I wasn’t going to put up a readers’ wildlife feature today, but Jacques Hausser from Switzerland sent me a series of lovely beetle drawings that he did to illustrate Christmas cards. So here’s his Christmas card to us. Jacques’ commentary:
Just before the era of digital photography, I realised that I didn’t know anything about entomology. To begin with insects, I decided to draw (and to try to identify) some coleopterans. This virtuous decision didn’t survive the arrival of my first digital camera, and I turned to photography. During this cloudy and rainy December, I looked back at these old drawings, and I thought it was a good idea to use them to make some Christmas gifts. Then, as I hadn’t sent any valuable photos to Jerry for a long time, I thought I’d submit the result to “Readers’ wildlife photos” even if they are not photos. I arranged the drawings in three plates without respect for the relative size of the beetles or their systematic position. And a caveat: some names may be old, and I cannot exclude a mistake!
There are three plates (in order), and I’ll put the identifications of the beetles below the fold. Click to enlarge.
This is a first, I think: a major literary figure writing a piece in a science journal. The award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates was married to distinguished neurobiologist Charlie Gross for a decade—until Charlie died in 2019. (They both taught at Princeton.) I met them at the Great New Yorker Cat vs. Dog Debate in 2014, where Joyce was on Team Cat, and had dinner with them afterwards at the Union Square Cafe. They were clearly deeply connected, and I remember that dinner fondly.
I’ve kept in touch with Joyce ever since, and know how devastated she was when Charlie passed away. She told me how, like me, Charlie was addicted to travel, especially to Antarctica, and also loved photography. She added that she was more of a homebody, but went with him on some of his trips.
This is recounted in a lovely new memorial that Joyce wrote for Charlie in Progress in Neurobiology—in a special issue devoted to him. Hers is a short piece, highlighting Charlie’s photos from around the world and connecting his vocation with his avocation.
I’ll give an excerpt and show a few of his photos. You can read the piece for free by clicking on the screenshot (if the link doesn’t work, a judicious inquiry will yield a pdf):
If the world is essentially a mystery, research scientists are investigators, explorers, pilgrims, even at times mystics; “scientific method” is the crucial tool, but the motive underlying the pursuit of intransigent truth in a world of shifting illusions and delusions is likely to be deep-rooted in the personality, as the motives for art are deep-rooted, essentially unknowable. The research scientist, like the writer and artist, is not satisfied with surfaces—the “superficial”; the comprehension of underlying principles and laws are the goal.
Neuroscience dares to address the most basic of all questions involving life: what is the neural basis of behavior? how can it possibly be that out of molecules, ions, and nerve cells somehow there emerges the vast richness of human consciousness and experience? It isn’t an accident that Charlie Gross spent most of his professional life exploring vision in the cerebral cortex. He was never more fiercely concentrated in thought—(if indeed it was “thinking” that so absorbed him)—than when he was taking photographs, and afterward working with the digital images he’d captured. Out of the raw image, what “meaning” can be discovered? The camera lens radically narrows the visual field into an aesthetically satisfying form because it is limited, reduced; “coherence” is created out of a chaos of impressions that without the camera lens lack focus and meaning. Surely there is some fundamental analogy here with the mechanisms of the eye—the visual cortex.
. . . Charlie and I were married in March 2009 and in the decade we spent together traveled widely—to Spain, Italy and the Greek Islands, Capri, Corsica, Dubrovnik, Galapagos and Ecuador, Australia, and Bali as well as, more frequently, to London, Paris, Rome, and (his favorite) Venice. We spent time in the most scenic parts of California—Berkeley, Humboldt State Redwood Park, Big Sur; we visited many National Parks—Death Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Yosemite. To all these places Charlie brought his photography equipment and spent many hours taking pictures, ideally at dawn. He was exacting and patient; he could wait a long time for a perfect combination of landscape, sky, and light. His work is surpassingly beautiful — not a consequence of accident but design. Though Charlie did not “photoshop” his work, he spent much time selecting images he wanted to make permanent. He was a serious artist of beauty but he did not theorize —he followed his intuition.
