Harpur Featured Stories
by Katie Ellis
John Tagg, professor of art history and of comparative literature, has been promoted to the rank of distinguished professor — the highest academic rank in the SUNY system. It is conferred by the SUNY Board of Trustees upon those who have achieved national or international prominence and a distinguished reputation within their chosen field.
A member of Harpur College's faculty since 1986, when he came to campus as chair of the Art History program, Tagg remains as excited now as he was then about his discipline, the challenges of shaping and re-shaping the department, and the work he does with students.
"Professor Tagg is one of the world's most distinguished historians of photography and modern art who draws attention for his insights from a global audience," President Harvey Stenger said. "His contributions to the field of art history have had a profound impact on how photography is thought about and on the substantive role photography holds in the modern world."
Tagg considers his appointment to the distinguished professor rank an honor, but he also credits his colleagues for their role in his success.
"It's a very touching honor for me because it speaks to all of the support across the campus and across the world, but it also speaks to what we have in the department," he said. "It's not just having colleagues who are supportive and affirmative, but it's that we've created a context; this is an unmatched context for teaching and research that we have here in this department."
When he arrived and immediately assumed the program chair position, Tagg said he wanted to shape a space that made sense for Binghamton, which is not in a metropolitan area or with major art collections.
"We shaped a unique space as the first program to focus on new theoretical and cross-disciplinary approaches. It didn't matter that we didn't have a specialist in every field because coverage wasn't our aim," he said. "It was rethinking the discipline, which has always been the other side of my commitment."
Before coming to the United States, Tagg worked in studio art at the University of London Goldsmiths' College and was involved with artists such as Michael Craig-Martin and Richard Wentworth, whose commitment to experiment made him want to go during on his days off because of the sense of excitement. "And that's what I think it should be like for an academic program as well."
Building projects that have become institutions that last has helped Tagg fuel excitement and show commitment. "Our VizCult workshop is on its 17th year and provides us an intellectual venue to talk about work. Nobody misses VizCult and that is a key to our sense of engagement," he said. Another collective project in the department is the Crossing the Boundaries graduate student conference, now in its 22nd year. "We all attend, not out of a sense of obligation, but out of a sense that 'I can't afford to miss this.' These are institutions. We will get there by building such institutions," Tagg said.
With an absolute dedication to public higher education, Tagg believes students "have a right to know that that's what Binghamton is, and they have a right to world-class experiences in the classroom."
He speaks highly of the students who enroll at Binghamton, noting the evolution he's witnessed as the campus has become more international and diverse. "It's not just social commitment to being diverse, it's an intellectual commitment as well.
"As I travel — I don't like to just give a public lecture, but always say I will do a seminar — then I find out what the students are doing, and what always strikes me is that it's not like the seminars I'm going to go into [at Binghamton]. Our students are truly global and it's a huge spur to learning."
Binghamton students push faculty to be better, said Tagg, and coupled with the legacy of Kenneth Lindsay, who helped shape the campus and found the Department of Art and Art History, "that's what pushes us all on. That's what makes people move ahead and not just write one book and stop," he said. "There's a sense of challenge and collegiality, and then there are the students and what they bring to me. I have challenging colleagues around me, but I also have students from places including Korea, China, Israel and Iran producing extraordinary work."
That global aspect of teaching and learning is what Tagg believes sets Binghamton apart from the vast majority of higher education institutions, and is also what helps his discipline evolve.
Tagg reminisced that when David Gitlitz was Harpur College dean (1982–1987), he said "you're the high-risk program that is going to have to prove itself." At that time, Binghamton had the only PhD in art history in the SUNY system, so the department set its goal to be a distinctive, lively doctoral program. "When we had Tony King here, we really began to think about the global interface — about the things we study and can't just think about as limited in a geographical context. That became then, the extension of the mission." That's one thing that still drives Tagg, and that has shaped the kind of people who have been brought into the global program. "We delivered the goods and I think it's important that we did it at a public university without many resources."
In the global context, "You have a tremendous diversity of experience in the classroom and it's going to pay off in the work students are producing," he said. "It is extraordinary and I also get to travel with them." Tagg was in Seoul, South Korea, in May. "It was wonderful to meet the cohort of students who first came here and then also to be in the hands of one of my first Korean students — the only one in Seoul who doesn't drive with a GPS because he knows the city inside out."
The student was Tagg's culture and history guide. "It's wonderful to give yourself over to learning in the hands of students. This is a great experience." He has also traveled to China with another student for a conference and found it very different from attending a conference in America or Great Britain. "It was a conference that included press and professional photographers, as well as amateur photographers," he said. "We took a day off and went to the fish, bird and cricket market and the noise in the market was unbelievable!"
The world opens up for Tagg through the eyes of students from around the globe, and his discipline also reaps rewards as they continue their research in their own countries, in their own languages and where they can delve into archives that they can understand.
"They don't just follow our footsteps, they go off in new areas and they've gotten me to think about the global distribution of photography and photographic technologies," he said. "It's opened up the plurality of languages and cultural frameworks within which photographic technology has spread around the world."
It has also been crucial to his department's success that the University is supportive.
"I — and others — have been able to go away, to work at other institutions, research centers and museums. Art historians have to go to their sources, to archives," he said. "Even in difficult years, all of our faculty have benefited hugely from University support, which also helps in recruitment and retention.
"I'm not isolated. I can go away and come back and renew my teaching," he said. "I've been able to be away for fellowships and the like and my colleagues can always be relied on to rally round and not grumble. I don't feel like I've been in one place for a long time."
Last Updated: 6/3/15