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.