Oh, the Humanities!

by Rochelle Gurstein | March 26, 2010

Why draw from the model? A number of years ago, my husband and I and some friends—all, except for me, artists who also teach at art schools here in New York—spent hours discussing this question, though without arriving at anything particularly convincing. A few of them recalled drawing from the model as undergraduates, but none had done so in graduate programs—these were the heady, experimental days of the early '70s, when all the action took place in the seminar room; in my husband's program, studios had been dispensed with altogether. When we turned our attention to the art world today, drawing and models seemed just as antiquated. Installation, photography, and video, more popular than ever, are mechanically derived. And though we could easily think of paintings with figures in them, all of them had been lifted from mass-media images; they had as little relation to drawing from the pose of a living person in the artist's studio as photography. 

Yet, at art schools today, freshmen are required to draw from the model, sometimes six hours at a stretch, their labors then judged by teachers who have no use for, indeed, who disdain, the practice in their own work. We spent quite a while trying to account for this odd disjuncture. The best anyone could come up with is that studio drawing focuses the eye and hand; it is an intense discipline in seeing and then translating what one sees into material form. This, it seemed to me, was another way of saying that it was good for its own sake, even if it had no relation to making art these days. The conversation drifted to other subjects, but the next morning what had eluded us the night before now appeared so ridiculously obvious that I could not believe we had missed it: The reason the Academy required students to master the painstaking practice of drawing from the model was because, until very recently, the action of figures—gods, heroes, and mere mortals—was the prime subject, the central drama, the moving force, of all the greatest paintings.

As a historian, I have often felt caught up short by my ignorance of the past, but this lapse felt especially disgraceful. How was it, I asked my husband, that even people who live and breathe art are now so distant, so alienated, from its history that they no longer know what had once been the commonest knowledge of all artists and art lovers? This conversation came back to me the other day as I was reading Anthony Grafton's review of Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas in TNR. Alarming reports about the condition of the humanities reached epic proportions during the so-called Culture Wars, and now after a relatively quiet few years, it appears that a new wave is upon us. And with good cause: Today, Grafton informs us, only one-third of all undergraduates major in the arts and sciences, and less than one-third of them in the humanities. Menand apparently lays the blame on the institutional history of the university. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scholars in the liberal arts began devising undergraduate and graduate programs aimed at pursuing the general good rather than personal advancement in society. Over time, professors, ever jealous of their specializations and professional standing, raised academic standards and requirements, with the result that it now typically takes close to a decade to complete a doctorate degree in the humanities.

Grafton praises the book as a structural account of how the university works, but he objects to Menand's prescription for the ills of the system: easing the requirements for earning a Ph.D. This is precisely what we must not do, insists Grafton, before moving into a passionate defense of the rigors of graduate study as a kind of necessary--long and arduous--ordeal to test the mettle of the aspiring scholar. Given that so few demanding practices have survived into our time, I took pleasure in reading Grafton's almost operatic encomium to the "Faustian magic of high scholarship," "a calling" which requires "sweat," "dust," "romance," and "struggle." A fine riposte, I thought, to our culture's enthusiasm for all things quick and facile. But I was puzzled that, unlike earlier defenders of liberal-arts education, Grafton did not offer any justification of what such an education is good for, except producing future professors.

Thus I found myself posing the philistine question, what are the humanities good for, which I used to answer without hesitation: They are good for the cultivation of the intellect for its own sake. It was at this point that the conversation about drawing from the model returned to me. Just as my artist friends could not think of any reason to draw from the model except for technical discipline, Grafton's rousing defense of the strenuousness of graduate education began sounding to me like a defense of strenuousness for its own sake. Which gave me pause. Over the past few years, I have come to suspect that when any practice is praised for its own sake, the speaker is unwittingly confessing to his or her unfamiliarity with its previous uses, thereby making a virtue of his or her literal remoteness, distance, alienation, from it--not that Grafton, an eminent Renaissance historian and one of our few remaining humanists, is remote from or ignorant of his subject. Still, that his eye was fixed on exposing the wrong-headedness of Menand's proposed reform rather than offering a rationale for a life devoted to the arts and letters is telling, for if they do not have a practical purpose, they are likely to be relegated to the confines of the Academy, which leaves them susceptible to all the intellectual deformations that used to be called "dry-as-dust pedantry" and today go under the name "academic."

And so ideas, poems, plays, paintings, and sculptures from the distant past still linger on in classrooms and libraries and museums, but, as anyone who spends time in those institutions knows, the vast majority of them exist more as ghostly traces than as vital, living presences. This was not always the case. I remember first recognizing this when I happened upon a quotation from Montaigne in a book that I had discovered by chance but changed my intellectual life, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900, by Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny. This is what I read:

I was familiar with the affairs of Rome long before I was with those of my own house. I knew the Capitol and its position before I knew the Louvre, and the Tiber before the Seine. I have meditated more on the conditions and fortunes of Lucullus, Metellus, and Scipio than I have about many of our own men.

