Reader’s wildlife photos

April 8, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today we have another text-and-photo odyssey from reader Athayde Tonhasca Júnior. His text is indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

The long dead speak to us

The Ancient Greeks and Romans shaped Western culture with their philosophy, laws, plays, poetry, treatises, historical narratives and memories. By and large, these texts were the works of the elite: educated white men high up in the pecking order (naturally, then, the Church of Woke loathes the Classics). But women, soldiers, slaves, ordinary citizens and assorted hoi polloi left their impressions on a few texts, clay and wood tablets (such as the ones in the Vindolanda museum), and epitaphs. Some of latter sound surprisingly contemporary and touching, considering how odd, cruel and violent the Ancients often seem to us.

All but two of the following images are mine, but most of the information comes from their respective museums (in parenthesis).

This thin marble plaque with a Greek alphabet inscription must have been secured to a wall, as indicated by traces of studs in the corners. There are also traces of the original red colour in the first and fourth lines. 3rd century AD (Cyprus Museum, Nicosia – CM).

This grave belongs to Evodia who enjoyed a happy life; the immortal fame of her modest nature is shining. But the sweet end of life has been decreed by the gods for all mortals and this nobody can ever avoid.

This lyrical funerary epigram in Greek consists of five elegiac couplets, but the last three verses are illegible. It was placed on the grave of Sostratis by her father, who expresses his grief for the premature loss of his daughter, before he could see her married. It is written in the first person singular as if the deceased girl is speaking. 1st c. BC (CM).

I, Sostratis, like a tender olive tree branch, was cut off by the wind from my father’s chambers. My wedding is like a meaningless name to you because the girl you have so caringly raised will remain unmarried. Yes, but since god has divorced me from such things, you should now enjoy your children who are still alive while I pray to the gods of the underworld….

This Cypro-syllabic inscription on limestone, possibly from 6th c. BC, is not completely legible because of some unidentified script. So we will never know the objective of this funerary stele; was it to celebrate Nikanor the brave? Nikanor the influencer? Forever the mystery of Nikanor (CM).

Nikanor the… who fell in battle.

If you ever studied Latin from a textbook, you may have come across this famous transcript from a tablet or pillar found in Rome, now lost, from 135-120 BC (image © Clauss et al. EDCS-Journal).

Stranger, what I say is brief. Stand still and read it. Here is the scarcely beautiful tomb of a beautiful woman. Her parents named her Claudia. She loved her husband with her whole heart. She bore two sons; of these she leaves one on earth; under the earth she has placed the other. She was charming in conversation, yet proper in bearing. She kept house, she made wool. I have spoken. Go your way.

Here’s the original, with its faulty syntax:

Hospes quod deico paullum est asta ac pellege / h(e)ic est sepulcrum hau(d) pulc(h)rum pulc(h)rai feminae / nomen parentes nominarunt Claudiam / su(ou)m mareitum corde deilexit s(o)uo / gnatos duos creavit horunc alterum / in terra linquit alium sub terra locat / sermone lepido tum autem incessu commodo / domum servavit lanam fecit dixi ab(e)i:

A plaque from 2nd c. AD (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

In this respectable tomb Glyconis lies serenely: sweet in name, but even sweeter in her soul. She never cared for splendid honours for her (too?) austere, but rather she preferred to be wild and pleasant, to be inebriated by wine (Bacchus) and to perform songs with simplicity. She often amused herself by weaving beautiful wreaths of flowers with sweet love for herself and for her children, who she left in puberty (the sons) she created were brothers in the likeness of Castor and Pollux. Worthy to enjoy a blessed and eternal life (lux), she hurried to where the good fates call (us). Publius Mattius Chariton saw to (the making of this tomb) for his well-deserving wife.

The original reads:

Hoc iacet in tumulo secura Glyconis honesto. / Dulcis nomine erat, anima quoque dulcior usque / que nucquam tetricos egit sibi lucis honores, / set magi(s) lascivos suabes, Bacchoq(ue) madere, / simplicitate sequi cantus. Mollesq(ue) coronas / lusibus ipsa suis generabat saepe et amore / dulce sibi natisque suis quos reliquit. / Castorea fratres sub imagine quos generavit. / Digna quidem frui perpetua de luce benigna. / set celerat quo nos fata benigna vocant. / P(ublius) Mattius toit Chariton coniugi b(ene) m(erenti) f(ecit):

The funerary stele of a Roman soldier who died naturally or was killed in Cyprus during Roman rule, 2nd c. AD. The Latin inscription speaks of a soldiers’ fate: to die before his time, away from home (CM).

Erected in memory of the centurion Caius Decimius, son of Titus from the tribe Stellatina.

A limestone funerary stele from the 5th c. BC. The middle-aged bearded man – the deceased – offered his right hand for a handshake, a sign of farewell. The parchment in the hand of the standing man suggests that the deceased was a man of letters (CM).

A marble funerary stele from Plakalona (Aptera), Crete, 3rd-4th c. AD (Heraklion Archaeological Museum).

Here I lie, Sympherousa, aged thirty, a foreigner of Libyan origin. Through prudence and affection in all my affairs I joined the dwelling of the gods and greatly for [my] attitude valued, in this valued city, among the people of Aptera, who too rewarded me with their grief at my sudden death, simply sending me off to Hades, [having laid me] in a grave. Farewell to all, you, passers-by, and you, people of Aptera, who with no hesitation laid me to rest in this great urn, with passion and honour. I, Nikon, wrote this. Her onetime husband. Now no more: a victim of the evil eye… the woman that I desired so much, for her prudence, as I wrote above, and I am helpless. I shout, but she does not hear. To hold on to [this] love, I will continue to be, who I was, but I can do nothing; she flew straight away like the wind.

An inscription by Philon dedicated to the goddess Nemesis, who punishes mortals for their sin of hubris (nemesis and hubris are much in vogue in the age of Putin). This limestone plaque may have been at the base of a statue or built into a wall of a temenos (a portion of land assigned as an official domain, or dedicated to a god). 1st c. AD (CM).

Philon, the son of Tryphon, made and erected me, the powerful goddess Nemesis and the personification of Justice, born to punish the irreverent and to bring, on the other hand, fortune to those who know how to be just, in the holy temenos, thus fulfilling a wish:

A Funerary stele of a hoplite (a citizen-soldier of Ancient Greek), who typically was kitted out with a helmet, a spear, a shield and a sword. The inscription mentions the name and the hoplite’s hometown: Kardia, in Thrace. This stele may have been dedicated to a soldier who fought on Cyprus during the Persian wars. ~400 BC (CM).

Dionysio(s) Kardiano(s)

Cypro-syllabic understatement on a funerary stele from 5th c. BC (CM).

[This stele belongs to] Divina, who has no life:

A wall graffito in cursive Latin found in Pompeii in 1913 but lost two years later when the wall fell after torrential rains. The graffito’s image survived thanks to a line drawing by the Italian archaeologist and epigraphist Matteo Della Corte (1875-1962) (image from Della Corte, 1965. Case ed abitanti di Pompei. Faustino Fiorentino, Naples). The poem has several versions; here are two of them:

Nothing is able to endure forever;
Once the sun has shone brightly, it returns to the ocean;
The moon grows smaller, who just now was full;
The savagery of winds often becomes a light breeze.


Nothing can last forever:
the sun, when its course is complete,
hides itself behind the sea; the moon, once full, now wanes.
Thus, love’s wounds shall heal and fresh breezes will blow once more.

And the original:

nihil durare potest tempore perpetuo
cum bene sol nituit redditur oceano
decrescit phoebe quae modo plena fui
ventorum feritas saepe fit aura l[e]vis:

This one is not about the dead, rather those hanging by a thread. This structure is a 5th c. alms box at the Congregation of St Michelle in Fano, Italy. This hole in the wall is a gateway to a tale of etymological evolution for word geeks. The expositorum part is straightforward: from the Latin verb exponere, it means abandoned, exposed: the pauper, in other words. But here’s the journey of Eleemosynis: from Ancient Greek ἔλεος (éleos, pity) and ἐλεημοσύνη (eleēmosúnē, alms, charity, mercy), it jumped to Latin as eleemosyna(alms); it then morphed into eleemosynarius in Medieval Latin before being shortened by natural selection and becoming almes in Old German and ælmesse in Old English. From there it mutated into ‘alms’, ‘almonry’ and ‘almoner’. But the word’s ancestral English branch did not go extinct, so today we also have the rare and endangered ‘eleemosynary’. The eleemosyna that did not migrate to Anglo-Saxon territories metamorphosed into the Italian elemosina and the Portuguese esmola for ‘alms’:

Death is not all about doom & gloom. This 3rd to 2nd c. BC double-sided votive relief depicts the head of Dionysus on the front side. On the reverse, a couple is engaged in the oldest of all couple’s games (CM).

