Liberal Arts and the Art of Looking: Striking the Flint

“There was something deeply anti-authoritarian about just looking and observing and telling the truth as you saw it.”  Swoon (Caledonia Dance Curry)

Sometimes I am utterly depressed by the state of higher education and disdain now shown for what used to be called the liberal arts.  This kind of education has come to be seen as either élitist, or old fashioned (analog), or simply useless –and higher education now has to be all about usefulness: return on investment, financial incentives, and serving the customer. Arts, humanities, history, and philosophy are all banished either to irrelevance or dismissed by accruing some number of credits in a core curriculum. Questions, beauty, and nuance are for boring people.

At dark moments I love to return to a persistent source of wonder and thoughtfulness: the Metropolitan Museum’s Artist Project.  At first sight it seems to be an advertisement for a book –a worthwhile book, but still an ad.  Scroll down the page further and one simply sees an array of six “seasons” each with twenty artists names.  The real treasure is hidden and has to be discovered, a little at a time.  Some of the artists names are famous, and some less so.

Each three-minute video presents an artist looking at a place, piece, or genre at the Museum and then speaking what she or he sees.  Sometimes the pairing of an artist with an object is an extension of the artist’s own work; other times it is a purposeful contrast.

For example, the photographer Thomas Struth, known for his Museum Photographs of visitors to famous art museum (Art Institute of Chicago, Accademia in Venice) which he expanded to include visitors to churches, and powerfully significant site such as Times Square or Yosemite National Park.  Struth makes viewers aware of their own active participation in the completion of the work’s meaning, not as passive consumers but as re-interpreters of the past for the needs of the present” (Metropolitan Museum exhibition press release, 2003) . By contrast, Struth responds to the Chinese Buddhist sculpture (Room 208), a silent place “not so easy” to find.  Struth finds these sculptures humble, “can we afford humblesness these days?”  He asks, “Can it change my life? Can it transform my opinion or my existence in some small or larger way?”

Martha Rosler is a multi-media artist who uses photography, video, performance, and space, to examine womens’ experience in everyday life in the public sphere, such as Secrets from the Street: No Disclosure (1980) or her current Irrespective at the Jewish Museum (open until March 3, 2019).  Contrary to expectation, she goes to The Cloisters, the Museum’s special medieval building and collection at the northern tip of Manhattan located at the northern tip of Manhattan, “like another world floating in the clouds.”  Early in the 1960s this art interacted with her work with abstract expressionism, but also opened the way for narrativity; “As a first-generation Brooklyn Jew I was trying to see where I fit in that story.”

One of the most powerful moments in this anthology of videos is Swoon’s account of Honore Daumier’s The Third Class Carriage, ca. 1862.  Swoon sees a rough painting with almost cartoonish strokes, and yet “some people have said that this painting sentimentalizes poverty –and I disagree I think he’s getting the complexity of life here.”  She sees “something warm and rough and something beautiful and difficult; there’s a compassion in this piece.” Daumer is “a relentless social observer –he’s always expressing his point of view. . . . You feel the love is contained within looking.”  Swoon asks, “how do I make something relevant?  Daumier’s position as seen through this work is just: look at people, observe what’s going on, record that, give it fidelity in its simplest truth.  One of the highest functions of art I have identified within my own work is to be the vessel for empathy.  When I see this painting it just strikes the flint. I try to walk in those footsteps.”

Humbleness, narrativity, telling the truth as you see it, fidelity, empathy –all solid concepts and self-awareness that, if learned well, makes a liberal arts education actually liberating.  No wonder the present STEM masters of the universe want to banish that liberating, inconvenient and subversive in their brave new world.  Resist: strike the flint.

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