Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Art History May Say about Political Perspective

My second year in the Williams College/Clark Art Institute Graduate Program in the History of Art we had as a visiting occupant of the Clark Chair a feisty, diminutive, brilliant, skirt-chasing polio survivor, the Englishman and retired Chair of the Art History Department at Bryn Mawr College,  Charles Mitchell.  Prof. Mitchell stood about 5'4," maybe 5'6" with his one good hand raised in the air to make a rhetorical point, as he often did.  He tended to accompany those points, especially emphatic negatives, with a shrill glissando through the entire tessitura of his rather sharp tenor voice.  Those brief but piercing performances had an unmistakably breathtaking--literally--effect on his audiences, as he well knew.  

He first put on such a performance for us in his seminar on Raphael in the second or third class of the semester.  I recall my colleagues beginning to champ at the bit for us to get on with Raphael after Mitchell's rather extended preliminaries to begin the term, including his insistence that we pick the topic of our seminar papers before doing anything else.  So this particular class meeting began with a combined sigh of relief and ratcheting up of our powers of concentration.  Mitchell had finally put up a slide of a painting, fancy that.

It quickly became clear that he had an agenda that both included and went well beyond the particular painting he had on the screen.  He asked us to describe it.  In a seminar of about six or seven students, three of us had a strong background in the Italian Renaissance, and two of us continued our studies in the Renaissance after Williams.  We took the bait first, using the picture as a scrim on which to project all our knowledge of Renaissance studio practice, iconography, and perspective--for the angels Raphael had reversed his cartoon, a drawing enlarged by a craftsman to the scale of the painting itself, to get two angels from one drawing, even though scripture makes no mention of angels at the Crucifixion, the subject of this painting.  That sort of thing; I don't remember whether we got to the scriptural question or not.

And suddenly he'd had enough.  "NNNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooooooooo," in Oxonian inflection (he had his Ph. D in philosophy from Oxford and had picked up art history teaching in London at the Warburg).  None of us in that room will ever forget it; one of my classmates does a brilliant imitation of it, despite his baritone voice and Texas twang.  Mitchell wanted us not to forget it.  He wanted to shock us into remembering something crucial.

What, after all, had we done the last ten minutes or however long he gave us to hang ourselves?We had named the subject and produced some details of how Raphael made the picture and whether his making corresponded to the primary literary sources; we may even have gotten into later medieval tradition.  All well and good, but none necessary and certainly not sufficient (Occam's razor), the sort of thing one does with a picture after doing the one necessary--and to some, though not to Mitchell, sufficient--thing:  looking at, taking in, and describing the whole picture.  He wanted us to strip away the title and the names, not even allowing us the shorthand of "cross," insisting instead on "two beams of wood set at ninety degrees to each other, the horizontal about ninety percent of the way up the vertical," and so on, until we'd sufficiently reminded ourselves of the building-blocks of the image that we could never take any of them for granted as we moved into questions of iconography, patronage, or whatever we subjected images to in our seminar papers.  

That moment had a profound influence on me.  I admired the tenacity not just of the rhetorical intervention but of the intellectual persistence that lay behind it.  Mitchell always had a flair for the theatrical and even manipulative.  It annoyed most of my classmates, who saw the skirt-chasing long before I did.  He angled two of us into working on slices of a project he'd had in mind for a long time; I'd started out with a very different topic which he quickly whisked away like a gnat.  He made me feel he had a much more important idea, and me feel flattered that he wanted me to work on it.  It became the greatest learning experience of my academic life, except perhaps for Ph. D. orals some years later.  