Readers’ wildlife photos

April 6, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today our “wildlife” constitutes art: fascinating aboriginal rock art from Australia, in photos sent by reader Rodney Graetz. His notes are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them:

Australian Aboriginal Rock art

A rainbow revealed.  A creek has exposed a layered rock face of bright colours, from yellow orange to deep purple.  These rocks all contain iron compounds which, on exposure to the atmosphere, have been differently weathered to produce many coloured ochres:

Converting weathered rock to pigment requires first grinding it into a powder, then suspending it in water, blood, fat, or plant gums to make a thick (adhesive?) liquid for painting bodies, weapons, or other rocks:

Globally, ochre was evidently a valued pigment by humans, and our antecedents, with recorded use back 300 thousand years.  Nationally, two strands of evidence demonstrate Aboriginal Australians also placed a high value on ochre.  The first evidence is that wherever an exposure of high quality and colour ochre was found, quarrying, and even large scale mining, was done to extract it.  This is an open-face, multicolour ochre quarry located near Alice Springs, in the centre of the continent.  The digging would have been by hands and simple wooden tools.  Aboriginal Australians had no metal technology:

The second evidence is the effort and astonishing distances over which the extracted ochre was carried (on foot) and traded.  The carriers and traders would have been as this (colourised) man in carrying only a spear or two, to feed and defend himself.  Here is a historical description (1874) of the extraction and transport by a group of men from a highly regarded ochre site (Pukardu/Bookartoo) in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia to far away Western Queensland – about 400 km (250 mi) – and beyond.

“the party travels about twenty miles a day, and on arrival at the mine each member of it digs out his own ochre, mixes it with water, making it into loaves of about 20 lbs weight, which are dried.  Each man carries an average of 70 lbs of ochre, invariably on his head, and has to procure his own food; the party seldom resting a day while on the journey, which lasts usually from six to eight weeks.”:

What are the properties of ochre that made it so valuable to people?  I think the fundamental property is its principal colour – red.  Our 3-colour visual system enhances our ability to detect red objects.  Note how your eyesight is first attracted to, and then returned to, the tomatoes, and not the three different green objects.  The importance of the colour red is captured in many languages; most of which have a word for the colour red, with some languages having only two colour words – red and not-red.

The next most important ochre property is that, based on its red colour, imagination can easily make it represent, or symbolise, blood, and thereby relate to important emotional events of our lives, such as life and death.  This excavated skeleton is ‘Mungo Man’ (aka LM3), ritually buried 40,000 years ago, and sprinkled with more than 1 kilogram of ochre, the source of which was 200 km away.  So, ochre transport and trading is at least 40,000 years old.  What was the purpose of adding an appreciable amount of valuable ochre?  Did it signify status, or was it for an afterlife?  Why, today, do people throw flowers into graves?

The final and most important ochre property is the one that has driven fundamental changes in human culture.  In pre-literate cultures, ochre-based painting made non-verbal, self-expression possible and memorable for individuals, groups, and cultures.  Contemplate the message this artist wanted to say.  The large Wandjina figures are relatively modern, but in the lower left corner there is a small, partly overpainted Bradshaw figure with a possible age of 20,000 years.  It is very likely that this large light-coloured rock face has been a busy noticeboard for painters over thousands of years.

This style of ochre painting (Bradshaw or Gwion Gwion) is generally agreed to be the oldest, and in my opinion, the most finely executed.  I find them fascinating.  The ‘brushes’ were likely chewed sticks or grass stems.  Debate about the Who and When of the Gwion Gwion artists continues:

This style of painting is typical of rock overhangs and caves by being big and coarse, with finger-painted ochre figures.  Another similar site illustrates the simplicity of their production and information content:

A gallery of ‘I was here’ graffiti stencils.  Ochre must have been plentiful and painting skill not considered important.  Simply, the artist had a mouthful of ochre suspended in water that he sprayed over his hand or weapon.  Only the net structures appear to have been painted by finger or thick brush:

As traditional aboriginal life dissipated, so followed their painting, no longer important, no longer renewed.  This happened fastest in southern Australia, and slowest in tropical northern Australia, where the culture persisted, with paintings still being renewed into the 1960s.  To describe the painting quality and quantity shown here as vibrant is an understatement.  The blue paintings in this crowded site used a store-bought laundry powder (‘Reckitt’s Blue’):

Another example of extraordinary artistic skill.  The pigments are still ochres, the brushes were chewed sticks, and the fine detail very impressive.  Done on boulder, it is no longer renewed, but non-Aboriginal technology – a small silicone-bead boundary – preserve it by diverting rainwater:

Today’s reality is that ochre-based rock art is dead, as this example shows.  It is now unwanted, unrenewed, and becoming lifeless:

This is what has replaced the ochre-only painting.  Vibrant in colour and design, it was catalysed in 1971 by an Art teacher, who introduced synthetic paints and colours to an Aboriginal community with wildfire success.  It is a remarkable story.  The ‘dot’ style is to hide secret mythological (‘Dreaming’) components of a story.  We purchased this painting – by a female painter – and it never fails to lift our mood.

Female Western Desert artists at work out in the ‘bush’, inspired by the harsh, arid landscapes they were born into (and still love), and by their ‘Dreaming’ (Tjukurpa).  Back in ochre-only times, women were forbidden to paint, or even see the men-only galleries.  In some desert groups, the punishment was death.  Now, with acrylic paints, they have both creative and financial independence.  Their clothing reflects their sense of utility, style, and freedom.  My understanding is that now, women painters are more artistically interesting, skilled, and thereby, more financially successful, than are the men – a very welcome change!  I borrowed four (black-edged) photos to complete this story.

Was Leonardo da Vinci Jewish?

April 5, 2023 • 1:15 pm

I paid particular attention to this piece because it was published in Tablet, which has a decent history of accurate reporting. That doesn’t mean I believe the claim that one of history’s greatest painters was Jewish, but they do cite a Leonardo da Vinci authority who came to the conclusion, despite his leanings to the contrary, that this was indeed the case.  If he’s right, and Leonardo was a landsmann, then perhaps we should change his name to Lenny da Vinci.

This isn’t a joke, though; click on the article below to see the facts, which are suggestive but not strong enough to convince me of Leonardo’s semitism with a high probability

I’ll have to quote a bit to show you the evidence. Here’s the new theory:

In all likelihood, Leonardo da Vinci was only half Italian. His mother, Caterina, was a Circassian Jew born somewhere in the Caucasus, abducted as a teenager and sold as a sex slave several times in Russia, Constantinople, and Venice before finally being freed in Florence at age 15. This, at least, is the conclusion reached in the new book Il sorriso di Caterina, la madre di Leonardo, by the historian Carlo Vecce, one of the most distinguished specialists on Leonardo da Vinci.

And the conventional wisdom as adumbrated in the 2019 article below (click screenshot) from the Jerusalem Post (quote is from Tablet piece):

The official version of da Vinci’s birth is that it was the fruit of a brief fling between the Florentine solicitor Piero da Vinci and a young peasant from Tuscany called Caterina, of whom almost nothing was known. Yet there had long been a seemingly unfounded theory that Leonardo had foreign origins and that Caterina was an Arab slave. Six years ago, professor Vecce decided to kill the rumor for good. “I simply found it impossible to believe that the mother of the greatest Italian genius would be a non-Italian slave,” he told me. “Now, not only do I believe it, but the most probable hypothesis, given what I found, is that Caterina was Jewish.”

The new evidence (my emphasis):

Vecce was the right man for the job—he published an anthology of da Vinci’s writings and a biography, Leonardo, translated into several languages, and he collaborated on the exhibition of da Vinci’s drawings and manuscripts at the Louvre and Metropolitan Museum in 2003. He embarked on the research for his latest book during the reconstruction of da Vinci’s library, which is where he found the document that changed everything. Dated Nov. 2, 1452, seven months after Leonardo’s birth, and signed by Piero da Vinci [Leonardo’s father] in his professional capacity, it is an emancipation act regarding the daughter of a certain Jacob, originating from the Caucasian mountains,” and named Caterina. According to the document, Catarina’s owner appears to have been the wife of rich merchant Donato di Filippo, who lived near the San Michele Visdomini church in Florence, and whose usual solicitor for business was Piero da Vinci. The date on the document is underlined several times, as if da Vinci’s hand was shaking as he proceeds to the liberation of the woman who just gave him a child.

Leonardo’s mom Caterina, instead of being Italian, is hypothesized as coming from Russia, and brought to Italy to be the property of Leonardo’s father, who made her work and also impregnated her several times. Vecce argues that Caterina was brought to Italy through Constantinople to Venice and then to Florence, where she became pregnant by Piero:

From there, we can follow Caterina to Venice, and then to Florence where she was brought by her new master, Donato di Filippo, who put her to work both in his clothing workshop and at the service of his wife. That she was a sex slave is attested by the fact that she already had several children by Filippo when, at 15, she met da Vinci, Filippo’s solicitor, who at first “borrowed” her as a nanny for his daughter Marie and then fell so much in love with her that he freed her from slavery after Leonardo’s birth. “Da Vinci himself was no stranger to the Jews,” says professor Vecce. “His main customers were among the Jewish community of Florence.”

