Saturday, December 17, 2011


This semester for this first time I allowed students in my seminar (on the Virgin Mary in Medieval Art and Culture) to choose to make a work of art as the final outcome of their research projects, instead of requiring them all to write papers.  This is my favorite of the pieces that they made.

To talk through it a bit: it was made on a mirror because it's about images of women in contrast to women's own self-images.  It represents St. Anne, the Virgin, and the Christ Child (although one of the problems with the piece is that it was supposed to center on imagery from books of hours, as patriarchal imagery projected at a female audience, but the real source images here are paintings by Durer and Leonardo da Vinci).  In one of my favorite touches, the images are actually made up of bits of advertisements cut from magazines: the Virgin's blue mantle is made mostly from tampon and sanitary napkin ads!   The idea is to liken the roles of book of hours imagery and the Virgin in medieval culture to that of advertisements and models in our own (although another problem is that it would be hard to tell that's the source of the material if I didn't tell you or the student hadn't told me.  She did include some of the text of the ads in a few places, but its hard to find).  Mary is meant to look a bit skeletal, in reference the "holy anorexia" idea.  Finally, the text on the mirror is from Mechthild of Magdeburg and is meant to refer to mysticism as a potential place for medieval women's self- production.  Its not 100% successful, there is probably too much going on for it to be entirely successful, but I still like the ideas and find it visually compelling.

And its the work of an art history major.

This is interesting to me because when I decided to allow this option in my seminar, I was really thinking about the studio art majors in the class.  Up until now, our studio majors have been required to take an art history seminar and that has been a real problem in my opinion.  It's been a problem for them: they had to take, and pass, this course that most of them didn't have the background, the skills, or the interest to be successful in.  And its been a problem for the art history majors, MA students, and professors as well: the level of our work has been brought down by the presence of unprepared and unmotivated students.  I fought to have this requirement changed and was successful; now the studio majors only have to take a 300 or 400-level art history course.  But I decided to allow the creative project in this Fall's seminar, at least in part, to provide a way out for studio students, to allow them to do something they would be more prepared and more motivated to do.

When I introduced the options for the project, however, I didn't say that studio majors were to do the creative project and art history majors were to write papers.  I let them chose for themselves.  Only 5 of 15 students chose to do the creative option, 2 of them were art history majors and the 3rd might as well be since she is well prepared and academically motivated (I may try to convert her), and 6 studio majors chose to write papers.

This has me thinking about the relationship between studio art and art history, in particular within my department.  Because where the outcome of this project suggests that our students don't see a strong line dividing the two - so art history students chose to make art and studio majors to write papers - the faculty do seem divided to me.  I'm in an art department, not an art history, or even art and art history department.  But its a department that clearly falls into three - or maybe now 4 - parts: art history, art education, studio art, and probably graphic design should be recognized separately as well.  But that's largely because our studio area is so fragmented, or at least it seems so to me: each studio faculty member is his/her own area, with a separate "concentration" within the major, an independent sequence of classes, and a discrete space both in our old and in our new buildings.  I was not really surprised that when our administration, looking to be more efficient, looked at our studio program, they didn't see one big program with many students in many different classes, but saw a half-dozen tiny little programs - some of them perhaps unsustainably small.  We as a faculty need to find more ways of tying the department together if we are going to survive.

So this piece, while not entirely successful, suggests to me that we need to learn from our students.  Learn to see art making and art history in a closer relationship to one another.  To recognize creative work as another potential outcome for art historical research - and to see research as another potential resource for art making.  

Monday, November 14, 2011

Oh the toes, Oh the humanity

I've been wanting to write about this since I saw it in the flesh for the first time after the ICMA symposium at the CMA, however many weeks ago that was now (see me previous post on how things keep getting away from me).  This sculpture, a late medieval image of John resting on Jesus' breast, is one of the treasures of the museum's medieval collection, but the later medieval material isn't on display due to the all of the renovations.  The museum had arranged a small display of this material for the ICMA event.

