Monday, November 14, 2011
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.
The closest we got was (sorry had to look up the term in Light on Yoga) Siddhasana, one heel on top of the other and the toes tucked in. Even that we eased into, one leg bent with the heel to the crotch, then the other, then the second heel up onto the first, then tucking in that foot's toes, and then the other's. The teacher (Dean Lerner) suggested that we all work on that for a few minutes every day so that next year, when he does this workshop again, we could try lotus.
Driving away, I thought about it. Thinking that I'd like to start getting really into yoga, to establish a regular home practice, maybe someday even do teacher training...
The thing is, I thought that last year too, when I was driving home from the same workshop. I practiced regularly at home for a while, but it didn't last. Neither did my decision to start meditating regularly. And I've not been in a pool since August.
Its not just exercise and other personal goals either. I started again on my ivories article at the beginning of October, but now haven't worked on it in a few weeks. I'll have to start on it again - again, again, again...
That seems to be the way of my life. Always starting over. And starting the same things. Yoga, swimming, meditation, the same group of articles - and of course the book I've been working on off and on and off and on again for -- 9 years, or something like that. I'll have to start again, again, again (etc.) on that next semester. I have one more new chapter to write and then I'm thinking that I need to redo the parts I wrote about 9 years ago - the intro and the first chapter. So I'm probably going to end up starting that project again in the ultimate sense of going all the way back to its beginning.
I suppose all this starting is not a bad thing. Not starting up again, giving up instead, would be worse. And for some things, like yoga or meditation or swimming, I don't really mind being the perpetual beginner - it means I never have to get to be all that good at any of it. So what if I never do full lotus, or meditate for more than a few minutes, or swim more than a couple of laps? What difference does it make? With all of that, I can just go around and around and around, starting and stopping and starting and stopping again, like following the folds of the Buddha's garment from under his armpit over his chest and then up and around his halo and back to the armpit again, and again, and again... Being the perpetual beginner can be humbling, especially for a compulsive perfectionist like me. But a little humility is a good thing.
For writing, though, all of this beginning again and again is frustrating. There are other projects I want to be working on. A few other books I want to write. But if I'm always beginning again on these few projects, and so never finish any of them, I'll never get to begin the others for even the first time. Will I ever be able to begin a project and simply see it through to the end?
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
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.