While researching my seminar paper for Mitchell I had a series of conversations with him, one over scotch at his rented home, one in seminar as I presented my paper.  He began to pick it apart, and I responded aggressively and with evidence in perhaps the best argument I've ever had with a professor, both on the level of intensity and in the matter of my having done my homework well enough to have answers to his objections.  That moment, too, had a great influence, though an unfortunate afterglow.  I never worked with anyone thereafter willing to challenge me and to suffer challenge to that degree.  He didn't suffer it, he thrived on it, sought it out, cherished it, grabbed it the way one grabs the air to applaud a brilliant performance in an opera, a courageous put-out at home plate, a speech that makes a kind of sense you haven't heard in a generation.  I think a British education explains part of the exuberant aggressiveness, and the combativeness required to survive polio and World War II at once, but that does not explain all of it.

I have digressed longer than I meant to do, but we've neared the point.  Mitchell's big project concerned his suspicion, confirmed by no documentary sources per se, that a series of papal commissions from the rooms on which my Texan friend and I worked--he had one room, I had all four--which Raphael and his assistants painted under the direction of three successive popes, culminating decades later in the placement of an ancient monolith in St. Peter's Square, constituted essentially one collective and unitary commission.  Their subject:  the achievement, elaboration, and sacred condoning of papal power.  

Get past the different painters and their various styles, even within Raphael's own shop, ignore the difference between stone and fresco.  Consider what they all had to say, what they all represented, that they could have said and represented other things in the century of the Reformation, though their emphasis of papal power has an almost obvious--too obvious, some would say, debunking the unitary commission theory--relevance in light of the threat to Rome of Luther, Calvin, and their Protestant brethren.  Go beyond the small-bore objections, the sort of material I used against him and still find it tempting to marshal.  See the small, but move through it to the larger perspective.  Only then will you see the issue--any issue--well enough to understand it.

Now we're there.  Thinking nostalgically this morning while walking my dog Abby about how much I've given up in leaving academia and perhaps given up on--this the influence of the Kennedy eulogies this weekend--it suddenly occurred to me that Mitchell's method offers a metaphor for what has happened and needs to happen in the health care reform debate in Washington.  All involved need to cast aside their ideological screens that prevent them from seeing the issues in all their stark clarity--the nearly naked young man with brown hair attached to two beams of wood, apparently by nails at the hands and feet, etc.--work through the detail-slogging their staffs have done for them, as generations of us did for Mitchell, and arrive at the large picture.  Health care reform, as many have noted, encompasses the term of a number of presidents.  Obama can lay claim only to a resolve to address a larger piece of the problem than anyone else had the historic opportunity, some degree of consensus, to battle in the halls of Congress and the forum of public opinion.

We have small minds on both sides of this issue.  Those crying "socialized medicine" need to shut up and see what socialized medicine has accomplished, and to admit that Obama and the Congress have set their sights on more modest change.  Those screaming about the president's willingness to negotiate on such things as the "public option," i.e. socialized medicine, need to take a strong-tasting medicine called "the possible."  Left and right, we've lost civility, as so many noted by implication in the Kennedy eulogies, and we've lost perspective.  

Go ahead, have vigorous debate.  Get your facts in order.  Know the problem.  See it in the small and then stand on those building-blocks to see it large.   Then hammer it out.  Yell at each other, if necessary, but with civility, for the salutary effect of forcing each other closer to the solution.  I only wish that at some point, if and as this debate veers off course, we had Charlie Mitchell to walk into the committee rooms and the House chamber and the well of the Senate, to grab a microphone from a stunned senator, and give them all one last, piercing, grating, salutary "NNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooooooooooooo."

1 comment:

  1. What I like about this piece is its guidance for all of us who are in teaching be bold in our opinions and really challenge our students to dig in. I don't like the idea that you felt you were left hanging, to answer in a way that was not suitable. I try really hard not to ask questions that are so difficult they are a set up for failure.

    And I like how Mr. Mitchell did not think about other's opinions but his own sense of what must be learned, pushed through.

    People who are imitated, like Mitchell, are people who have sway or influence over others, for good and sometimes for bad. The fact that he appeared to you at this crucial moment---NOOOOOOO--- in our nation's history is something all teachers wish for. We all want to be summoned up.