So much for that. Leonardo’s dad left Florence for Milan, where Caterina, Leonardo’s putative mom, died in 1493. There’s a bit of unconvincing evidence that Leonardo’s painting “Annunciation” has hints of his mother’s origin, but would he really have known?

I’m not sure if the above convinces you (and I’m on the fence), but it did convince the skeptic Carlo Vecce, who is no tyro when it comes to Leonardo.

For counterevidence, though, read this article from 2019. Note that in all likelihood, the “evidence” that convinced Vecce was not available to author Erol Araf:

At the time there were already several claims that Leonardo was Jewish (under Jewish law, if your mother is a Jew, so are you; Jewishness can be regarded as traveling along with mitochondrial DNA). But here Araf takes issue:

As additional proof that he was ashamed of his mother’s origins as a lowly Jewish slave, the implausible argument has been advanced that he treated her funeral as an embarrassment. This contention is not supported by facts: The burial costs listed in the Codex Foster – under a receipt containing wax and lemon juice – includes expenses for a doctor, sugar, wax for the candles, bier with a cross, four priests and four altar boys, the bells and the gravediggers. It all costs a very tidy sum of 123 soldi; a not-insignificant amount.

So much for that. And the best evidence Araf could adduce at the time is this:

Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University and recognized as a leading Leonardo scholar, has researched the origins of Leonardo’s mother hoping it will put an end to “totally implausible myths” that have built up about Leonardo’s life. He analyzed 15th-century tax records kept in Vinci, Florence. In various interviews, preceding the publication of his book Mona Lisa: the People and the Painting, written together with Dr. Giuseppe Pallanti, an economist and art researcher, Kemp argued that the evidence was obtained by meticulously kept real estate taxation declarations.

“In the case of Vinci, “Kemp said, “they verified that Caterina’s father, who seems to be pretty useless, had a rickety house which wasn’t lived in and they couldn’t tax him…. He had disappeared and then apparently died young. So Caterina’s was a real sob story.” The records also showed that Caterina had an infant stepbrother, Papo, and her grandmother died shortly before 1451, leaving them with no assets or support, apart from an uncle with a “half-ruined” house and cattle. In short, she was a poor orphaned peasant girl who fell on hard times and in love with Leonardo’s rakish father.

The crucial question, then, since Leonardo was born in 1452, was whether they could establish that Caterina had a real Italian father whose existence can be established with a paper record. Also, Kemp’s claim that mother Caterina was a “poor orphaned peasant girl who fell on hard times and in love with Leonardo’s rakish father” doesn’t comport with Carlo Vecce’s claim that Caterina was the slave of Leonardo’s father’s solicitor, who impregnated her several times before giving her to Leonardo’s father. And was a child produced while Caterina was under the thumb of Piero da Vinci?

So we have a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Are there any living relatives of Leonardo who could be used to establish whether his mitochondria came from Russia? I don’t know, and can’t be arsed to find out. Only history will adjudicate this one, and Vecce’s book is available, though only yet in Italian. The title means “Catherine’s smile”:

One of my favorite Leonardos, Lady with an Ermine (1498-1491). I was lucky enough to see it at the  Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, Poland.

In wake of controversy over showing images of Muhammad, and a faculty vote of no confidence, the president of Hamline University “retires”

April 5, 2023 • 9:45 am

If you read this site you almost certainly remember the controversy beginning in late December, 2022 at Hamline University, a small liberal-arts school in Minnesota. I wrote several times about what ensued when an art-history teacher,  Erika López Prater, showed her class two images of Muhammad depicted as a person. One, very famous (below), showed the Prophet’s face, and in the other painting the face was blotted out.  As you may know, some (but not all) sects of Islam consider it blasphemous to depict Muhammad in any form.

To forestall “offense,” Dr. López Prater warned the students on her course syllabus that the images would be shown, letting them know they didn’t  have to look at them. Further, she made the same announcement verbally right at the beginning of class. Here’s the most famous of the images, considered a masterpiece of Islamic art; it’s from the 14th century and shows the angel Gabriel dictating the Qur’an to Muhammad.


Well, the warnings were of no avail. Several students complained about the depiction, apparently unaware that showing Muhammad is blasphemous to only some Muslims, and apparently ignored the two “trigger warnings” that López Prater issued. Big “harm” and “offense” ensued and the President of Hamline, Fayneese Miller (see photo below) issued a weaselly statement that firing the instructor was not a violation of academic freedom:

At the same time, academic freedom does not operate in a vacuum. It is subject to the dictates of society and the laws governing certain types of behavior. Imara Scott, in an April 2022 article published in Inside Higher Ed, noted that “academic freedom, like so many ideological principles, can be manipulated, misunderstood, and misrepresented…academic freedom can become a weapon to be used against vulnerable populations.”  —Fayneese Miller

A ton of publicity ensued, none of it favorable to Hamline. The faculty rebelled, with 86% of full-time faculty (71/83) voting to ask Miller to resign, and López Prater, who apparently has other job offers, is suing the school.  All of this makes for a perfect storm of bad publicity, sending a message that Hamline University doesn’t practice academic freedom.

The results were predictable, especially because it’s likely the instructor will win big bucks in her suit against Hamline. Click to read this NYT article, or see it archived here.

Although Miller just announced that she’d retire in about a year, there isn’t much doubt, after the faculty vote, that her hand was forced.

The president of Hamline University, who had been under sharp criticism for the treatment of an adjunct professor who showed images of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class, announced on Monday that she would retire in June 2024.

Fayneese S. Miller, the president of the Minnesota school, had initially defended the university’s decision to not reappoint the lecturer who had shown students, after providing warnings, images of the Prophet Muhammad, igniting a debate about academic freedom and Islamophobia.

Many Muslims say they are prohibited from viewing images of Muhammad out of concerns of idolatry, but Muslims have varying views about such representations.

On Monday, an email from the administration to the campus announced that Dr. Miller would step down, but made no mention of the controversy.

In the message, Ellen Watters, the chairwoman of the university’s board of trustees, called Dr. Miller an “innovative and transformational” leader and said she had ably led the university through a time of change while centering the needs of students. “Hamline is forever grateful for Dr. Miller’s tireless and dedicated service,” she said. The university will conduct a national search for a successor.

But Miller had also been criticized for going too easy on students who exercised their freedom of speech:

In the Muhammad controversy, she was criticized for bending to the will of student activists. But Dr. Miller, the university’s first Black president, also found herself targeted by students for resisting the calls of activists.

In 2019, four white student athletes were seen on video singing along to a popular song that included a racial epithet. Students demanded that she punish the students in the video. Dr. Miller refused, stating that the matter was a teachable moment. She said her response would have been different if the students had directed the word at another student.

Students also protested her last fall after she suggested to a gathering of student leaders that they donate money to the university while students there. The comments, students said, were oblivious to their financial struggles.

The decision about the song was the correct one, though a single epiphet directed at a student is probably permitted by Hamline’s speech code, and certainly by the First Amendment. But if it’s done repeatedly to create at atmosphere of harassment and bigotry, that speech is not protected.

Later on, the University walked back Miller’s statement, now admitting that it made a misstep. But it was too late: López Prater had already been fired:

Eventually, the university — in a statement signed by Dr. Miller and the university’s board chair, Ms. Watters — walked back its most controversial statements, including that Dr. López Prater’s actions were Islamophobic.

“Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep,” the statement said. “In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom. Based on all that we have learned, we have determined that our usage of the term ‘Islamophobic’ was therefore flawed.”

The statement added, “It was never our intent to suggest that academic freedom is of lower concern or value than our students — care does not ‘supersede’ academic freedom, the two coexist.”

The university statement also came the same day that Dr. López Prater sued the university’s board for defamation and religious discrimination. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, states that Hamline’s actions have caused Dr. López Prater the loss of income from her adjunct position and damage to her professional reputation and job prospects.

The third paragraph is of course a lie: it was indeed the President’s intent to show that religious “offense” overrides academic freedom. And the school will pay big-time for it in simoleons (they’ve already paid in the loss of their reputation). As for the whole statement above, it was made when López Prater had already been dumped, so my reaction resembles an apocryphal statement of Beethoven, who, informed on his deathbed that a case of Rhine wine had arrived as a gift, reportedly said, “Pity, pity. . . . too late.”

Too late for López Prater, but not for academic freedom. What this whole sad story shows is that academic freedom and freedom of speech in universities—at least the decent ones—is not negotiable. Nothing save the law—the speech that is not protected by the First Amendment—can override these freedoms. For the freedom to work on what you want, and say what you want (subject to judicial strictures) are the very bases of a university. College students may not get lessons in free speech and academic freedom, though all entering students should, but what happened at Hamline University is an object lesson in how offense is an inevitable byproduct of a good college education.

It’s also a lesson to colleges themselves. If they advertise themselves as promoting academic freedom and free speech, they’d better walk the walk. Otherwise, even in these woke times, they risk losing their reputation and a lot of dosh.

