuing divide between the arts, humanities, and sciences in the way we think about history and the way we structure academia. What’s your perspective on the state of the field of interdisciplinary studies? Why is an interdisciplinary approach to the arts and humanities important, is it becoming increasingly important in your view, and how or in what way can an interdisciplinary journal of this sort contribute to furthering those goals?
BL: I’ll just try to offer a partial answer. It’s true that the whole system of academia rewards ever-narrower specialization with status and prestige: you have to publish your original research in the top field-specific journals for tenure and promotion, and nothing else can substitute for that. Therefore, writing for a general audience like ours requires some goodwill from the author: you have to do it because you believe in it and you want to do it, not because it will help you climb the academic ladder. But fortunately, there are plenty of scholars who do believe in that, who genuinely love their material and love sharing it with people, and will take the time to do it, even if the academic reward is not as immediate and well-defined as publishing a peer-reviewed article in a specialist journal. It also helps that we are freely available to the public, not locked behind a paywall on a publisher’s website.
But to put it another way, you could also say that when professors do succeed in finding a broad audience, it is almost always interdisciplinary in nature, ranging beyond their ‘official’ specialization. If you look at professors like Jill Lepore or Louis Menand in the New Yorker, they write about all kinds of things beyond their credentialed specialty; their readers simply value their intelligent, thoughtful approach. I think the same logic applies to ‘big books’ written by authors with an interdisciplinary range, for example Neil MacGregor (art historian), David Reich (geneticist), Yuval Harari (historian) or Steven Pinker (cognitive scientist), or even bloggers e.g. Mary Beard (classicist) or Tyler Cowen (economist). Inevitably specialists will find errors of detail in their work, and these authors’ specific conclusions may be quite debatable in any given case. But there’s still so much value in making the attempt, and getting the ideas out there to the public in the way that a narrow specialist work could never do.
JS: It seems from the table of contents for the first issue that while multiple disciplines are being discussed, they are still divided into traditional subjects and essays. Is there an intention as well to seek out truly interdisciplinary writing?
BL: I would take a couple of different angles on this. It’s true that the overriding goal isn’t to be either interdisciplinary or disciplinary as such, but simply to publish intelligent and interesting material— so that aspect is not set in stone. We do plan to publish interdisciplinary special issues (on themes such as “remembrance” or “creativity”) that incorporate the strengths of the respective research centers across the disciplines.
But I would also say that some of the pieces in Issue 1 are in fact interdisciplinary in truly fascinating ways. Just for example, Adam Briggle on Frankenstein touches on philosophy, history of science, fiction and drama (his essay reviews both the Dallas Theater Center production of “Frankenstein” and the MIT Press edition of Frankenstein annotated for scientists and engineers). Or, Diane Purkiss is both a historian and a literary scholar, and her essay on food history draws on both fields to go as deeply as you could imagine.
JS: It looks like the first issue will feature artworks. Will this be ongoing?
BL: I’m sure there will be plenty of refinements as we go along, although I would expect the strengths of the research centers to always be represented. Fundamentally, the review essays should be able to address the arts in more breadth and depth than most non-academic venues are able to do (e.g. in the first issue, Paul Galvez’s essay on “First Sculpture” and Rick Brettell’s on the Wilcox Space).
Alongside the print edition, our podcast channel is an ongoing series of conversations with some of the amazing guest lecturers who come to visit UTD, sponsored by the respective centers, and will naturally reflect the centers’ respective areas of focus.
And on the website, we have a different series of Q&As with different visual artists about their work, at greater length and with more illustrations than we have space for in the print issue. Readers who see and like the artworks by Lorraine Tady, Angela Kallus, Liz Trosper, Bryan Florentin and Luke Harnden in the print issue will be able to get some deeper insight in the artists’ own words, online.
