We’ve all heard someone announce, “I need a good lawyer,” or request that “any doctor or medical personnel aboard the plane report to a flight attendant.” How many times have you timidly asked a pharmacist friend for advice about medications or a landscape designer why your roses look wimpy this year? These are useful jobs, practical ones. No one has ever asked, “is there a Byzantinist in the house?”
I’d love to be able to tell you that I chose my career as an art historian because I’m simply called to do it and wouldn’t be happy with anything else. The truth is, it’s not even my first career, and when I decided to go to grad school, there were several fields I considered: architecture, urban planning, history, English, interior design, journalism. Ultimately, I picked this one because I wanted a job in which I had some amount of creative control over my projects, and because I want to be a writer. I also like the fact that travel is necessary. On a more existential note, my friend just quoted on Facebook a colleague who declared,“at my most cynical, I feel that the powers of this world want to see the humanities and social sciences eliminated from education, as it is these disciplines which encourage students to think about their society and culture, as well as those around them. So, perhaps pursuing a PhD in the humanities is now a subversive act, and should be encouraged as such.” Yet, graduate schools are flooded with applications from PhD hopefuls in all of these disciplines. Ha! Take that, cynical universe.
In a less dreary frame of mind, I’d also confess how thrilled I am when a student tells me that she fell in love with the Metropolitan Museum of Art after I required a visit there or how delighted I am when a student takes an interest in his own religion after seeing its artistic origins in the medieval works we discuss in class. My favorite conversation went something along these lines:
Medieval Art History Student on the last day of class: “You know, I liked this class a lot more than I intended to.”
Me: “Er, thanks. Why exactly?”
Student: “Well, I just expected it to be a bunch of Crucifixes but there’s a lot more to it than that.”
On days that are less rainy and gloomy than this one, I’d also tell you that I believe studying art teaches us something about humanity; it is a gauge of a society’s values and a valuable vehicle for discussing religion and politics and human rights and war and the economy and every other issue that plagues and elates us as humans. Do you think the bullies of the world might back down a little if they realized without gay misfits, we wouldn’t have Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or Andy Warhol’s excellent quote about everyone having fifteen minutes of fame? Would the Middle East be in better shape politically if the leaders of Allied powers after WWII had had a clearer notion of the cultural differences inherent in the ethnic groups–whose roots extended back to the middle ages–they were haphazardly assigning to geographic regions?
Recently my curator friend organized a show of two artists whose work incorporates palimpsests, layers of visual information that build on each other and develop a rich experience for the viewer. He asked if I would write an essay for the catalog because he knew that as a medievalist, I might have something to share about manuscripts and the way that medieval scribes would often scrape away a text on an expensive piece of parchment in order to record something new on top of it. Is there a medievalist in the house? Oh, yes! And for once, my expertise was not just a way to conjure up the past, but an opportunity to shed light on two contemporary artists whose work is part of a great tradition of palimpsistic, layered creativity, and whose show is (in my own words from the exhibition catalog) “an invitation to both viewer and artist to question and process visual information in all possible ways, to appreciate the inherent cycles of creation, to find new information in the repetition of a familiar object or practice, and to make the creative process a conversation rather than a monologue.” [Please check out their work in Marksmen and the Palimpsests at www.centotto.com and if you’re in the city, stop by the opening this weekend].
So, yeah, I do think understanding the middle ages contributes to a greater understanding of society today. And while I hope the rest of you keep saving lives and building bridges, I’ll keep plugging along. I may not be on the front lines of negotiating world peace, but I can remain subversive and inspired and hopefully, at least, shed some light on human nature.