I was initially drawn to the toes of both figures: individually carved out little wooden digits.  Awesome!  Some are missing as you can see in the photo.  That could be just accidental damage; individually carved wood toes are going to break off easily.  But I keep imagining some whacked-out medieval nun snapping off Christ's missing big toe and sneaking it away in her garment so she could have a little bit of her divine husband all to herself.  And what an interesting little bit - don't tell me there's nothing phallic about a detached big toe.

I was looking at the sculpture with the amazing Elina Gertsman and the fabulous Karen Overbey.  They called my attention up from the toes to the eyes, specifically John's closed eyes and the way his pupils bulge beneath his eyelids, suggesting an unseen interiority to the figure.  The same goes for his slightly parted mouth, suggesting again a space, a being, a person, inside.  Sticking my face in close to see all of that, I got that creeped out feeling I sometimes get from sculptures, like in examining them I'm invading their personal space.  In this case, it was like John was about to open both his eyes and his mouth and say - hey lady, get out of here, this is my moment!

That creeped out feeling, by the way, is what I love about sculpture as a medium and why I choose to write mostly about sculpture - so that even my major manuscript piece, my Roman de la Rose article in Art History, is about sculpture as represented in manuscript miniatures.   I'm planning a second book about images of sculptures in manuscripts as sources for medieval ideas about sculpture as a form (hopefully I get to that someday).

I'm interested, obviously, in how sculptures approximate human beings, in their suggestion of interaction with the viewer - and in their refusal of that interaction and so their suggestion of a closed off interior world.  What's going on behind John's eyelids?  What words is he holding in with his closed mouth?  Because humanity isn't just interaction, it's that refusal to engage and the presence of that private, closed, unknown, interiority.   It's the genuine otherness of another human being.  The fact that each of us has our own separate inner worlds of thoughts and ideas and feelings and memories that others hardly ever even know about and never really understand.

What I like about sculptures, then, is not just the suggestions of activity and interactivity that make them seem human, but the way that their refusal to engage forces us to face up to the otherness of others.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Toenails and teaching

This sculpture (a Protective Spirit from the palace of Assurnasirpal at Nimrud) is always a big hit with my Intro students when we go on our field trip to the CMA.  I can see why.   Seen in person, the details leap out at you.  Its almost like its shouting at you: toenails!  calf muscle!! kneecap!!! And can someone explain to what is going on with the kneecaps in ancient sculpture in general?

Last year, their enthusiasm for him got us into a little bit of trouble.  We were in the small ancient near eastern gallery and a group of ladies who lunch types were perched on their folding stools in the gallery next door listening to a lecture about Greek vase painting.  I knew that my students were getting a little loud, but I didn't want to shut them down: how often do scrappy urban kids get excited about Assyrian relief sculpture?  Hell, how often does anybody get excited about Assyrian relief sculpture!  The Greek pots lecturer felt the need to stop and tell me that her's was a class and they had reserved the galleries, I responded that we were also a class and also had a reservation, and then started steering my kids next door to Egypt where they couldn't disturb anyone.

Because of his popularity I always get a plethora of papers on this sculpture.  This year several started off by correctly identifying him as Assyrian and as a protective spirit, but then by the end of the first paragraph had changed him into an Egyptian god, which is just - wrong.


But I don't want to spend my time here complaining about students, although it is about that time of the semester.  Instead I want to do a little thinking about my scruffy urban kids and higher education today.  This comes in part out of a conversation I had with my father.  He was telling me about an interaction he had with an elderly wealthy couple he met at my folk's friend Richard's.  Apparently they were waxing on about the virtues of a liberal arts education and were just so shocked to hear my father questioning its value.  Dad does sometimes like to shock.  Just for fun.  But he was also serious about some things.  About questioning the relevance of a liberal arts education for everyone.  About questioning its literal value given its current cost.  These two were so proud of their grandson who was heading off to the Berklee College of Music in Boston to study composition and my Dad asked if he was busking in subway stations for spare change yet, since that was what my brother did in the year he spent at Berklee.  Dad asked what their grandson would do when he graduated and couldn't get a job that would support him, they said his parents would pay - of course.  When Dad told me that I laughed and mentioned one of my current students who goes to school, works full time, and is the single mother of two special needs children.

