Growing up in the United Kingdom, Kate Flint became fascinated with all things Victorian from an early age. For her, the inescapable presence of the Victorian world lived on in the country’s cities, buildings, institutions and culture.
“I was a Victorianist dyed-in-the-wool from the age of seven or eight,” said Flint, Provost Professor of English and Art History and chair of the Department of Art History in USC Dornsife.
These days, Flint shares her particular passion for Victorian culture and literature with Christopher McGeorge, a first-year graduate student in art history, who called working with Flint stimulating, challenging and instructive.
“Her vast knowledge of all the nooks and crannies of Victorian culture steers me in new directions,” McGeorge said. “Conversations with her always leave me energized and excited about the work that we do.
“Because of her diverse training in literature and art history, as well as her intellectual interest in the Victorian period more broadly, I find she’s able to suggest connections that transcend traditional notions of disciplinary boundaries in a way that demonstrates the extent to which cultural productions, in all their forms, are tied to and draw upon one another.”
Flint’s hope is to cultivate intellectual inspiration and aspiration in all periods within the department. One of her primary goals is to sustain and build the department’s graduate program, attracting highly talented students, plus new faculty to work with them.
“I’m really proud of our graduate students,” Flint said. “I think they’re especially active and energetic at making this department a wonderful place to be a graduate and also an exciting place to teach.”
The chemistry between graduate students and their mentor faculty doesn’t just benefit the former group. It fosters the intellectual environment necessary for new perspectives and ideas. That openness is something the department already strives to create with informal lunches and other gatherings, where students go beyond discussing their own current work and get to know their professors on a more personal level, such as hearing what drew them to their respective fields in the first place.
“We don’t have a big intake,” Flint said. “We may only have three, four students a year. So it matters enormously that individual students know they can come and work with faculty members who will take a keen interest in them.”
Flint came to USC Dornsife in 2011 from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; she taught at Bristol and Oxford universities before that. She has published extensively on the art and culture of the Victorian era and the early 20th century.
“When I was first drawn to that period, it seemed as though it fed directly into the society I lived in at the time,” Flint said. “I felt in order to understand contemporary culture, you had to understand Victorian culture as well. Inevitably, by the same logic, as I’ve gotten older, my interests have moved well forward into the 20th century, too, and they’ve become more transnational.”
She began her research by looking at Britain’s response to contemporary painting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has since expanded to cover a range of topics in cultural history, such as Victorian visual culture — most recently how British culture represented the American Indian, and how the British themselves were perceived by Indians. Her research has also examined the history and cultural associations of flash photography from its beginnings to now.
The spread of flash photography, Flint explained, gave artists and journalists alike a way to record everyday activities, highlighting society’s rapid changes and social problems.
“Flash photography had the capacity to show up those bits you couldn’t see into at all — whether these were crowded tenements or murders on dark city streets. People also used it to stop time — to show us what the eye isn’t fast enough to see,” she said.
More recently, it has been the tool of intrusive paparazzi on the one hand and a means of artistic experimentation on the other.
Her next project?
Flint has long been intrigued by how people understand and represent the ordinary and everyday occurrences, and she is exploring how the concept of “ordinariness” changed between 1850 and 1950.