I am heartened at Miller’s firing resignation, and at the overwhelming faculty vote against her. But I am not convinced by a long shot that this marks a turning point in colleges’ teaching and enforcing freedom of expression. As I write this, similar clashes are going on at other universities (the one at Stanford Law School just occurred), and some universities that have lost badly on these issues just didn’t learn their lesson (I’m looking at you, Oberlin).

h/t: Greg

Ideology burrows deep into the arts in America

February 1, 2023 • 10:15 am

I’ve been involved in writing some stuff about how Social Justice ideology—following Pluckrose and Lindsay, our capitals indicate the harmful form of social justice—has infected science, like my piece the other day on Biden’s plan to foster both equity and excellence in the arts. That turned out to be a plan to foster equity, with excellence simply equated to “equity” or seen as an inevitable byproduct of equity. The more I dig into how science is interacting with culture, the more worried I get that science really is under the thumb of Social Justice, and that merit and quality are being thrown under the bus in the name of “equity”. (I refer to proportional representation by presence in the U.S., not “equality of opportunity or treatment,” which poses no threat to anything.)

This new article by Rikki Schlott (a writer and activist) at the Free Press shows how deeply the termites have already dined in the arts. In fact, every endeavor, every field of work, and every organization in America is being ideologically captured by Social Justice, and this article shows how invidious it’s been in the arts—especially theater and ballet.  I am now beginning to worry that our society is gradually transforming its culture into one resembling Stalin’s Russia, where every endeavor, including science and art, had to be done in the service of official ideology. In the end, that killed both science, much of which died a slow death under Stalin, and art, which we all know became tedious, political, and homogeneous under the same regime.

Schlott’s article also notes that in September of last year Biden signed an “Executive Order on Promoting the Arts, the Humanities, and Library Services” that is largely about advancing equity, though there are a few bits that seem to be identity-blind. But this account of what’s happening to the arts is hair-raising. It’s not due to the government, but to social pressure, to funding agencies who refuse to give money to artists unless they demonstrate a commitment to DEI, and to cultural authoritarians who, for example, refuse to hire a white sign-language interpreter to help deaf people understand words spoken by black people.

Click to read, and, as always, subscribe if you read often.  I have resubscribed and managed to keep the initial $50 price per year, though I think it’s gone up for new subscribers (in fairness, the site has hugely expanded its stable of writers):

Art can properly be political of course (“The Crucible” is one example), but now all art is forced to be political, and artistic organizations forced to adhere to prescribed DEI criteria—ideologies. The piece starts with the story of Lincoln Jones, a (white) choreographer for the American Contemporary Ballet Company (ACBC). Because he refused to politicize his organization by putting a sign of support for Black Lives Matter on the company’s Instagram account, he lost a ton of funding, and it’s not clear that the ACBC will survive. It’s not that he disapproved of BLM, but that was trying to be institutionally neutral:

“Our dancers were free to post whatever they wanted on their own social media, but I knew I wasn’t going to do it on the company account,” [Jones] said. “That’s not part of our mission.”

Then the social media pushback began, demanding that Jones adhere to BLM publicly. Some of his dancers revolted too. Then he compounded the assault by making a few statements that poured oil on the fire:

In the face of mounting pressure from the dance world, Jones sent an email to his employees clarifying his position. “American Contemporary Ballet is not a political organization,” he wrote. “Our mission is great dance. It is not our prerogative to represent each other politically.”

. . . When an agent he hired to find funding and get a director for the project told him he needed to hire dancers of color from outside his company to get the film made, Jones objected.

“One of the things I will not do is hire by race or give preference by race,” he said. “Ballet does discriminate, just not by race. This is a highly athletic art form that discriminates by body, talent, and artistic sensitivity. You have to have a certain kind of feet and proportions. It’s not just a convention. It’s like an opera singer having a loud voice.”

That’s when he began losing funding—big time. The refusal to take race into account is a slap in the face of DEI, even though it comports with Dr. King’s famous words. Even conductors who audition potential orchestra musicians behind a screen, so that neither sex nor ethnicity can be known, are being criticized explicitly because they refuse to take race and gender into account.  

Jones is in trouble, and so are the arts in general as they become politicized. There is pushback, but it’s largely anonymous because speech has been chilled.

That bargain—pledge allegiance to the new orthodoxy or stick to your mission and risk your career—is one now faced by many in the world of American fine arts.

I spoke to more than a dozen people working in dance, music, theater, and the visual arts. Some have won Pulitzer prizes. Others are just at the beginning of their careers. What they all have in common is a concern that DEI—short for diversity, equity, and inclusion, a catchall term for racial equity initiatives—is creeping into the arts and politicizing artistic expression.

But only a tiny number of those people have blown the whistle.

There are some “whistleblowers” who have gone public and even sued for being discriminated against because they were white (and got settlements), but in general people are fearful. It’s okay to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, but only if you were a private foundation that gets no federal funding. In other cases there can be no discrimination against “protected classes.” But there is: plenty of it, and, in the article, is based on race. Comply with DEI demands or give up a career in ballet, theater, or even visual arts:

Even some artists who are far in their career are too scared to comment about the new DEI demands.

“Artists already have enough challenges, and now we have all these layers of bureaucracy and mandates,” said one Pulitzer Prize–winning creative, who asked me not to print his name or even his field because he fears reprisals. “Artists are just too vulnerable to the vagaries of funding and cultural trends. Even those who are successful just can’t risk it. A freelance artist’s career could be over tomorrow if they make a fuss.”

He said he worries about America’s new generation of artists. “I’m established. I’m far enough along in my career that it doesn’t affect me as much as it does artists in [the younger] generation.”

Brent Morden is one of them. Morden is a white, 25-year-old music and choir director in New York City. Though he’s only at the beginning of his career, he said he’s already felt the crunch of funding and lost opportunities because he doesn’t tick any diversity boxes.

“When I see commissions or opportunities that are specifically looking for females or LGBTQ or BIPOC people to apply, I just sigh, wonder what this achieves, and move on,” he said. “Artistic institutions are adopting mission statements that sound nice and virtuous, but if you dig deeper under the surface, they’re promoting an agenda that doesn’t promote true and fair diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Two more bits for your enlightenment (I added the link to Landesman):

[Morden’s] feelings are echoed by renowned Broadway theater producer Rocco Landesman. From 2009 to 2012, Landesman served as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under the Obama administration. He told me he started noticing DEI creeping into the arts world around 2013 and has “no doubt” that “we’re seeing increasingly coercive guidelines.”

Landesman said he was shocked when, in 2019, a San Francisco school board voted to paint over a mural at George Washington High School that depicted the life of America’s first president, because it was deemed offensive to black and Native Americans.

“When you have art actually being destroyed because it doesn’t fit into a certain view of the world, that’s extremely alarming,” Landesman said.

Though the board reversed its decision last year, the controversy shows how the left has turned its back on the arts in the name of pursuing diversity, Landesman said.

“It’s shocking to see that proposed by progressives. I never thought we’d come to that point—it’s an amazing turn to see liberals be literally anti-art.”

Some information about how funding for art, like funding for science, depends increasingly on adherence to specific DEI criteria:

Today, many of America’s arts funders have made social justice the criteria for grants. Of the two dozen foundations I surveyed that are based in New York and California and fund the arts, fifteen either professed allegiance to DEI principles on their websites or explicitly stated they strive for racial equity via philanthropic endeavors. Of the handful of actual grant applications I could get my hands on, several required DEI statements or demographic data from applicants.

The S. Mark Taper Foundation, for instance, which doles out roughly $6 million in grants a year focused on arts, education, and social causes, has committed itself to “a continuing examination of privilege” ensuring “grantmaking that aligns with the values of diversity, equity and inclusion.” As part of their application, each organization must provide a list of their board members’ titles, length of service, and racial and ethnic profiles.

And the Ford Foundation, one of the most influential charitable organizations in the country, boasting a $16 billion endowment, has led a group of fifteen major donors in dedicating $160 million specifically to BIPOC arts organizations.

The parallels with science are multifarious: funding organizations, social media, and other artists are demanding adherence to Social Justice standards (in science we also have deans and administrations putting the pressure on). The whole situation is summed up by Landesman:

“We’re taking first-rate artists and making them into third-rate political activists,” he said.

“Art is supposed to unsettle us; art challenges what we feel about ourselves,” he continued. “But most of the art today affirms commonly held views of our society. You either fit in or you perish.”

In the first line, you could well replace “artists” with “scientists”.  All in all—and this is not something I would have said two years ago—this forced ideological conformity is turning American culture into a modern version of the culture of Stalin’s Russia. In such a situation, quality is always eroded by ideology. And it’s not like this is the view of most people, because it isn’t. It’s the doing of a fraction of the populace who happen to be both loud and into grabbing power.

