Berkeley Connect Sociology students visit the Berkeley Art Museum

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Berkeley Connect Sociology students received a special tour of the UC Berkeley Art Museum (BAM) last week to explore the intersection between art and sociology. Guided by BAM Director of Education Sherry Goodman, the students discover important and sometimes surprising parallels between their studies and the pieces they encountered in the museum.

Students began their tour in a private room where a series of photographs were displayed just for them. These photos, not currently on exhibit at the museum, were carefully selected to reflect the way economic disparity has been illustrated through art. Sherry and Berkeley Connect students first examined the famous photograph Migrant Mother. Taken in 1936 by Dorothea Lange, it has become an iconic representation of the struggles of migrant workers during the Great Depression. Sherry encouraged the students to share their observations and to discuss why the photograph is so powerful.

Students also discussed the role of the subject in photography. As Sherry explained, Florence Owens Thompson, pictured in Migrant Mother, was actually displeased with the popularity of the photograph because she felt that her image was distorted to that of a helpless woman when in fact she was a farm labor activist.

Students also discussed two photographs from a series taken by Jim Goldberg called “Rich and Poor.” This photographic essay was meant by Goldberg to be a social commentary on the disparity he saw around him. The first photograph students observed was of a family living in poverty, as evidenced by their small, bare home. Despite this, the mother writes on the bottom half of the photograph that “poverty sucks, but it brings [them] closer together.” Sherry pointed out the use of words in each of Goldberg’s photograph, adding that while some photographers disapprove of this approach, it gives voice to the subject. As the students saw in Migrant Mother, it is easy, especially in photography related to social issues, to objectify subjects. Students noted that the use of actual handwritten text also humanized the subjects.

In contrast, the second photograph of the series is of a wealthy man. Although the room he is photographed in is similarly bare, there is an obvious difference in the furniture and decorations. “The room is empty, but not in the same way,” one student observed. “In this one, it feels like this is just a small part of a much larger home, while in the first photograph, that [room] may be it.”

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Students also got the opportunity to browse the museum’s current exhibit of Hans Hoffman’s work. In particular, Sherry and the students examined one abstract painting of colors and shapes. Sherry asked the students which shape looked closest to them, about which students had differing opinions. “Every part of the painting is competing for your attention,” Sherry remarked. “The concept of ‘space’ in this painting is especially interesting because it is a flat painting of flat things.”

Aesthetics are important to pay attention to, even for photographs such as Migrant Mother, Sherry pointed out, because the visual aspects help to make the art powerful. “I didn’t realize at first how closely related to sociology art – in particular, photography – is,” Sherry said. “But after guiding a few tours, I’ve learned that it is a powerful part of the work sociologists do.”

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant

[Editor’s note: Berkeley Connect students viewed the work of several artists who have deep connections to UC Berkeley. Dorothea Lange lived in Berkeley for much of her life and was married to Berkeley professor of economics Paul Schuster Taylor. Hans Hoffman taught art at UC Berkeley and it was his donation to the university of paintings and a monetary gift that made possible the establishment of the Berkeley Art Museum. Jim Goldberg  is a Bay Area-based artist whose projects include several that have examined the evolution of affirmative action in the UC system.]