JS: Your stated intention for the journal is to not only publish essays and interviews with leading scholars in the humanities, but also to devote serious attention to the arts in Dallas and Fort Worth. I understand it’s important for a university to engage with its local community, but this strikes me as somewhat rare for an academic journal. Can you talk about why you see this as important? And perhaps any challenges that might come along with including this in your editorial statement?
BL: Yes indeed. Fundamentally, research universities create and advance knowledge in order to ultimately share that knowledge with the public. Whereas a typical specialist academic journal focuses on the first part of that (helping specialists advance their own knowledge), we are focused on the second part. UTD already reaches an enormous public if you consider both its students and the audience for its public programs; we’re trying to extend that to reach a print and online audience that includes all those people who may be interested, but for whatever reason aren’t already physically present, on the Richardson campus.
JS: Is this regionally specific element something you’ve seen elsewhere?
BL: It is unusual for a university to do this, although not totally unheard of (Virginia has The Hedgehog Review); more commonly this is done by quasi-academic institutions such as the Wilson Center, the AAAS or the NEH. Certainly if you look at the mission of the UT system (to improve the human condition… to build stronger communities) or the strategic plan of UT Dallas (enrich the arts… establish cultural outreach functions), this fits right in line with those priorities.
JS: A regional art scene can benefit from its inclusion in broader discussions of national and international interest. How would you describe the benefit to those outside of Texas — to encountering serious critical discussion of our regional artists, academics, spaces, etc.?
BL: Not to be too simplistic about it, but I hope that worldwide readers who are passionate about arts and ideas will enjoy discovering the material that we share from D/FW as much as they would from, say, Reyjkavik or Taipei or anywhere else. I know that’s not really a complete answer.
Journals can do so much to create a sense of place in their readers. Even if I’ve never spent much or any time in certain cities, I can browse the pages of local journals and feel like I know something about the culture of Milan (Mousse) or Atlanta (Art Papers) or L.A. (X-Tra). When I came to Texas in 2009, the same was true for the journals here, which I studied closely before I moved here, and which is why I still mourn the deaths of Art Lies and …might be good, while remaining very grateful for the work of Glasstire and Arts + Culture TX (viva!).
Unlike those last mentioned, we’re specifically rooted in D/FW (rather than trying to cover all of Texas); while unlike the Observer or the [Dallas] News or D Magazine, we’re exclusively about the arts and humanities, and not a general-interest magazine. So I think we have a unique niche here (although there are a few parallels elsewhere).
For visual art, the online context can be so disorienting. If I’m browsing Contemporary Art Daily or Art.sy, to say nothing of Instagram, I often feel like I could be anywhere in the world — but most of the time, “anywhere” turns out to be New York, L.A., Berlin or any random art fair. I expect that many readers will come across our material in similarly random and decontextualized ways online, but I also hope that if they stick around a little bit, they will get a clearer sense of our area than they might in other ways.
I also wanted to mention that we intend to draw upon the many brilliant scholars in this area (as well as upon the artists). To be sure, the sprawl here presents a challenge for keeping the ‘conversation’ going among the academic communities at all the different universities; I hope that we can be a kind of ‘Schelling point’ (a Grand Central Terminal if you will) where people can stop by to see what is happening in different fields and at different local universities.
On our website each week, you will find a selectively curated list of the various different lectures that are offered by visiting scholars throughout the year in the arts and humanities at local universities. When you put them all together, you see that there is a fantastic wealth of public talks, conferences and other events in the humanities that happen here, yet many of them are only publicized within each individual university’s own community, and they fall somewhat outside the main focus of the major media. But on our site, you can see all the best of them at a glance every week.
The Athenaeum Review officially launches September 27 with a launch party at Interabang Books in Dallas, and a panel discussion on Friday, September 28 at the SP/N Gallery on the UT Dallas campus on the future of criticism. The full website with calendar listings, links to podcasts, and expanded content will also launch this month. You can subscribe to the print journal and sign up for the mailing list at https://athenaeumreview.org/.