This woman is an education major - and she should be.  Even though she is a good, serious student, I could not in good conscience try to recruit her as art history major.  If she is going to invest in a college education it better be in something that has at least the potential for a good job on the other side that will allow her and her children to live more easily.  She'll have to at lest be able to pay off her loans and support herself and her children. 

I've long felt the tension between liberal arts and vocational or professional training in higher education.  As an art historian, I've felt obliged to stand up for the liberal arts.  Most of the time that mean re-describing them in terms of skills for future careers, critical thinking or communication.  But that's at least half bullshit: does your job really want you to think critically?  Does mine about anything that really matters?

And it seems to me to be a loosing battle.  If you listen to how education is discussed publicly today, listen to Obama talk about it for example, its all about jobs and careers and economic and social advancement.   That's the job that higher education is being asked to perform for our society.  And if you think about it, its a worthwhile task.  Transforming the future for my student and her children, what could be wrong with that?  What could be better?  Instead of vocational or professional education, let's say education for the sake of economic and social justice.  And instead of looking down our noses at it from our academic ivory tower, let's embrace it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Elephant Memories

First, I just want to express my deep affection for elephants.  Back in the day, in the summers during college to be precise, I had a job doing food service at the zoo back home in Portland (popcorn, snow cones, hot dogs, ice cream, etc), which just happens to have the largest herd of Asian elephants in captivity.  We would occasionally get to go behind the scenes of the animal exhibits and twice I went to the elephant house.  Once, we were there on a tour and they had one of the bulls in an enormous squeeze cage.  He saw us, starting swinging his trunk at us, and sprayed us with his snot.  Another time, we got to see a new baby that had been born overnight: he was surprisingly hairy.  I spent one summer by the elephant house at a cart that sold "elephant ears," big slabs of deep fat fried dough topped with butter and either cinnamon sugar or raspberry jam (or both, on either half, we would fold that in half and eat it as a sandwich for lunch).   I came to love the massive solidity of the elephants and their apparent capacity for joy.  Have you ever seen an elephant swim?

I stole this image of an elephant from another blog,  It identifies the image as from as Jacob van Maerlant, Der Naturen Bloeme. Flanders or Utrecht, circa 1450-1500.  Whatever.  I like its long long legs, wicked grin, toothy tusks, and vacuum cleaner hose trunk.  And I like the mushroomy trees.  Why can't nature look like that? 

I wanted an elephant for today because I've been reading and thinking and writing about ivories and I want to acknowledge where they come from.  Sometimes you can see it in the objects, in the big standing Virgins that bend following the curve of the trunk; in the the small very round seated Virgins cut from smaller cross sections.  Flip either over, if you could,  and you would see the hole for the vein that ran through the tusk.  And of course you can often see the veining of the ivory itself, the mark that it was once alive.

I've been reading the inventories of 14thC French kings and queens to see what they thought of ivory as a material.   Its interesting in being both elevated and ordinary, religious and secular or personal, used for Virgins mounted on silver and silver-gilt bases and dripping with jewels and pearls, but also for buttons and boxes and the handles of knives and fans or flyswatters.  Even the Virgins are sometimes these deluxe objects but other times smaller things, just asking to be held in your hand.

But never a mention of the elephants.  They are supposed to have long memories, to go to the remains of their dead and handle the bones, which makes me think of medieval relics, ceremonies of their translation, and commemorations of the saints.  Would the elephants themselves be able to remember the elephant in the ivory? Would the carvings be for them the relics of their ancestors?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ivory Virgins

So here it is, the opening image for the article I'm currently revising and, more immediately, a talk I'm working on for a symposium two weeks from today.  It's an ivory Virgin and Child statuette and the museum (our own CMA) says its 13th century Mosan.  It looks much more monumental here than in reality: it's only a few inches tall and I can image that it would have fit easily into an owner's hands.  It would have been an intimate object, then, and encountering it now in the museum is rather frustrating since its sealed away in a glass case.  I have a couple of other, older, images from the museum that help me imagine handling it up close, turning it in my hands (they also show the crown that it is now obviously missing and an additional base).