For the article Joyce selected nine photos “that are most abstract and apolitical—indeed, ahistorical—in their beauty; and those set in the West, which he loved and had visited many times.” Three of them are below— and one of Charlie as well.
Go to the article to read more about Charlie and photography, and to see more of his work.
Bryce Canyon at twilight:
Yosemite. A Magritte-like boulder suggestive of a glacier or a dream image seems to push through the surface of the water in this Yosemite scene:
Further, the book has been illuminated with the calligraphy and artwork of our favorite natural-history artist, Kelly Houle, who did a superb title-page drawing and also a few cat drawings. Her artwork on the book can also be seen at the two sites.
Kelly and I did this previously with Why Evolution is True, earning more than $10,300 for a charity, in that case Doctors Without Borders. This year all auction proceeds go to Helen Keller International, an efficient and highly-rated charity that helps alleviate blindness and malnutrition throughout the world. (Peter Singer highlighted it as one of his favorite charities.) As a bonus, the Friends of Helen Keller International have pledged to double any donation, so whoever buys the book will have the satisfaction of contributing twice what they pay to a good humanitarian cause.
The price, with three days left to go, is still lower than I expected, as you can see from the screenshot below (click on it to join the fun). Remember, I schlepped that book around for five years from meeting to meeting, all to collect signatures for this auction. And Kelly labored through long nights doing the artwork. It’s worth more!
Kelly’s illumination of the title page (there are others) and one page of autographs.
One page also has Kelly’s anamorphic mirror drawing of James Randi, one of the signers; the mirror comes with the book:
If you have the dosh and want a unique book with great artwork and a collection of signatures never to be repeated (remember, Randi passed away recently), go over and bid. Or call the auction to the attention of those who might be interested. Remember, neither Kelly nor I make a penny from this, and Helen Keller International uses 82.5% of the donations for its programs—a very high proportion.
Amazingly, we got over $10,300 for the book, and so the charity made out well. Kelly and I were immensely pleased. Here’s the 2015 auction result (click for the link to eBay):
Well, in 2015 I wrote another book, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, and again I’ve been collecting signatures for five years, schlepping the book from meeting to meeting, and friend to friend, with the plan of auctioning it off again for charity. Kelly again agreed to do the art, and so we were off.
The result is below: we have even more signatories than before, including three Nobel Laureates, and you can see a list and photos of the signatures (many signers wrote messages) below. I’m sure you’ll recognize most of the signers; my intent was to get as many secularists and humanists as possible. We wound up with 28 signatures—not including mine and Kelly’s, which are both in there too.
It’s now time to release the book to the buying public and see what they’ll offer for it.
It’s just gone up for auction now, at this link, and the auction will run for ten days. This time all the proceeds go to Helen Keller International, a wonderful and efficient charity that helps prevent malnutrition, disease, and blindness—largely in children (see below). The organization was founded by Keller herself along with George Kessler, and it’s worth reading a bit of the backstory in the organization’s Wikipedia entry. A bonus this time is that Friends of Helen Keller International will match our donation dollar for dollar, so the buyer will have twice the positive impact as usual.
The auction copy, a hardback:
Here’s the alphabetical list of signers, with Wikipedia links to each one:
Kelly also signed her cover illustration (see below):
Can you find them all?
Inside front cover:
Half title page:
Inside back cover:
Closeup: Annie Laurie Gaylor, James Randi, and Richard Dawkins:
Full title page (signed by JAC with his cat drawing):
Kelly drew a curled-up cat on the dedication page:
From Kelly (henceforth, her words are indented):
I illustrated the title page that falls after the introduction with a quote from Faith vs Fact: and my adaptation of a painting by Maria Sibylla Merian showing the stages of Cocytius antaeus [Giant Sphinx Moth] from her book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. Merian observed and drew insects at a time when butterflies and moths were thought to appear spontaneously from the ground.
The whole illumination is held up by a pen, an important tool of science for recording observations. The banner has another quote from Faith vs Fact translated into Latin: “fides non virtus in scientia.”
