Thursday, August 26, 2004

Into the Breach: Honors Comp class

As reported in my previous post, my Honors Comp class met on Tuesday morning. I began by asking the class how many of them knew they were signing up for an Honors Comp section; out of 19 people, one raised her hand. Well, I said, you've been warned. Primary responsibility for academic decisions and all that. But, I take it as a good sign that only one left the class (I hadn't even finished going over the syllabus when the fellow got up, put his copy of the syllabus on my desk, and walked out). Students grade themselves, I firmly believe, and this guy passed with flying colors.
You may have read Amy's and Fearful Syzygy's comments about additional painters to add to my list; I added Kahlo and Dali. In fact, back in the spring I had been thinking about Kahlo from the beginning but had just forgotten to put her on the list. As for Dali, he's no stranger in his way than Bruegel or Magritte or Kahlo are in theirs, so what the heck?
This class's design, apart from the number of required writing assignments, is a pedagogical crapshoot, in case you couldn't tell from the above. I freely admitted that to the class. No one (else) ran screaming from the room. But the deadlines for dropping haven't yet arrived, so we'll see what happens.
Anyway: once we got through the syllabus, we had an informal discussion about the nature of seeing--that it's much more than light stimulating optic nerves. The brain is involved, which means that interpretation and thus language are involved. In the room where we meet, there's a rather garish bulletin board covered with a muted orange paper; pointing to it and without actually mentioning Saussure, I talked about how my children, like all children, had initially had considerable trouble learning their colors, that there was nothing inherent in the color that causes us to call it that--and that that extended to all things we attach names to. Language sort of labels things without actually increasing our knowledge of the thing's essence. On to Stevens, then, and his poem "Study of Two Pears", a wonderful meditation on how, if we really want to "see" an object, we have to describe what is there in front of us. Then to painting. I showed them a copy of Las Meninas and read a text to the class that argues that the canvas the painted Velazquez is painting on "surely must be" Las Meninas itself. I asked the class if they saw anything unusual about the painting. Silence for a while, till one woman asked what that tall thing was on the left side of the painting. I told her, then I reread the passage and asked what they thought about that. Someone else said, "How can they know that?" Exactly. Then they noticed the King and Queen reflected in the painting, and I asked them: If that's their reflection, then where are they standing in relation to you as the viewer? I saw several pairs of eyes get big as they reazlized, Right beside us. Yes: the depicted space of the painting extends back, of course, but also forward to include the viewer. Then my big, blurted-out claim, which perhaps someone reading this will ask me about, because I was almost out of time and so didn't have time in class to develop this idea: All paintings do this--invite us into their space; Las Meninas just does this more overtly than other paintings do.

For what it's worth, regarding the above: On Wednesday I happened to hear The Writers' Almanac, and Garrison Keillor read this about Leonard Bernstein, whose birthday was yesterday:

He also wrote a book called "The Joy of Music" (1959), a collection of essays and conversations about music. He said, "Any great work of art . . . revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world - the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air"

Harold Bloom, in his book The Western Canon, says something similar in his introduction when he says (and I'm paraphrasing here) that a work is deserving of such status when it makes the world look strange.

Anyway: the class looked a bit intellectually punch-drunk when they left, but I HOPE it's because they found these ideas new and different and, of course, worth thinking about.

This Saturday and the following Saturday, I've asked them, for their first assignment, to visit the Wichita Art Museum (a small but, for what it is, good collection of, mostly, Modern American art) and choose a painting to describe and interpret. Saturdays are free admission, by the way. We'll see how that goes. And, of course, I'll let my reader(s) know.


Anonymous said...

I am so psyched that you added Kahlo and Dali! Art is so freaking cool. Lately I've been mildly obsessed with "Der Blaue Reiter" artists.

I like how you mentioned that when they realized where the king and queen were, several students' eyes got big. I really like art that pulls you in. There is one piece in particular that makes you feel like you are part of the audience because you see in the foreground the backs of a lot of people who are also looking at the action that's going on in the painting. There's also a horse's behind in the lower left-hand corner of the picture and my art history professor was telling us how the artist did that to make the viewer feel like they were right there. My friend MacKenzie and I named that particular effect "bling" (this was before people started calling jewelry "bling-bling", btw). When we took the final, we used the term "bling," and because we had explained the idea to the teacher, he gave us credit for it in the form of little smiley faces.

He was not really a little smiley face kinda guy, so it made it even more fun.

Actually, since I've been thinking about it the last few days, I am really sorry that I decided not to pursue art history or literature as an undergrad. I try to console myself with the thought that if I tried to work those things into my chosen profession, it would sap some of the joy out of it for me; I am not thoroughly convinced.

It sounds as if you've made a good start with your class. I hope that your love of the subject will rub off on them--the passionate teachers are the ones who really made an impression upon me and you remind me of them.


Anonymous said...

It might be too late already, but I'd add Bosch and Bacon to your list. They're both definitely thought provoking.