On British museums effacing the past

January 30, 2023 • 11:15 am

The Economist has a very well written and well argued piece on how museums should handle aspects of the past that we today find uncomfortable or even offensive. The article, which is signed with the pseudonym “Bagehot”, was inspired by the dismantling of part of the Wellcome Collection. It then recounts other instances of museums getting rid of stuff, some of those removals proper (I agree that the Benin bronzes should have been handed back to Nigeria and strongly believe that the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece), but as for simply removing stuff from public inspection because it doesn’t comport with modern views, read below for a sensible take (there’s also an audio version):

Indented words are from the article; words flush left are mine.

The impetus:

Forget Cézanne at Tate Modern. Forget Lucian Freud at the National Gallery. If you want to see something on a gallery wall that is really, as arty sorts say, challenging, head to the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road in London. On the white wall of this minimalist space you will find a similarly minimalist exhibit of six small holes; three above and three below. There’s no label, though, and it’s not quite clear at first what they are.

It is clear what they are not. They are emphatically not part of the Wellcome Collection’s Medicine Man exhibition. Until late last year, this comprised an eccentric display of medical oddments—a glass eye; false legs; Tunisian amulets; Napoleon’s toothbrush—acquired by the Collection’s equally eccentric philanthropic founder, Henry Wellcome. At the end of 2022 the Collection announced that the exhibition “perpetuates a version of medical history that is based on racist, sexist and ableist theories” and shut it two days later. Napoleon’s transgressive toothbrush vanished; racists and ableists everywhere were doubtless chastened.

Poor old Wellcome. The past is another country and they did things differently there, much to the embarrassment of the present, which really would rather that they hadn’t. All British museums and galleries are squirming.

Damn! I would have wanted to see Napoleon’s toothbrush.

Some bizarre “erasures”:

Most have started to accompany their displays with labels rich in sorrowful subjunctives. In a recent William Hogarth exhibition at Tate Britain, a much-mocked label next to a painting of Hogarth sitting on a chair noted that the chair was made from colonial timbers. Might the chair’s limbs “stand in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity”? In the Burrell Collection, in Glasgow, a label observes that contemporary critics of the artist Édouard Manet often compared his paintings of women to pieces of meat. Might we be “seeing more [in this picture] than just a painting of a ham?” asks the label next to a Manet painting of a ham.

Oy! Yes, some Jews would find offense in that ham. Here it is, and below is the controversial painting showing Hogarth in his chair:

Self-portrait of Hogarth sitting in a chair and painting. The Tate’s label, written by Sonia E. Barrett, reads:

“The curvaceous chair literally supports him and exemplifies his view on beauty,” she writes. “The chair is made from timbers shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people. Could the chair also stand in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?”.

This shows that there is nothing—literally nothing—that can’t be construed as racist.

Seriously, though, the writer has a good philosophical take on museum erasures:

Some of this is sensible. People in the past did awful things; it is right to think about those things, carefully. If objects have clearly been nicked, it is absolutely right that they should go back. But it is absolutely wrong to do what the Wellcome Collection has, and forget the most obvious thing about the past—namely, that it isn’t another place at all. The past is merely the present, yesterday. We, today, will be in it tomorrow. The clumsy closing of the Medicine Man exhibit is in the past already. And it already looks bad.

History rarely looks kindly on those who put the past on trial from the vantage point of the present. Consider Pope Formosus, a ninth-century pope who annoyed a successor, Pope Stephen VI. Stephen’s chief problem with Formosus wasn’t merely that he was irritating; it was that, since the papacy is held for life, he was dead. Undeterred, Stephen had Formosus’s rotting corpse exhumed, dressed in full papal regalia, put on trial, found guilty, mutilated and then tossed into the Tiber. Today the Cadaver Synod is, in a highly competitive field, considered one of the finest examples of Vatican idiocy in history. Museums and galleries that mutilate their collections to conform to present fashions tend to look similarly absurd. People still smirk at the Gabinetto Segreto in Naples, in which the ruder relics of Pompeii were locked away.

And the ending, which I love because it’s not only true, but very well written.

Un-Wellcome reminders

The job of history is not, as Hilary Mantel once said, to issue “report cards” to the past. The sanctimonious word soup being spread over museum and gallery walls is not necessarily wrong in its conclusions—which are often spot-on. But it is wrong in its aim, which is to tell people what to think. And that is exactly what history should not do. One of the most mocked history books of the 20th century was “Our Island Story”, which was parodied in “1066 and All That” for its habit of briskly dismissing moments in history as “A Good Thing” or a “A Bad Thing”. In contrast, Mantel’s own “Wolf Hall” took Thomas Cromwell, one of history’s most infamous villains, and made him, if not a hero, then at least someone you rooted for. You thought again. You thought at all.

It is the job of history—and therefore of galleries and museums—to make you think. To make you wonder, of any moment in the past: what was the right thing to do? What was the wrong one? Happily, the Wellcome Collection has a temporary exhibit of its own that does just that. Just head over to where Medicine Man used to be. You might have trouble finding it: labels have been stuck over the name in the lifts; in the newly reprinted maps it has already, Soviet-like, vanished. But look carefully and you can still find those six holes on the wall. As you look, it slowly becomes clear what they are: they mark where the sign for the Medicine Man exhibition used to hang. And that does make you think.


h/t: Wayne

Minnesota art-history faculty, as well as a Muslim organization, support fired instructor who showed her class a painting with Muhammad’s face (and a new video with the instructor)

January 14, 2023 • 10:45 am

As I’ve written about several times, Erika López Prater, an instructor at Hamline University in Minnesota, was fired by the school for showing a 14th-century image of Muhammad’s face in her art-history survey course. (She also showed a painting of the Prophet with his face veiled but rest of his body complete). The instructor warned the students, both in the syllabus and before the class, that they didn’t have to go to the class or look at the image of this famous painting (TRIGGER WARNING: MUHAMMAD FACE):

López Prater’s warning didn’t matter: some offended Muslim students (mostly black Muslims but probably not from the Nation of Islam) complained, and the instructor’s contract was not renewed. The story made the NYT and Hamline got some severely bad publicity, but their President, Fayneese S. Miller, signed a statement that prioritized student comfort over academic freedom, and argued that the instructor was not “fired”—her contract simply wasn’t renewed. That is a distinction without a difference.

FIRE reproduces Miller’s statement, which includes this (scroll down on the FIRE page to see it):

Prioritizing the well-being of our students does not in any way negate or minimize the rights and privileges assured by academic freedom. But the concepts do intersect. Faculty have the right to teach and research subjects of importance to them, and to publish their work under the purview of their peers.

At the same time, academic freedom does not operate in a vacuum. It is subject to the dictates of society and the laws governing certain types of behavior. Imara Scott, in an April 2022 article published in Inside Higher Ed, noted that “academic freedom, like so many ideological principles, can be manipulated, misunderstood, and misrepresented…academic freedom can become a weapon to be used against vulnerable populations. Why? Because on the other end of a professor claiming academic freedom may be a student — a student who lacks tenure, who must rely on that professor for a grade and who may be emotionally, intellectually, or professionally harmed by the professor’s exercise of the power they hold.”

Well, clearly López Prater was not using her academic freedom as a weapon to demonize Muslims or make fun of Islam. Miller was simply out to lunch here, trying to confect reasons for violating the instructor’s acemic freedom.

According to the NYT, Miller also said that “respect for the Muslim students ‘should have superseded academic freedom.’ ” Clearly Miller (below) has no idea what academic freedom really means, and now I do think she should be fired—for complete cluelessness. Nobody should be President of a university if they think that student complaints like the ones leveled against López Prater are grounds for dismissal.

As FIRE said, Miller has “tripled down,” refusing to reconsider her decision and making even more extreme statements defending the firing (i.e., not renewing a contract). FIRE wrote Miller asking her to reconsider (she didn’t respond), and then reported Hamline University to its accrediting agency.  Fortunately, López Prater seems to have several other job offers.

President Fayneese Miller

Another reason Miller should go is that she’s lost the confidence of the entire Art History faculty of the University of Minnesota, which issue a unanimous statement (with an emeritus signing on) supporting the right of López Prater to have taught about that painting. Here’s the statement.

You can read it for yourself, so I’ll provide just one excerpt. Note the sarcastic subtitle, as the statement shows a painting of Jonah, a big fish, and the angel that resembles the Muslim painting above:

Jonah and the Whale,” Folio from a Jami al-Tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles), ca. 1400, Metropolitan Museum of Art (

The big support is here:

In its removal of Dr. López Prater from its teaching roster, Hamline’s administration took an explicit stand against higher education’s longstanding tradition of instructional prerogative, compromising the freedom of college-level instructors to make individual selections and decisions in presenting expert knowledge of all stripes (factual, theoretical, interpretive, editorial). This prerogative goes by the term “academic freedom” and it is an extraordinary privilege. As faculty, we cherish this privilege as necessary to our scholarly enterprise and earned through our pursuit of scholarly inquiry, knowledge, and insight. We take the responsibility that comes with this privilege seriously, practicing it within the social contract of the university classroom and the responsive learning communities we seek to forge there. Academic freedom, too, is a privilege we fear is currently under threat, a precarity made worse specifically by the casualization of academic labor via the underpaid adjunct gig economy and the disposability of expertise in pursuit of rising revenues.

