Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Art History?

Yes, that's what I'm studying. Don't laugh. Not unlike Hansel, art history is so hot right now.

Not only did royalty himself choose the this princely discipline as a major, but Brad Pitt endorsed it in no uncertain terms this summer in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. And I quote,
Brad Pitt: I never went to MIT. Notre Dame. Art history major.
Angelina Jolie: Art?
Brad Pitt: Art History. It's respectable.
Today was grad school orientation at Princeton, and after being told, among other things, that 80% of the cost of acupuncture was covered by the University health plan, we were informed that we were to ultimately "surpass your advisors in knowledge."

I hope acupuncture helps with that. During the question and answer session one student asked innocently,
"What does the inscription on the school motto mean?"
A panelist finally replied,
"The open book is for the New Testament, symbolizing the Biblical foundations of early American Universities, and the motto Dei sub numine viget means 'Under God's power she flourishes.'"
Awkward silence.

Awkward indeed. What does God have to do with art history anyway, one might ask a Seminarian who now is in training to be an art historian? Well (he might respond), everything and nothing. Everything in the sense that God cannot be obviated from any discipline, God being last time I checked Lord of all creation. But nothing in the sense that in order to function effectively as an art historian my faith does not need to be frontlined. To quote the historian Herbert Butterfield,
"While we have Marxists and Wellsians, Protestants and Catholics with their mutually exclusive systems (historical assertion confronted by counter-assertion), many people, confounded by the contradictions, will run thankfully in the last resort to the humbler academic historian - to the man who will just try to show what can be established by the concrete external evidence, and will respect the intricacy and the complexity of events, bringing out the things which must be valid whether one is a Jesuit or a Marxist."
Of course I understand that the possibility of such neutrality is a matter of dispute today - as my primer "Art Theory" readings have repeatedly informed me (by the way Derrida and Foucault are much less exciting when assigned than when read out of curiosity). But the postmodern critique undermines the hope of understanding perfectly what happened, not the humbler vision of understanding better what happened. And doing that well has little (directly) to do with faith.

Regarding higher matters, such as the notion of beauty so essential to my discipline, such neutrality is much harder, even impossible to produce (nor would it be desired). In fact I doubt (along with Steiner) whether any account of the experience of the beautiful is ultimately possible without God as an ultimate horizon - so Dei sub numine viget indeed - but in the meantime my aim is to be a good art historian, period.

But, what, one might then ask is the purpose of the pure study of history? Commenting on the maturity and perspective that this discipline alone seems to often provide, the great art historian Erwin Panofsky (my hero) quoted one who wrote,
"If a man of seventy is considered wise because of his experience, how much wiser he whose life fills a span of a thousand or three thousand years! A man may be said to have lived as many millenia as are embraced by the span of his knowledge of history."
And what is so for history is all the more for art history because everyone knows it's more exciting.

Furthermore, seeing that so many in the logorrhea-stricken field of theology are finally conceding art's potential for serious theological insight, shouldn't at least one of us study art history in depth?

Sounds like a plan.