After reading this book and others to which it led, a lost world opened up to me. All those classical sculptures in museums and gardens and country houses that I had previously walked right by, all those Greek and Latin allusions in poetry that my eyes used to skip over, they now came alive and fell into a new place in my imagination. What surprised me most was how cultivated people from the Renaissance through the end of the eighteenth century regarded the ancient Romans and Greeks as their contemporaries. No modern sense of the gaping, unbridgeable divide between past and present for them. Rather, they thought of the ancients as exemplars of the highest excellence to be imitated in particular practices and as guides to proper conduct in life, whether it be artists drawing from plaster casts of ancient sculptures, actors imitating the gestures and attitudes of those same ancient sculptures, poets emulating the odes of Horace or Juvenal, historians modeling their work on Herodotus or Livy, or "men of affairs" following the historical examples of statesmen provided by Plutarch.

I was very interested to learn that as late as the close of the nineteenth century, Leslie Stephen could still write with sympathy that Edward Gibbon studied the ancients not only "to appreciate the style, but for the 'admirable lessons' of conduct 'applicable to almost every situation of public and private life.'" (Another sign of the destructive force of present preoccupations over the past:  Before I became aware of this history, I knew Leslie Stephen as the father of Virginia Woolf and not as one of the towering Victorian men of letters.) When I read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, its admirable lessons of conduct no longer spoke to me, but I found that I could still appreciate his perfectly balanced, stately sentences, his staggering erudition, and his gift for grand story-telling. Yet, I could not figure out where this 2,500-page monument to humanism, once a favorite of the educated public at large, could be taught in universities today, except perhaps in a highly specialized graduate seminar in eighteenth-century British intellectual history.

Which again raises the question of why anyone would study the humanities today. Then it occurred to me that this was not quite the right question, that we need to move away from asking how to make the humanities "relevant" to the inhumane world we find ourselves inhabiting, and instead try to imagine what kind of world, outside the Academy, would be hospitable to people who wish to make reflective inquiry a vital part of their lives. For some reason, Seamus Heaney's eulogy to his friend Czeslaw Milosz entered my thoughts, which I chanced upon the other day when I was organizing some files containing articles that had touched me in one way or another. (This one, which I had saved from TNR in 2004, touched and continues to touch me as deeply as anything I've ever read.) Heaney wrote admiringly of the great poet's immense learning—"schoolboy Latin, Thomist theology, Russian philosophy, world poetry, twentieth-century history, the dramatis personae of the age (many of whom were his close companions)"--and "how present all this was to him, and how inadequate the old cliche 'a well-stocked mind' turns out to be in his case."

Heaney also spoke admiringly of Milosz's "fierce conviction about the holy force of his art, how poetry was called upon to combat death and nothingness." So it is as touching as it is fitting that when the news of Milosz's long-expected death finally came, Heaney, a poet with a mind and spirit as well-stocked and voluminous as Milosz's, felt "an expanding of grief into the everlasting reach of poetry." He then tells of how "the poet in his hillside garden above the San Francisco Bay merged with the figure of Oedipus toiling up the wooded slope at Colonus, only to disappear in the blink of an eye." The rest of his exalted vision I can only quote at length:

When I looked he was here in all his human bulk and devotion, when I looked again he was not to be seen—and yet he was not entirely absent. There and then I could have repeated the words of Sophocles's Messenger as he reports the incident which for all its mysteriousness has the ring of a common truth.

At which point Heaney recites his own adaptation of Oedipus at Colonus:

          He was gone from sight:
    That much I could see ...
          No god had galloped
    His thunder chariot, no hurricane
    Had swept the hill. Call me mad, if you like,
    Or gullible, but that man surely went
    In step with a guide he trusted down to where
    Light has gone out but the door stands open.
   
In Heaney's evocation of the death of Oedipus as the death of Milosz, we are made to feel at once the unbearable loss of the man Heaney admired and the saving grace of poetry to "combat death and nothingness" and to feel this as if it were our own personal loss and redemption. In the sublime magnitude and existential depth of Heaney's poetic conjurings—here, I thought with gratitude, was an answer to the question, what are the humanities good for. This is not to say that they are only good for poets and for the readers with whom their wondrous words resonate, as this puts them in the company and safekeeping of very few people. But, until we live in a different world—one quite difficult to imagine at the present time—this seems all we can hold onto.

Rochelle Gurstein, a monthly columnist for The New Republic, is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America's Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. She is currently writing a book on the history of aesthetic experience tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty.

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