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Three Questions with Raffaele Bedarida

POSTED ON: November 2, 2021

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Raffaele Bedarida

Raffaele Bedarida, who joined The Cooper Union’s full-time HSS faculty in 2016, was promoted this year to associate professor of art history. Professor Bedarida has made important contributions in shaping and coordinating the History and Theory of Art program over the last several years and is now also serving as chair of the HSS Curriculum Committee. This semester, Bedarida—whose research is focused on 20th century Modernist art movements in Italy—teamed with Cristóbal Lehyt, assistant professor in the School of Art, to offer Sculpture: Arte Povera (HTA 313 F1/FA 393A I), a new cross-disciplinary course that combines art history with art marking. (Read more about their collaboration here.)

We recently spoke to professor Bedarida about his work and the direction of the art history curriculum at Cooper.

How would you describe your role within HSS and how has it changed since you first arrived at Cooper?

RB: When I first started teaching at Cooper as an adjunct in 2013, I was (quite typically) writing my dissertation and teaching in other New York institutions as well, so my involvement at Cooper did not go much beyond my courses. Joining the full-time faculty in 2016, I became much more engaged, especially with curricular choices. The two main conversations were, from the start, with my HSS colleagues on how art history could integrate with and complement our curriculum in the humanities and social sciences; and with students and faculty in the School of Art on what histories and theories of art would make most sense for the formation of artists at Cooper.

A major concern of mine was to ensure art history would not be taught as or perceived as a static prepackaged thing, but as a multi-layered discourse, which is activated, shaped, and constantly negotiated collectively, starting with the practice of contemporary artists. I feel that the conversation has progressed in that sense, but of course it is a never-ending process. Engineers and architects have been more and more interested in art history offerings, especially classes that push traditional disciplinary boundaries, so I want to work further on that.

Two years ago, with the Council on Shared Learning, which I co-chaired with Amanda Simson, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and Ninad Pandit, visiting professor in HSS, we conducted a year-long series of activities to explore avenues for interdisciplinary learning at Cooper. I don't think we figured that out, but it was a revelatory moment of self-study. One point that emerged quite clearly is that HSS is a crucial space for the development of interdisciplinary methodologies, pedagogies, and, more broadly, ways of thinking, without forgetting the rigor and deep knowledge that come from each discipline.

Can you talk little bit about your area of research and any recent or current projects you're working on?

RB: Over the past few years, I have worked on transnational modernism and politics. I have especially focused on cultural diplomacy, migration, censorship, and propaganda in the artistic exchange between Italy and the United States, first under the Fascist regime and then during the Cold War. This is the focus of my upcoming book, which will be published by Routledge in 2022. I am also interested in the intellectual history of exhibitions. A book that I am co-editing with Sharon Hecker, a colleague and a former Cooper faculty member, is entitled Curating Fascism: Exhibitions and Memory from the Fall of Mussolini to Today it explores the way exhibitions from the postwar moment to now have shaped our understanding and collective memory of fascism—a legacy that has dramatically acquired relevance in recent years with the rise of right-wing populism across the globe.

More recently, I have become interested in how orality and oral history intersect with art and art historical practice. It started out as I worked on a big archive left by my old professor in Italy, Enrico Crispolti, when he passed away in 2018, which consists of hundreds of audiotapes of conversations with artists conducted from the 1970s to the 2010s. But then it became a bigger methodological question on orality and modes of storytelling. As I taught a class on this topic, I realized that students were excited by this approach because it questions traditional hierarchies through which memories are constructed, preserved, and communicated. I am not sure yet how this project will take shape.

You now lead both the HSS Curriculum Committee and the History and Theory of Art program. What is your role in each of those positions and how do you hope to see HSS courses and other opportunities to study art history continue to evolve at Cooper?

RB: Coordinating the History and Theory (HTA) program has been an important part of my activity at Cooper since 2016. I consider it a privilege and a responsibility. Art history as a discipline and art institutions such as museums, galleries, and academic programs have changed over the past few years (though we may add too late and too superficially). The main challenge, therefore, is to expose students to the ongoing debate and help them to develop the critical tools to navigate it independently, while making distinctions between substantial issues and superficial catchphrases. Being at Cooper and in New York, we have access to an amazing community of art historians, curators, and artists who have participated in HTA classes as teachers or as guest speakers, bringing in a variety of perspectives, methodologies, and practices. A challenge is to avoid a specific kind of New York provincialism, which tends to ignore what happens outside of the city.

I am still pretty new to the position of chair of the HSS Curriculum Committee, so I cannot say much except mention the main ongoing projects. After the approval of an HSS Minor in the schools of architecture and engineering, we are currently working with the Curriculum Committee of the School of Art to develop an HSS Minor for art students as well. We are also reviewing our core curriculum.

What makes this committee unique is that it is the only place for faculty and students from the three Schools and HSS to discuss curricular planning as a group. That of course makes it quite difficult to lead but it also gives it great potential for exchange of ideas and cooperation.

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.