In response to Dr. López Prater’s non-renewal, we speak strongly against Hamline’s intertwined attacks on academic freedom, on the integrity and dedication of faculty (especially those vulnerable to dismissal), and on the related enterprises of knowledge dissemination and debate. We strongly urge Hamline’s administrative leadership to examine critically its approach to this instance and its broader policies and procedures, not only regarding student complaints and controversies, but also with respect to hiring, training, setting expectations for, and listening to adjunct faculty.

And kudos to the faculty who signed it (below):

The Tenure-Stream Faculty of the UMN Department of Art History
Dr. Jane Blocker, Professor
Dr. Emily Ruth Capper, Assistant Professor
Dr. Sinem Casale, Assistant Professor
Dr. Michael Gaudio, Professor
Dr. Daniel Greenberg, Assistant Professor
Dr. Laura Kalba, Associate Professor
Dr. Jennifer Jane Marshall, Professor & Chair
Dr. Steven Ostrow, Professor
Dr. Anna Lise Seastrand, Assistant Professor
Dr. Robert Silberman, Associate Professor

Co-signed by Dr. Catherine Asher, Emerita Professor, in her capacity as an expert in Islamic art

Wouldn’t it be lovely if the HAMLINE faculty issued a statement of support? One professor in another department has spoken out, but I suspect most of the faculty are cowed and chilled.

And, if you click below, you’ll see an additional statement of support from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which seems to be a mainstream organization advocating for tolerance and understansing of  Muslims—much like the anti-Defamation League. And it’s firmly on the side of the fired non-renewed instructor.

Brief excerpt. The message comes right at the beginning rather than at the end:

It is with great concern that the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) views the firing of an art professor, Erika López Prater, from Hamline University on the grounds of showing a fourteenth-century painting depicting the Prophet Muḥammad. We issue this statement of support for the professor and urge the university to reverse its decision and to take compensatory action to ameliorate the situation.

. . . As a Muslim organization, we recognize the validity and ubiquity of an Islamic viewpoint that discourages or forbids any depictions of the Prophet, especially if done in a distasteful or disrespectful manner. However, we also recognize the historical reality that other viewpoints have existed and that there have been some Muslims, including and especially Shīʿī Muslims,  who have felt no qualms in pictorially representing the Prophet (although often veiling his face out of respect). All this is a testament to the great internal diversity within the Islamic tradition, which should be celebrated.

This, it seems, was the exact point that Dr. Prater was trying to convey to her students. She empathetically prepared them in advance for the image, which was part of an optional exercise and prefaced with a content warning. “I am showing you this image for a reason,” stressed the professor:

. . . The painting was not Islamophobic. In fact, it was commissioned by a fourteenth-century Muslim king in order to honor the Prophet, depicting the first Quranic revelation from the angel Gabriel.

Here’s a video that was just posted involving a discussion with López Prater, Christine Gruber (a Michigan art-history professor who defended her in an eloquent statement at New Lines), and several others (Mr. Salam Al-Marayati from MPAC, and Dr. Hyder Khan) who have also defended López Prater. The moderator is Muqtedar Khan, a professor at the University of Delaware. I found the video while looking for images of López Prater, which don’t seem to appear on the Internet. In the YouTube image below, she’s on the upper right. But she talks at length below, and do listen to hear her story.

The You-Tube statement:

Dr. Erika López Prater was fired from Hamline university after she showed classical paintings of Prophet Muhammad in her Art History class. She discusses the sequence of events, her syllabus, and her pedagogy. Dr. Christine Gruber explains that Islamic tradition is diverse and sheds light on the practice of painting Prophet Muhammad specially from the 13th to the 16th century in Iran and Turkey. MPAC President Salam al-Marayati shares the concerns that prompted MPAC to make the statement in support of Dr. Prater. Dr. Hyder Khan discusses the diversity of opinion in the Muslim Community of Minnesota. He feels the issue is not over and once the internal debates are over the community will take a more deliberated position on the matter.

And the video.  López Prater acquits herself well, and it’s outrageous that she was let go. Well, Hamline’s loss is some other university’s gain.

h/t: Luana, Colin

The NYT finally writes about the Hamline University/Muhammad story, and Kenan Malik offers his take

January 9, 2023 • 10:45 am

“Respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superceded academic freedom.”

—Fayneese Miller, President, Hamline University

And so Hamline University joins the Big Two of other liberal-arts schools that have embarrassed themselves via the administration’s defense of the indefensible: The Evergreen State College and Oberlin College. Evergreen defended thuggish students who were out to hunt down Bret Weinstein for saying he wouldn’t leave campus on the “Day of Absence,” while Oberlin defended three students who shoplifted wine and then beat up the store’s proprietor (Oberlin paid over $39 million for that unwise defense). Now, as I’ve written about twice, Hamline has gained the spotlight by firing an instructor who showed two pictures of Muhammed in an art class, one showing his face and the other his body with a veiled face. And the instructor, whom the NYT names below as Erika López Prater, warned the students before class about this so they didn’t have to come if they didn’t want to. But trigger warnings apparently don’t eliminate offense.

Further, as I mentioned before and as Kenan Malik notes below, it’s only a recent and more conservative strain of Islam that considers it blasphemous to show the Prophet or his face, so there’s a whole panoply of Islamic art showing Muhammad’s visage, something that art history professor Christiane Gruber, who specializes in Islamic art, pointed out while defending López Prater in New Lines Magazine. That didn’t matter, either.

Nevertheless, and even though the teacher apologized, the college President, quoted above, didn’t renew the instructor’s contract. Hamline and its administration are holding firm, even though FIRE has now reported the school to its accreditation agency and the school has been condemned by PEN America. Can a lawsuit be far behind?

Remember, you read it here first, and only now does the New York Times cover the story. Be aware, though, that the NYT’s coverage may be a good sign that it’s losing its wokeness, for it took ages for the paper to get interested in the Evergreen and Oberlin cases n. You can read the NYT story below by clicking on the screenshot:

Besides naming the victim as Erika López Prater, a name now all over the Internet, the paper gives a few facts I didn’t know (don’t expect a small website to have the investigating capacity of a huge newspaper!). Here are a few tidbits:

Officials told Dr. López Prater that her services next semester were no longer needed. In emails to students and faculty, they said that the incident was clearly Islamophobic. Hamline’s president, Fayneese S. Miller, co-signed an email that said respect for the Muslim students “should have superseded academic freedom.” At a town hall, an invited Muslim speaker compared showing the images to teaching that Hitler was good.

Remember: an invited speaker, clearly brought in to support the accusation of blasphemy. The President’s statement is beyond the pale.

This I’ve said before:

The painting shown in Dr. López Prater’s class is in one of the earliest Islamic illustrated histories of the world, “A Compendium of Chronicles,” written during the 14th century by Rashid-al-Din (1247-1318).

Shown regularly in art history classes, the painting shows a winged and crowned Angel Gabriel pointing at the Prophet Muhammad and delivering to him the first Quranic revelation. Muslims believe that the Quran comprises the words of Allah dictated to the Prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel.

Note: earlier I said that the NYT didn’t show the picture at issue. I see now that it does, though you have to click on a dot to see it. (I missed that.) I’ve put the one that caused all the trouble below.

Here it is: the face that launched a thousand kvetches. You can see the picture and its painter here as well. It’s from the fourteenth century:

More from the NYT:

Omid Safi, a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, said he regularly shows images of the Prophet Muhammad in class and without Dr. López Prater’s opt-out mechanisms. He explains to his students that these images were works of devotion created by pious artists at the behest of devout rulers.

“That’s the part I want my students to grapple with,” Dr. Safi said. “How does something that comes from the very middle of the tradition end up being received later on as something marginal or forbidden?”

I wonder if Safi is now in someone’s gunsights. More from the paper:

Dr. López Prater, who had only begun teaching at Hamline in the fall, said she felt like a bucket of ice water had been dumped over her head, but the shock soon gave way to “blistering anger at being characterized in those terms by somebody who I have never even met or spoken with.” She reached out to Dr. Gruber, who ended up writing the essay and starting the petition.

And get a load of this forum set up by the University to justify their heinous actions. (Aram Wedatalla, a student, complained about the picture-showing in the student paper and also filed a complaint with Hamline’s admnistration.)

At the Dec. 8 forum, which was attended by several dozen students, faculty and administrators, Ms. Wedatalla described, often through tears, how she felt seeing the image.

“Who do I call at 8 a.m.,” she asked, when “you see someone disrespecting and offending your religion?”

Other Muslim students on the panel, all Black women, also spoke tearfully about struggling to fit in at Hamline. Students of color in recent years had protested what they called racist incidents; the university, they said, paid lip service to diversity and did not support students with institutional resources.

The main speaker was Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group.

The instructor’s actions, he said, hurt Muslim students and students of color and had “absolutely no benefit.”