Illustrating this page was a challenge because of the paper. I wasn’t able to use my calligraphy pen, so it’s all done with a regular ball-point pen and colored pencils. I added very dry gold mica paint to the pen nib and holder.
Pupal stage as observed and drawn by Merian:
Pen nib with caterpillar, larvae, and small moth after Merian:
Jerry’s initials “JAC”: in cat calligraphy [and Kelly’s signature]:
Kelly illuminated the chapter headings as well:
Finally, we have lagniappe from Kelly:
I’ve added something special to the book, too. It’s an anamorphic mirror portrait of James Randi. The mirror will come with the book. If you go to the page with James Randi’s signature, turn the page and set the mirror down right behind it, his image appears in the mirror. Like magic, but it’s not.
Again, if you’re interested in this item, know someone who might be, or are willing to advertise the auction on social media, feel free to do so. Again, the link is here.
We selected Helen Keller International as the recipient charity because of its good work in preventing blindness and malnutrition, its big bang for the donor’s buck, its sterling reputation, and the fact that the vast majority of its donations go to helping people, not to administration or promotion. Kelly found this charity when it was recommended as one of the best charities to donate to by Peter Singer on his page “The Life You Can Save“. As that site says,
“Our charities have been rigorously evaluated to help you make the biggest impact per dollar. Find an organization you support, or simply split your donation between them all. When you support one of the recommended charities, The Life You Can Save does not charge any fee or receive any monetary benefit from that transaction.”
The low overhead of HKI:
Every penny of the auction funds will go to HKI, and the bang is doubled because of HKI’s current donation-matching protocol.
Their work is international, and in several areas of help (click on all screenshots to go to the sites):
HKI receives the highest rating—four stars—from Charity Navigator:
If you have big bucks, or know someone who does—and who is a humanist or secularist—you might call their attention to this auction. We hope, of course, to raise as much dosh as possible.
Thanks to the signers, and to Melissa Pugh for collecting some of the signatures at the 2016 Reason Rally.
In the next-to-latest New Yorker, staff writer Adam Gopnik discusses the history and contents of the Louvre while nominally reviewing James Gardner’s new book, The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum. It’s a good piece, and two of Gopnik’s statements intrigued me, inspiring this post. Click on the screenshot to read the piece, which I think is free.
Gopnik points out, rightly, that, if you want to see the best works, the Louvre is a nightmare. When I was last in Paris, in February right before the pandemic struck, I went to the Da Vinci exhibit. A real visit to that show would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but the crowds were so thick that you could barely move, much less get close enough to the drawings and notebooks to contemplate them. The Mona Lisa, of course, is now unapproachable due to the crowds with their selfie sticks, but I saw it almost by myself many years ago and needn’t contemplate it again. Moreover, right outside the room where La Gioconda is displayed are two fantastic Da Vincis that nobody wants to see. The Egyptian and Asian galleries are thankfully uncrowded, but the layout of the new design, since the Pyramid was built, is hopelessly confusing. (Try finding an exit when you’re done.)
One intriguing fact is that nobody even knows where the name “Louvre” comes from!
But I digress. Anyway, while discussing the acquisition of paintings by Louis XIV, Gopnik proffers his own opinion:
Still, one great picture after another did come into his personal collection for the benefit of France, including what is, for some people’s money, the single greatest picture in the Louvre, that Raphael portrait of the Italian diplomat and author Castiglione. Raphael, the most talented painter who has ever lived, somehow compressed in a single frame all of the easy painterliness and understated humanity of Titian, while fixing, in Castiglione’s mixture of wisdom, intensity, sobriety, and wry good humor, the permanent form for the ideal author photo.
Well, I’d take issue with the assessment of both Raphael and his paintings, but of course these judgments are subjective, and it’s impossible to settle an argument over, say, whether Da Vinci, Rembrandt, or Raphael is the best painter. But I love making lists, and so will offer my own list of the world’s ten best painters below. (I’ve probably done this at some point in the 11-year history of this website, but I can’t find it, and, if I did once publish such a list, it would probably differ from today’s.)
