Finding A Niche, or, Dissertations Are Your Friend

It turns out I came all the way to the UK and ended up concentrating on an American artist. Go figure. I’m an American postgraduate student from North Carolina, and I completed my Bachelor’s degree there, but I grew quite fond of England during an Erasmus term abroad here, and that attachment brought me back for my Master’s degree (as did my general laziness–it’s 2 years for an MA in the States) and I had very little idea of what topic I might eventually focus on. An Art History Bachelor’s degree is a bit different in the States than in the UK. We have this crazy system where we’re forced to do a bit of every core subject. So even I, as an Art History student, had to take Intermediate Calculus. It did not go well.

With so much time filled by other disciplines, we don’t get to explore Art History with as much specificity in our undergraduate career. We’re taught a lot of general surveys, and a handful of topic-specific modules. We complete a few specialized research papers in our final years, but I never really got to focus on one area for more than 15 pages or so, because there is no undergraduate dissertation in the States. You may think “holy crap, that’s so unfair, I’m moving to America this instant,” but hold on. Uni is outrageously expensive in America, and a little practice in finding a niche in the massive expanse of Art History (there’s quite a lot of it) is not a bad thing, especially if you plan to continue to postgraduate study.

So, I came to Nottingham without many ideas of what I might focus on. I knew artists and movements I was drawn to, but didn’t have many expectations of where this program would lead me. I was welcomed by a diversely knowledgable faculty who exposed me to a variety of subjects and issues I hadn’t yet explored, and exploration was encouraged. I wandered around a bit, writing essays on Abstract Expressionism, 17th century Dutch painters, visual power in public executions, 18th century French paintings of cats (yes, seriously) and 1960s conceptual painting, employing various theoretical frameworks throughout.

Eventually, I stumbled back across an artist I was already aware of, and found a niche I could settle into. I learned about the African American painter Kehinde Wiley briefly during my BA, and had seen a couple of his works in museums back home, but he seemed different. The training I’d received in Nottingham cast his work in a new light for me. I was now able to engage with his complex paintings not only formally, but to also immediately recognize issues of gender, spectatorship, sexuality, race, and so on.


Kehinde Wiley, The Virgin With the Host, oil on canvas, 2009.

So, ironically, I came all the way from America to concentrate on an American artist. And now I get to write my own dissertation. I’ll be happy when it’s finished, yes, but I’m enjoying the process. It’s quite liberating to be able to shift from the topics you don’t connect with and really engage with something you’re passionate about. So don’t be afraid of dissertations! And don’t worry if you don’t have any idea what your focus will be yet. Sampling a bit of everything to find what you connect with is half the fun! Especially when writing about cat paintings.

John Villa (MA Art History student)


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