“If this institution wants to value those students,” he added, “it cannot have incidents like this happen. If somebody wants to teach some controversial stuff about Islam, go teach it at the local library.”

The man is a peabrain who has no notion of academic freedom, nor does he recognize that it’s only fundamentalist Muslims who have the see-no-face policy.

Here’s one more bit describing how at least one Hamline professor spoke up against the lunacy, but was shusshed by the administration:

Mark Berkson, a religion professor at Hamline, raised his hand.

“When you say ‘trust Muslims on Islamophobia,’” Dr. Berkson asked, “what does one do when the Islamic community itself is divided on an issue? Because there are many Muslim scholars and experts and art historians who do not believe that this was Islamophobic.”

Mr. Hussein responded that there were marginal and extremist voices on any issue. “You can teach a whole class about why Hitler was good,” Mr. Hussein said.

During the exchange, Ms. Baker, the department head, and Dr. Everett, the administrator, separately walked up to the religion professor, put their hands on his shoulders and said this was not the time to raise these concerns, Dr. Berkson said in an interview.

But Dr. Berkson, who said he strongly supported campus diversity, said that he felt compelled to speak up.

“We were being asked to accept, without questioning, that what our colleague did — teaching an Islamic art masterpiece in a class on art history after having given multiple warnings — was somehow equivalent to mosque vandalism and violence against Muslims and hate speech,” Dr. Berkson said. “That is what I could not stand.”

Good for Berkson, a voice of sanity in the miasma of cowardice that is Hamline University. The bolding above is mine, showing again that Hamline’s administration DOES NOT WANT A DEBATE. They want others to confirm that they did the right thing by firing López Prater. (The good news is that she says she has other job offers.)

The journalist Kenan Malik, trained in biology as well as the history of science, and now a writer who’s devoted to free speech, has an eloquent piece in the Guardian defending López-Prater’s right to show Muhammad’s face. (He doesn’t name her.) You can read it for free by clicking the headline.

It’s full of nice pull quotes; I’ll give just three. Professor Berkson shows up again (note that the student paper removed his published letter, though you can see the link below):

David Everett, Hamline’s associate vice-president of inclusive excellence, condemned the classroom exercise as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic”. A letter written by Mark Berkson, chair of the department of religion, defending the instructor and providing historical and religious context for her actions, was published on the website of The Oracle, the university’s student newspaper, and then taken down because it “caused harm”. The instructor was “released” from further teaching duties.

What is striking about the Hamline incident, though, is that the image at the heart of the row cannot even in the most elastic of definitions be described as Islamophobic. It is an artistic treasure that exalts Islam and has long been cherished by Muslims.

. . . Yet, to show it is now condemned as Islamophobic because… a student says so. Even to question that claim is to cause “harm”. As Berkson asked in another (unpublished) letter he sent to The Oracle, after his first had been removed: “Are you saying that disagreement with an argument is a form of ‘harm’?”

That is precisely what the university is saying. “Respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom,” wrote Fayneese Miller, the university’s president, and Everett in a letter to staff and students. In what way was showing the painting “disrespecting” Muslims? Those who did not wish to view it did not have to. But others, including Muslims who desired to view the image, had every right to engage with a discussion of Islamic history.

Universities should defend all students’ right to practise their faith. They should not allow that faith to dictate the curriculum. That is to introduce blasphemy taboos into the classroom.

I think the mantra “disagreement with an argument is a form of ‘harm'” should become the official slogan of the woke. It’s the most concise characterization of the illiberal Left that I’ve seen.

And Malik’s take on the diversity angle of this issue (bolding is mine):

Too many people today demand that we respect the diversity of society, but fail to see the diversity of minority communities in those societies. As a result, progressive voices often get dismissed as not being authentic, while the most conservative figures become celebrated as the true embodiment of their communities.

Here, liberal “anti-racism” meets rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry. For bigots, all Muslims are reactionary and their values incompatible with those of liberal societies. For too many liberals, opposing bigotry means accepting reactionary ideas as authentically Muslim; that to be Muslim is to find the Danish cartoons offensive and the depiction of Muhammed “harmful”. Both bigots and liberals erase the richness and variety of Muslim communities.

The Hamline controversy shows how the concepts of diversity and tolerance have become turned on their head. Diversity used to mean the creation of a space for dissent and disagreement and tolerance the willingness to live with things that one might find offensive or distasteful. Now, diversity too often describes a space in which dissent and disagreement have to be expunged in the name of “respect” and tolerance requires one to refrain from saying or doing things that might be deemed offensive. It is time we re-grasped both diversity and tolerance in their original sense.

I fear it’s too late, as we’re educating students to be both politically correct and authoritarian, and they will grow up to run America (and perhaps England). It will be decades, I fear, before society comes back to its senses. But by that time I’ll be one with the clay.

Professor fired for showing art class image of Muhammad with his face visible (something not unusual in the history of Islamic art). Students and university go wild with crazy allegations of “Islamophobia”

December 24, 2022 • 11:00 am

This story is unbelievable but is true. The summary piece in New Lines Magazine describes how a professor at Hamline University, a private liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, was fired for showing an image of Muhammad’s face to their [the prof apparently uses plural pronouns) class. The professor and class are unnamed. This all makes sense only when you read in the Wikipedia article that “Hamline is known for its emphasis on experiential learning, service, and social justice.”

So here’s what they mean by “social justice” at Hamline.

You’ll get angry when you read the piece, not only because depictions of Muhammad with a face were common in the Islamic world, but because the professor warned the students in advance what they were going to show them and let them opt out if they wanted to. Nevertheless, Muslim students watched, saw the images, and then complained to the Hamline administration, which deemed the incident Islamophobic and summarily fired the professor without giving him a chance to defend himself.

The article below is written by Christiane Gruber, professor of Islamic Art in the Department of History of Art at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and she, unlike the reprehensible and faux-offended students, knows something about the history of depictions of Muhammad:

Her primary field of research is Islamic book arts, paintings of the Prophet Muhammad, and Islamic ascension texts and images, about which she has written three books and edited several volumes of articles. She also pursues research in Islamic book arts and codicology, having authored the online catalogue of Islamic calligraphies in the Library of Congress as well as edited the volume of articles entitled The Islamic Manuscript Tradition. Her third field of specialization is modern Islamic visual and material culture, about which she has written half a dozen articles. She also has co-edited two volumes on Islamic and cross-cultural visual cultures. Her most recent publications include her book The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images and her edited volume The Image Debate: Figural Representation in Islam and Across the World, both published in 2019.

She takes the University and its administration to task, and also gives us a good lesson on depicting Muhammad, which is not, contrary to some Muslims’ assertions, invariably an act of blasphemy. Click below to read and be enlightened:


From her piece. The “Oracle” is the Hamline student newspaper, and I’ve put below two articles from it about the incident (also click to read). From Gruber (bolding is mine):

On Nov. 18, Hamline University’s student newspaper, The Oracle, published an article notifying its community members of two recent incidents on its campus in Saint Paul, Minnesota, one indubitably homophobic and the other supposedly Islamophobic. Both occurrences were placed under the same rubric as “incidents of hate and discrimination.”

Islamophobia — which involves hate speech against Islam and Muslims and/or physical violence or discrimination against Muslims — has indeed proven a blight in the United States, especially after 9/11, the rise of the militant far right and the recent political empowerment of white supremacy.

The “Islamophobic incident” catalyzed plenty of administrative commentary and media coverage at the university. Among others, it formed the subject of a second Oracle article, which noted that a faculty member had included in their global survey of art history a session on Islamic art, which offered an optional visual analysis and discussion of a famous medieval Islamic painting of the Prophet Muhammad. A student complained about the image’s inclusion in the course and led efforts to press administrators for a response. After that, the university’s associate vice president of inclusive excellence (AVPIE) declared the classroom exercise “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”

Neither before nor after these declarations was the faculty member given a public platform or forum to explain the classroom lecture and activity. To fill in the gap, on Dec. 6, an essay written by a Hamline professor of religion who teaches Islam explaining the incident along with the historical context and aesthetic value of Islamic images of Muhammad was published on The Oracle’s website. The essay was taken down two days later. One day after that, Hamline’s president and AVPIE sent a message to all employees stating that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.” The essay’s censorship and the subsequent email by two top university administrators raise serious concerns about freedom of speech and academic freedom at the university.

The instructor was released from their spring term teaching at Hamline, and its AVPIE went on the record as stating: “It was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community.” In other words, an instructor who showed an Islamic painting during a visual analysis — a basic exercise for art history training — was publicly impugned for hate speech and dismissed thereafter, without access to due process.

These incidents, statements and actions at Hamline will be for others to investigate further. As a scholar specializing in Islamic representations of Muhammad, however, it is my duty to share accurate information about the painting at the heart of the controversy. I will provide a visual analysis and historical explanation of the image in question, in essence reconstituting the Hamline instructor’s classroom activity. I will then explore these types of depictions over the course of six centuries, with the aim to answer one basic question: Is the Islamic painting at the heart of the Hamline controversy truly Islamophobic?