I’ve come to appreciate Raphael more as I get older; I used to ignore his works, but a friend who loves his paintings turned me onto him. I still don’t rank him among the world’s ten best painters, but he’d certainly be in the top twenty. Here, for example, is the painting singled out by Gopnik as the Louvre’s best, Raphael’s Portrait of Balassare Castiglione.
Now that is a damn fine painting, and is one of the Louvre’s best. But the best? Well, I’d put another Da Vinci above it a tad: St. John the Baptist. This is all, of course, a matter of taste, but it’s fun to have these differences of opinion. Without Gopnik’s note, I probably would have ignored this painting.
At any rate, I decided to make a list of who I consider the ten best painters of all time. I’ll put a specimen of their work below their names, though not necessarily my favorite painting. But they’re all paintings I’ve stood in front of—save the Michelangelo and the Caravaggio. They’re listed in no particular order:
Leonardo da Vinci. Lady with an Ermine (1489-1490). I saw this in Kraków.
Michelangelo. The Last Judgment (1546-1531)
Johannes Veermeer.The Milkmaid (1567-1568).
Rembrandt van Rijn. The Jewish Bride (1665-1669)
Pablo Picasso. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). My favorite is probably Guernica.
Egon Schiele. Self Portrait with Physalis (1912).
Caravaggio. The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600).
J. M. W. Turner. Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829).
Claude Monet.Rouen Cathedral (1894).
Vincent van Gogh. Cypresses (1889).
Were the list to be extended, it would contain Raphael, Jackson Pollack, Goya, Kahlo, and—my dark horse—Lyonel Feininger. UPDATE: As I say in the comments, I simply forgot about Dürer. Were I to redo this list now, I’d replace Monet with Dürer. Here’s a lovely Dürer, Self-Portrait at 28, astounding for both his age and the fact that it was painted in 1500. I haven’t seen this one in person, but I think it’s at least as good as Raphael’s portrait above. However, this Dürer is in Munich, not in the Louvre.
You are invited of course, to argue with my choices or put your own in the space below.
Finally, in his article Gopnik proposes a kind of Artistic Determinism::
“The Louvre stands as an implicit reproach, a programmatic rejection of the art and architecture that the West favors today, with its asymmetries, its puerile rebellions, its clamorous proclamation of its own insufficiency,” Gardner insists. Must it? Certainly French modernism is impossible to imagine without the Louvre: Picasso and Matisse’s Orientalism is unimaginable without Delacroix, as de Kooning and Francis Bacon would be unimaginable without Rubens—borrowing his stylized armor of life drawing, the extravagant hooks and curves he puts in place of real human form. Wayne Thiebaud pulls into the twenty-first century Chardin’s mission of bringing a halo to ordinary edibles. Even the wilder shores of avant-gardism that Gardner seems to make reference to are often Louvre-linked, inasmuch as it took the Louvre to give the “Mona Lisa” sufficient renown to make Duchamp’s drawing a mustache on her something more than just an insult. And the Master of the Morbid Manner, Jeff Koons, is in spirit very much self-consciously emulating the deliberately overblown pneumatic grandeur of the kind we find in Rubens’s Marie de Médicis series. The Louvre seems far from finished as a fishing ground of form.
Granted, artists take influence from their predecessors, but a statement that Picasso’s “orientalism” is unimaginable without Delacroix is simply untestable. Who knows if Picasso would have hit on “orientalism” from somewhere else? Yes, of course Duchamp’s mustachioed Mona Lisa could not exist without the original, but Francis Bacon unimaginable without Rubens? It is an untestable assertion made post facto. As a scientist, all I can say is that we can’t redo the experiment without Rubens, and one can always cook up imagined influences. (Now if Bacon said he was influenced by Rubens, that’s another matter.)