Visually, my major interest in this image - and others like it - is in the Virgin's clothing and how it shapes the relationship between her and the child.  From the front, we see her mantle come forward over her shoulders, then tuck back under her free arm and extend over lap to underneath the child.  It creates an outer layer to her body that opens up to expose her interior and it locates the child just on the edge of that inner space.  He reaches into her, reaching with one hand into her interior space, inside of the mantle, to grasp her breast, and reaching up with the other to clasp her veil.  His gestures create a relationship between her inner space and the veil that drapes over her mantle and down her back - so that her inside and outside are again joined by his body.  Turning the statuette from side to side puts this relationship between inside and outside into motion.  Turned to the left, we see that his reach into her body is returned by her reach around him.  From this angel, the line of her veil seems to continue into the line of her arm, which is draped in her mantle, so that her clothing draws him in.  Turned to the right, negative space opens up between their bodies and is bridged only by his gaze and his gesture in to her - with what is now a broken arm. 

Now all of that is fine and lovely and hopefully you will be able to read all about it someday (I'm shooting for Gesta with this one).  What I want to begin to think about here, however, is how my choice to write about motherhood in my scholarship relates to my choice not to become a mother myself.  To finally make this clear, openly in the world, that later choice is not just a theoretical, general, abstract one: it began as a practical, specific, concrete decision.  About 13 years ago, during graduate school, I accidentally got pregnant and I chose to terminate that pregnancy.  It was the right thing to do and I do not regret it.  Over the years since that choice has gradually become the choice not to have children in general.  I know perfectly well that it is possible to have children after having an abortion.  But the choice to terminate was so immediate, so obvious, and so forceful, that it made clear to me that I do not want to be anyone's mother.  I want to be myself and, for me, those two things are opposed to one another, probably because my first and closest brush with motherhood came in this unexpected and unwelcome way.

The turn to writing about motherhood in my scholarship happened at about the same time as the abortion and so the two are clearly related, although the turn in my work also had an academic motivation.  I wanted to find a way to write about the female body in medieval art without writing about the medieval church's negative attitudes towards sexuality, since I thought that had already been covered and didn't need to be repeated again (and I'm thinking of Howard Bloch's diagnosis of misogyny as a discourse of repetition here). Interestingly, in the light of my very clear choice, my writing about motherhood in medieval art is largely about ambivalence of one form or another.  In terms of this ivory, it's the tension I see between in and out, between the child's merger back into the mother's body and his separation from her, which probably does reflect my feeling that a child would be a threat to my identity and autonomy. 

The only tension I feel over my actual choice is an occasional voice in my head saying, but aren't you supposed to want children? Isn't that what everyone wants?  Is there something wrong with you that you don't? That voice has emerged over time, as the context for my choices has changed, as my more general choice not to have children has become more obvious and somewhat more problematic - primarily for other people.  As more and more of my contemporaries, colleagues and friends, have had children there has sometimes come to be tension between those with and without children.  My current group of friends has worked very hard not to allow the arrival of children for some to become a problem between us - but that tension is still there at times and with others.  I chalk it up to insecurity (and I thank my former therapist for this insight): people often get uncomfortable when your decisions are different from theirs because it suggests to them that your choices constitute a critique of theirs.  Something like, if Marian chooses not to have children, it must mean she thinks my choice to have children is wrong.  To be clear, I don't think that.  My choice not to have children is just that, my choice. It is what's right for me and has nothing to do with anyone else.  I may sometimes play up my choice as a choice, but that's because I don't want anyone feeling sorry for me, assuming that I must want children and must be unhappy with my life as it is.  And yes, that's my insecurity showing: I become uncomfortable too when someone else's choice seems to become a judgment on my own.