This is absolutely unbelievable, and I’m going to write to Hamline’s Dean objecting to the firing. It’s not though the pictures, innocuous though they were, were sprung on unprepared students. Gruber goes on to discuss the history of depiction of images of Muhammad, and it’s a good and edifying read.  She concludes that the students, given the history of Islamic art, had absolutely no reason to consider showing the paintings in class as an “Islamophobic” incident. That is, she says, an “ultraconservative Muslim view on the subject.”

Nevertheless, the student newspaper The Oracle, in its article below, and also in the op-ed below that, sees showing the paintings as a direct attack on Islam. The administration, of course, launched a six-alarm attack, damning the incident, deeming it as a hate incident, and even calling for education in “Islamophobia.” All I can say is that everyone involved in this sorry incident, save the professor himself, is a blithering idiot.

Click to read the student newspaper report.

An excerpt from the article (my bolding):

Hamline undergraduate students received an email from the Dean of Students on Nov. 7, condemning an unnamed classroom incident as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” In the month since, the email and the event it references have reignited discussions about the persistence of such incidents at Hamline.

The email, signed by Dr. David Everett, Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence at Hamline, did not identify the nature or date of the incident.

The Oracle has since learned that the event in question occurred on Oct. 6, when a professor shared two depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in class, while discussing Islamic art. One was a 14th century depiction of the Prophet and the other was a 16th century depiction of the Prophet with veil and halo.

Within Islam, there are varying beliefs regarding whether the representation of the Prophet Muhammad is acceptable. The majority of those practicing Islam today believe it is forbidden to see and create representations of Prophet Muhammad.

Aram Wedatalla, a Hamline senior and the president of Muslim Student Association (MSA), was in the class at the time the photos were shared.

“I’m like, ‘this can’t be real,’” Wedatalla told the Oracle. “As a Muslim, and a Black person, I don’t feel like I belong, and I don’t think I’ll ever belong in a community where they don’t value me as a member, and they don’t show the same respect that I show them.” 

Deangela Huddleston, a Hamline senior and MSA member, also shared her thoughts with the Oracle.

“Hamline teaches us it doesn’t matter the intent, the impact is what matters,” Huddleston said.

“Hamline teaches us”, she parrots. Why doesn’t Huddleston think for herself? Of course intent matters, and it did in this situation.  Then the punishment occurred:

After class, Wedatalla spoke to the professor but did not feel that the conversation was productive.

Wedatalla emailed MSA’s leadership team and members of the Hamline administration on Oct. 7, the day after the incident. On this same day, she met with President Fayneese Miller. Dean of Students Patti Kersten also called Wedatalla and apologized for her experience.

And yes, the professor apologized, though they shouldn’t have (after all, they gave a “trigger warning”):

The professor of the class emailed Wedatalla that Saturday, Oct. 8.

“I would like to apologize that the image I showed in class on [Oct. 6] made you uncomfortable and caused you emotional agitation. It is never my intention to upset or disrespect students in my classroom,” the professor wrote in the email to Wedatalla, who shared it with the Oracle.

. . .In the Oct. 8 email to Wedatalla, the professor stated that they “[let] the class know ahead of time” what would be shown and to give students time to turn off their video.

“I did not try to surprise students with this image, and I did my best to provide students with an ‘out,’” the professor wrote in the email.

“I also described every subsequent slide I showed with language to indicate when I was no longer showing an image of the Prophet Muhammad. I am sorry that despite my attempt to prevent a negative reaction, you still viewed and were troubled by this image.”

So what were the offensive works of art? You want to see them, right? Here’s how the paper identifies them:

The Oracle was able to identify these two images using video of the lecture. The first was a 14th century depiction of the Prophet receiving his first revelation from the archangel Gabriel, created by Rashīd al-Dīn, a Persian Muslim scholar and historian.

The other depicts the Prophet with a veil and halo. It was created by Mustafa ibn Vali in the 16th century as part of an illustration of the Siyer-i Nebi (the Life of the Prophet), an earlier, Ottomon Turkish epic work on the life of Muhammad.

I am very sure that this is the first one, from Wikimedia Commons (see also here):

And here’s what I think is the second one, also from Wikipedia commons. Here Muhammad is veiled.

Wow, those would certainly harm you as a Muslim, wouldn’t they?  I refuse to believe that this outrage is genuine: it is a manufactured sentiment ginned up by those taught (wrongly) that it’s an insult to Islam to depict the Prophet’s face.

But the Staff of the Oracle, like Hamline’s administration, also sees it as hate speech:

An excerpt:

Staff Editorial, Staff

In the past year, members of our community have experienced hate speech incidents and microaggressions that have resulted in much-needed conversation.

Recently this year, The Oracle has been made aware of two such incidents. One of which included an Islamophobic incident that happened a few weeks ago and the Dean of Students office informed Hamline about via email on Nov. 14.

. . .Already these two incidents have occurred and communities have been harmed and traumatized. While historically The Oracle’s coverage of hate speech and incidents of discrimination have not always been present, we hope that any and all coverage we do now and moving forward can be a means of platforming voices and experiences and informing readers of steps to move forward and ways of supporting their peers.

We hope that our coverage and our means of communication and publishing can be a resource to our community at all times and in no way do we want to further the impacts and harm of these situations.

This is, to put it mildly, a crock. What a horrible, oppressive, and joyless place Hamline University must be! I wish somebody would snap up the fired professor.

In the meantime, I’ll write an email to Dr. David Everett, Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence at Hamline.  This incident is neither inclusive not demonstrative of excellence. It’s divisive, shows the students and administration to be hateful as well as ignorant, and is as far from “excellent” as you can get.

h/t: Stephen

The greatest films of all time: a critics’ poll and a filmmakers’ poll

December 2, 2022 • 12:15 pm

I was pleased to get two lists of great movies (I’m a sucker for lists of great art) from Justin Remes, associate professor of film studies at Iowa State University (he also wrote Absence in Cinema: The Art of Showing Nothing). I’ll quote his email with permission:

I know you occasionally post about cinema, so I thought you might be interested to know that the highly respected Sight and Sound poll of The Greatest Films of All Time (which is only published every ten years) was just released today. You can find the critics’ poll here and the filmmakers’ poll here. For what it’s worth, my personal pick for the greatest film of all time is 2001: A Space Odyssey, so I was happy to see that at the top of the directors’ poll. As for Jeanne Dielman, which is at the top of the critics’ poll, I think it’s a great film, although it wouldn’t make my own personal top 10. It was a shock to see it there, however–I really don’t think anyone could have predicted it would come in at number 1. (In the last Sight and Sound poll, it was 36!)

I’ll give the top ten in each of the two polls. First, the top ten in the CRITICS’ POLL, with the best put first (remember, there are 100 movies in each poll). Click on each screenshot to go to the site describing the movie. At the bottom I’ve put a link to my own list of best films, posted here twelve years ago.

I haven’t even heard of this Best Film!

I’ve seen this one and it’s very good, but not #2:

A great film, better than “Vertigo”:

This and Kurusawa’s “Ikiru” are my favorite foreign films. And Ikiru isn’t even on the list!  See both of them!

Just okay, but that’s it:

I am ashamed to admit that I’ve never seen this film—Justin’s favorite:

Haven’t seen this one, but I should:

Nope. Gripping, but not worthy of #8, much less #80:

Haven’t seen this one (I’m getting ashamed):

A very good musical—one of the best of the genre—but not one of the best films:

“The Godfather” is #12, and Ozu’s “Late Spring” comes in at #21 (all the films in Ozu’s “season cycle” are excellent).

Second, the top ten in the DIRECTORS’  (FILMMAKERS) POLL, with the best put first. There’s a fair amount of overlap with the previous list.

Maybe I should see this film!

“Citizen Kane” is at the top of every “greatest movies” list, as it should be.

This is a very great film. Aren’t we lucky to have seen it as a first run (well, those of us who are older)?

A reminder to see this movie. If you are the action-movie type, you may not like it: it’s a family drama and slow paced. I love it very much.

Okay, now I gotta see this film!

These next two are tied, and I wouldn’t put them in my top ten.

There is no #7 because of the ties. I haven’t seen this one:

These next three are tied for the #9 slot. None of them would be on my list, and I’m not a Bergman fan at all:

Gotta see this one, too, as I haven’t:

At least “Ikiru” makes it on this list, though only at #72: tied with “Chinatown” (a superb film) and “The Seventh Seal”, another Bergman film.

Now I posted my own list of “Best Movies” back in 2010, and it hasn’t changed, though perhaps I’d add 2019’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” to it. (I left “Citizen Kane” off my list because it’s everybody’s choice.)  The one movie missing from both of the lists above is my favorite American movie, “The Last Picture Show” (1971).  The omission is shameful!

Now it’s your turn, as always. Post the list of your “best movies”, preferably the top five. After all, it’s a great way for all of us to find new things to watch.