Sunday, March 13, 2011

Art History to the Rescue

The slightest amount of historical perspective on University education is often sufficient to cure graduate school griping.  Why so many in the humanities - which include historians - seem to lack such perspective is puzzling.   Peter Brooks' Our Universities: How Bad? How Good?, currently available in The New York Review of [each others'] Books, provides that necessary perspective, even if he doesn't go as far back as he might have (Self link? Don't mind if I do).

Brooks concludes his review of four of the most recent books in the "crisis in the humanities" genre (soon to have its own call number), by suggesting that a discipline like art history is not the problem, but the solution. Not without apologizing, he quotes Henry James' The Tragic Muse, where the character Nick Dormer stands before some portraits in London's National Gallery: 
As he stood before them the perfection of their survival often struck him as the supreme eloquence, the virtue that included all others, thanks to the language of art, the richest and most universal. Empires and systems and conquests had rolled over the globe and every kind of greatness had risen and passed away, but the beauty of the great pictures had known nothing of death or change, and the tragic centuries had only sweetened their freshness. 
Such is the wonder that both generated the liberal arts and can restore them. Universities do "deserve better critics than they have got at present."  Brooks is a fine start.