Adam may well be right here, but it’s like saying that Nirenberg and Khorana’s unraveling of the genetic code would have been impossible without Watson and Crick. That’s simply not true, as someone else would have hit on the structure of DNA had Watson and Crick not existed. Likewise, had Delacroix not lived, Matisse and Picasso may well have taken their “oriental” influence from someone else.
Those are my musings on a lazy Saturday. Weigh in below; I’d be delighted to hear about other people’s favorite artists.
The tide of wokeism has come so far into shore that now it’s forbidden to even depict any subject that offends people, even if you’re depicting it to decry, criticize, and demonize bigotry or racism. Or, if you’re doing that, but are not of the “right” race or group to do it, you will still get criticized. That’s what happened, for instance, to artist Dana Schutz, who in April 2017 exhibited a painting at the Whitney Biennial Exhibition depicting the mutilated body of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered by racists in Mississippi in 1955. (His mother, to make a strong point about racial hatred, had an open-casket funeral that displayed his battered corpse.) Schutz’s painting was called “Open Casket.”
Schutz produced a powerful work of art underscoring that point, but she was criticized and demonized by many for her painting. Why? Because Schutz was white and Till was black. That’s all there was to the protests. Apparently, Schutz had the wrong pigmentation to give her artistic credibility. Some even called for the painting to be destroyed, while protestors stood in front of the painting to block people’s view and the painting was not included in a subsequent Schutz subsequent exhibit, being replaced by a placard (see my posts here and here). The behavior of protestors was itself offensive—and unhinged.
Now the New York Times reports the first kind of transgression: an artist decrying racism but, in decrying it, had to depict it in the form of hooded Ku Klux Klan members. The artist was Philip Guston, an influential Canadian artist who died in 1980, after having turned from abstraction to politically-themed representational paintings. And some of the things he represented, and hated, was racism. In some paintings it took the form of robed Ku Klux Klan figures, a group that hated both blacks and Jews (Guston was a Jew whose birth name was Goldstein, and he was also an anti-racist when it came to African-Americans). As the article below reports, this led to a three-year delay in a Guston exhibit scheduled for next year:
The exhibition had previously been described as including Guston’s small panel paintings from 1968 through 1972, a time period in which he was “developing his new vocabulary of hoods, books, bricks, and shoes.” Some of the figures in Guston’s works included cartoonish white-hooded figures smoking cigars, riding in a car, or, in one of Guston’s most well-known works, painting a self portrait at an easel.
As that article reports (click on screenshot below), the delay is solely due to Klan figures in some of Guston’s work:
An enlargement of the painting above:
The exhibit was scheduled for next year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Those are some major venues, but now the exhibit has been postponed for three years after that. The reason is given in a joint statement by the directors of the galleries, which includes this:
After a great deal of reflection and extensive consultation, our four institutions have jointly made the decision to delay our successive presentations of Philip Guston Now. We are postponing the exhibition until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.
We recognize that the world we live in is very different from the one in which we first began to collaborate on this project five years ago. The racial justice movement that started in the U.S. and radiated to countries around the world, in addition to challenges of a global health crisis, have led us to pause.
As museum directors, we have a responsibility to meet the very real urgencies of the moment. We feel it is necessary to reframe our programming and, in this case, step back, and bring in additional perspectives and voices to shape how we present Guston’s work to our public. That process will take time.
What, exactly, do they mean “at a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted”? THEY JUST INTERPRETED IT CLEARLY! What they mean is this, “We’re waiting three years to see if all this offense will die down.”
One would think that the resurgence of a racial justice movement would make the display of antiracist paintings even more pressing, but that’s not the way the world works these days. Even the depiction of a racist figure to denigrate it is off limits; it’s as if the museum directors (who are supposed to be advocates of free speech through art) wish to efface the idea that there even is or was racism!
Fortunately, sane people have pushed back on the delay, including Guston’s daughter as well as one of my Chicago colleagues:
Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, who wrote a memoir of her father, said in a statement that she was “deeply saddened” by the decision from the museums to postpone the exhibition, writing that her father had “dared to unveil white culpability, our shared role in allowing the racist terror that he had witnessed since boyhood.”