Friday, October 14, 2011


This is one of my favorite faces in Romanesque sculpture (specifically from Saint-Pierre at Aulnay, its a capital on the west front).  I like its puffy roundness and the way that seems to soften the stone.  I like how the shapes of the mouth and tongue are repeated by the eyes sockets and eyeballs.  I like how the mouth collapses inwards, even as the tongue, ears, tendrils (hair?), and forehead stretch out in different directions. 

I've chosen it for my first post here because of the combinations it creates: soft and hard, mouth and eyes, in and out.  Because my purpose here is to join those things for myself.  I plan to pick an image and write about it for a while, so joining eyes and mouth in the sense of seeing and speaking - or in this case writing.  But a different kind of writing than my normal academic prose: something softer and more clearly connected to my insides.  I'll be letting those insides come out - even if the result is a bit grotesque as it is in this image.  I imagine that sometimes the images will come from my research or teaching and the content of my writing will then be more academic in content, if less formal in tone.  Otherwise the images will come from my postcard collection or from my own photography and the content of the writing will be more personal.  But I do expect and even want to see the lines between those two categories begin to blur, to see the outside academic collapse inwards and soften even as my messy insides become visible in words out in the world.  The images will be mostly medieval because that is what my research and teaching focus on and because many of my postcards were purchased and my photographs taken on research trips.  I am opening up to investigating why I work on medieval art, to discovering what inner personal investments drive my professional work.

Starting this was inspired by one of my students, who opened his big mouth to ask if I did any other kind of writing besides the scholarly stuff.  I said no, just boring academic work, but then I started to think...

Over the summer I had been thinking about my writing and myself very differently.  I'd just got tenure in my job in the spring.  I was trying to get used to that idea and thinking about what difference it might make in my life.  I knew what I didn't want: to become one of those tenured profs we all hear about, you know, the ones who basically stopped working once they got tenure.  I'd been joking around a lot about that, about how now I could be lazy and irresponsible and there was nothing anyone could do about it, but I didn't want that to be true.  I also didn't want to become a service whore: you know, the people who are on every committee and do every little administrative task, who feel martyred by all that but do it anyway, and then don't get any of their own work done (I see a real danger for me here).  So I had resolved to start to think about myself  as a writer, instead of as an academic, as a writer who just happens to primarily write academic art history - but perhaps writes other stuff too???  And I had started a different project, a personal memoir focused around something that happened in grad school (which I don't want to get into right now).

So how did I get from there to telling my student that I am just a boring old academic hack?

Well, its been a hard start to the semester.  My department is going through a huge transition: a new chair with new ideas, moving to a new space, a new budgetary reality (cuts!), and some new pressures from the upper administration who don't seem very sympathetic towards the arts or humanities.  We've had a long stream of meetings and the tension has run high.  Tenure hasn't meant freedom for me.  Its meant the realization that I need to care about all of this stuff now, since I am probably going to be working here for the rest of my career.  And I know from my past that this kind of stuff gets me all wound up inside in a way that nothing else does.  My own work, the productive positive thing that I do for and by myself, goes out the window as I obsess over who said what to whom about what and what I should have said and what we could do to fix it all if only and so on.  This time I finally snapped at someone and I never do that.  I can't remember the last time I lost my composure - although this person, a colleague, provoked it with some really insensitive remarks about my personal life.  That was almost two weeks ago and I am still obsessing over it, wondering why she thought it was ok to speak to me in such a hurtful way, thinking about what I should have said in response, reliving the whole thing in my head.

So I am hoping that this is a way forwards from all of that.  A way back to that idea of being a writer first and to doing a variety of different kinds of writing, both academic and personal, and maybe even somewhere in-between.  A way out of the mind-fog of the semester and its constant demands.  A way to make a more positive connection between the personal and the professional.  A way in and a way out.