“This should be a time of reckoning, of dialogue,” she wrote. “These paintings meet the moment we are in today. The danger is not in looking at Philip Guston’s work, but in looking away.”
She noted that her father’s family were Jewish immigrants who fled Ukraine to escape persecution and that he “understood what hatred was.”
Darby English, a professor of art history at the University of Chicago and former adjunct curator at the Museum of Modern Art, called the decision by the museums to delay the Guston exhibition “cowardly and patronizing, an insult to art and the public alike.” He called the artist’s works “counterintuitive” and “thoughtfully created in identification with history’s victims.”
“It should be part of one’s attitude to see them as opportunities to think, to improve thinking, to sharpen perception, to talk to one another,” Professor English said of the works in an email. “Not to grimly proceed with one’s head in the sand, avoiding difficult conversations because you think the timing is bad.”
I must email English and thank him for his stand. I agree with every word of his statement. “Cowardly” and “patronizing” are especially apposite.
Finally, the Times notes two other instances (beside Schutz’s painting) of shows canceled or redacted because they depicted bigotry—in a negative way:
But art museums have in the last three years increasingly found themselves on the defensive for showing works that depict polarizing subjects and racial violence. Some observers have protested the showing of work considered traumatizing to communities scarred by that violence; others have objected that institutions put that pain on display gratuitously. Recently, some work has been removed from major exhibitions.
. . . [in 2017], in Minneapolis, the Walker Art Center, removed a work by the white artist Sam Durant, called “Scaffold,” a gallows-like sculpture intended to memorialize several executions, including the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Minnesota after the United States-Dakota war in 1862, after local Native American communities objected to it.
The words that now make art curators quail are these, “That art offends me!” But that’s ludicrous, for art prompts emotion, and some of that emotion will be offense.
The history of art is littered with people who deemed art in a new style, or art that depicted “unpleasant” subjects, as unacceptable. This is just one more case. But in these cases the art that offends is art that agrees with the ideology of the offended! The offended are acting like spoiled children having tantrums, and we shouldn’t pay attention to their beefs, as they are prima facie unhinged. Nor should the curators truckle to the offended mob. That will lead to all art becoming bland, homogeneous, and afraid to tackle certain subjects. We’ll be left with galleries full of pictures of dogs playing poker (or is that an offense to dogs?).
I find this video, in which jewelry-makeer Pablo Cimedvila (also a champion paralympic swimmer) manufactures an intricate and beautiful diamond ring, mesmerizing. (His YouTube channel, with many fascinating videos, is here, and his online store is here.) I had no idea how much skill goes into this wearable art. At least I think the centerpiece is a yellow diamond.
There’s only one in the tank after this, so send in your photos (two max, caption, cats welcome). Today’s reader is Lorraine, who restores and conserves artworks:
The painting I’m working on in the series of photos is a lovely landscape by Russell Smith owned by an institution. It’s actually oil on paper and I was working in collaboration with a local paper conservator on the treatment. The painting had been torn, which resulted in some losses to the paper. The paper conservator mended the tears and then filled the losses with paper pulp. My part of the treatment was to inpaint the losses using a 28% solution of Aquazol 200, a poly(2-ethyl-2-oxazoline) mixed with dry pigments. Aquazol is a polymer that is soluble in water and can be used just like watercolor.
The advantage of using Aquazol is that it is very easily reversible, which is extremely important in art conservation–whatever you do to the artwork has to be reversible. Most of what we end up doing in our work is trying to reverse terrible restorations. (Think of “Monkey Jesus” and you know what I’m talking about.)
The other photo is a selfie I took while sitting near some of the paintings we were in the process of conserving.
This is perhaps the most intriguing (and bizarre) face makeup I’ve ever seen. When she speaks in the makeup at the beginning, it will freak you out. Who is she? Here are the YouTube notes:
Dain Yoon is an illusion artist known on Instagram for her face and body painting. The illusions are all incredibly detailed with life-like features, especially the eyes. We invited her to our studio to show us how she creates these optical illusions, using a mix of body paint and makeup.
Her webpage is here, and her Instagram page is here, where you’ll find many stupendous looks like the ones in the video below (check out this page, for instance).
Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Yalies! Of all the Ivy League schools I follow, Yale is becoming the most Woke, and not in a nice way. It’s been going on a while, but became more visible in 2015 when popular Yale professor Nicholas Christakis, who taught sociology and other subjects, and his equally popular wife Erika, who taught early childhood education, were canceled by students after Erika wrote a letter suggesting that students might use their own discretion in choosing Halloween costumes. You may remember the video of Yalies reviling Christakis in public (do have a look!). Eventually both he and Erika resigned as Silliman College heads, and she resigned from teaching at Yale as well.
I needn’t point out other instances of Yale’s degeneration, including a frenzy of renaming buildings and effacing history that’s considered ideologically incorrect. Recently, the University partly cemented over an old ornament in a building that depicted a Native American and a Pilgrim with a musket. The cement was put on to cover the gun! How condescending can they be? Yes, the Native Americans were treated shamefully, but what does this bowdlerization accomplish?
And now, because of student demand and disaffection, the centerpiece course of Yale’s Art History department, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to Present”, is being canceled. That’s right, not renamed, but canceled, to be replaced with a woke course that sounds truly dire. A piece at the Yale Daily News gives the sad story.
This was a popular course for decades, taught by the best professors, and, as it disappears, students are clamoring to get into it, with over 100 students trying to exceed the 300-student limit. They knew how good it was. But it’s going away, and will reappear in a much degraded form.
Why? You already know. The course dealt solely with Western art, and, as we know, Western art has historically been the purview of white males. This is changing of course, because that concentration on one demographic is the result of millennia of sexism and racism. You’d find the same biased content if you taught a course on the history of Western science, or the history of Western music. But change will come, though it will take a while, because the great achievements need to be not only produced but sorted out over time.
And of course you could always change the course’s name, simply putting the word “Western” before “Art History.” But that won’t suffice, either, because the makers of most of the art covered in the class will still be our most reviled demographic.
So should such a course—one in Western art—still be a centerpiece course rather than as one among many equals? When I was in college, we just took Fine Arts 101, and the concentration was of course on Western art, but it also included art from other areas, like India and China. You couldn’t possibly do justice to all the world’s art in a one-semester course, and so we got just a smidgen of non-Western art. So, after that course was over, I took a one-semester course in Indian art, and I still remember my term paper on the sculpture of Gandhara.
But what sticks with me is the Western stuff, simply because I live in the West, imbibe Western culture (as do almost all who live in the U.S), and the references we see in our culture to art—ranging from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam to Picasso’s Guernica—are part of the Western tradition. That’s why I think the course should simply be renamed, but without the content being changed, and it should remain as be the Department’s flagship course. Others will disagree, and they can take a number and get in line. If you have only one semester to take a course on art in America, it should be a course in Western art, where the tradition can be traced directly.
But I’m not saying that students shouldn’t be exposed to other kinds of art as well. Indian art, which I know pretty well, has a glorious tradition, as does the art of China, Japan, and many other areas. There should of course be opportunities for students to take such courses. But if they take only one, as is the case in liberal-arts schools, let it be on the art of their own culture. And by all means include in that course art by women and people of color (Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera come immediately to mind), so long as the art is good.
Sadly, Introduction to Art History is going away; it’s not inclusive enough. And, indeed, the last edition of the course is being Wokified. As the Yale Daily News reports:
Decades old and once taught by famous Yale professors like Vincent Scully, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present” was once touted to be one of Yale College’s quintessential classes. But this change is the latest response to student uneasiness over an idealized Western “canon” — a product of an overwhelmingly white, straight, European and male cadre of artists.
This spring, the final rendition of the course will seek to question the idea of Western art itself — a marked difference from the course’s focus at its inception. Art history department chair and the course’s instructor Tim Barringer told the News that he plans to demonstrate that a class about the history of art does not just mean Western art. Rather, when there are so many other regions, genres and traditions — all “equally deserving of study” — putting European art on a pedestal is “problematic,” he said.
When you hear the word “problematic” from the Left, run away quickly! Now look what they’re doing to this once great course in its final incarnation (my emphasis):
In his syllabus note to potential students on Canvas, an online course management tool, Barringer wrote that the emphasis would be placed on the relationship between European art and other world traditions. The class will also consider art in relation to “questions of gender, class and ‘race’” and discuss its involvement with Western capitalism, Barringer wrote. Its relationship with climate change will be a “key theme,” he wrote.
Barringer has also focused attention on the course’s written assignments. He said that he will invite students to write an essay nominating a work of art that has been left out of the course’s curriculum or its textbook. Like the changes to the course itself, this essay is designed to challenge long-held views of art history.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing what works the students come up with to counteract or undermine my own narratives,” he wrote.
Barringer, of course, is pandering to student demand, abnegating his duty to teach the subject and to awaken a love of art in his students. CLIMATE CHANGE? CAPITALISM? I weep bitter tears, not because I’m a denialist or a rampant capitalist, but because these are ecological, political, and social issues that have almost nothing to do with art history.
A course about questioning the purview of Western art is not a course on art history, nor is it a course on art appreciation (I bless my professor at William and Mary who taught me how to see and how to appreciate Western art). No, it’s a course on ideology and inclusivity. This change derives, of course, from student demands, which now are starting to run universities as professors cower before authoritarian demands. Or, in this case it appears that the professors have themselves internalized identity politics, running ahead of the pack to ruin their courses.
A few students are griping, but, given Yale’s increasing wokeness, the course is doomed—doomed to become only one of several co-equal courses in art history, which will be more about politics than art.
. . . other students expressed certain dissatisfactions with the Art History Department’s decision to get rid of Barringer’s class.
“My biggest critique of the decision is that it’s a disservice to undergrads,” Mahlon Sorensen ’22 said. “If you get rid of that one, all-encompassing course, then to understand the Western canon of art, students are going to have to take multiple art history courses. Which is all well and good for the art history major, but it sucks for the rest of us, which, I would say, make up the vast majority of the people who are taking [HSAR 115].”
This is happening in other departments at Yale as well, especially English. While diverse contributions should certainly be represented in art and literature, “diverse” can mean many things, and the concentration should be, as it used to be before “theory” took over and ruined English courses, on how to read and see and listen, and understand why some art is considered great. That’s what used to be taught when New Criticism dominated English literature. Now that’s gone by the wayside: it’s not about the text but about who wrote it, and which groups had power during the writing. As the News reports:
Over the past several years, structural changes in the art history major have come largely in part to the department’s active response to similar student suggestions. According to the Director of Undergraduate Studies Marisa Bass, students motivated the creation of courses like “Global Decorative Arts,” “Sacred Art and Architecture” and “The Politics of Representation.”
“Yale’s History of Art department is deeply committed to representing the intellectual diversity of its students and its faculty, and we believe that introductory surveys are an essential opportunity to continue to challenge, rethink and rewrite the narratives surrounding the history of engagement with art, architecture, images and objects across time and place,” Bass said. “These surveys and those that we will continue to develop in the future are designed in recognition of an essential truth: that there has never been just one story of the history of art.”
As we all know, but also realize that it’s impolitic to point out, “intellectual diversity” means “racial and gender diversity”, for racial and gender diversity are claimed, wrongly, to map perfectly onto intellectual diversity. (That, by the way, is a truly patronizing attitude.) While it’s extremely valuable to keep reassessing canons to see that they don’t neglect underappreciated works, and don’t become stale, the attempt to pretend that art history has always been a rainbow of identity politics will be the death of art history. Yes, art history will change as barriers to entry of oppressed and minority artists fall, and that’s a good thing. But rewriting art history is like Yale’s attempt to rewrite American history. It doesn’t do anything but keep the students quiet while erasing what really happened over the last few centuries.