Wednesday, March 02, 2005

We're Goin' to--Kansas City . . .

My Humanities class has been going well this semester, with a big (20 students--large for the campus where I teach) and lively class and good attendance at an optional field trip to the Wichita Art Museum a couple of Saturdays ago. This Saturday, though, will be the optional field trip to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (N.B.: I know, the website sucks, but the museum IS a pretty good one) in Kansas City. Whereas the last time I went, I had all of one student join me, this time about half the class (!) say they'll be going. I'm very pleased about this, as you can imagine; and, given the level of participation we've had so far, I'm pretty sure this experience will be at least as positive for this class as last spring's was for my one student. They will see some pretty nice things there: a bronze cast of Rodin's The Thinker; a pretty generous collection of Renaissance religious art; one of only a few Caravaggios in this country; an outstanding Rembrandt; a good collection of French Impressionist paintings . . . as I've told the class, they won't see any famous paintings, but they'll see paintings by people they've heard of.
We're now wading into my particular area of alleged expertise, Modernism, and so I've actually been doing a bit of background reading. You'll see that over in the "Current Reading" list I've linked to Inside Modernism: Relativity Theory, Cubism, Narrative, co-authored by Thomas Vargish and Delo Mook, who are, respectively, an English professor and a professor of physics. I'm mentioning this book, though, because the tone of its introduction struck me as odd. It's hard to pick any one specific passage and make it stand for the whole, so just trust me when I say that it seems overly defensive as it sets up its assumptions. The chief area of touchiness is its interdisciplinary nature: the writers (quite rightly, to my mind) argue that one cannot help but talk about Modernism in such terms; yet they argue that it's difficult to obtain grant money for projects with interdisciplinary orientations, to sell book publishers on such projects, and, indeed, to get past the provincialism of some colleagues. It may be that the authors had some trouble selling all these groups on the idea behind this book and, if that's true, they feel the need to continue their justification in the introduction.
But what strikes me as odd about all of this is precisely that difficulty, assuming they met any. At least in the humanities, interdisciplinary studies are second nature with us, and the writers' project, as they describe it, doesn't seem especially radical to me. As I think about this, though, maybe in the (still-widening?) wake of Alan Sokal's famous hoax perpetrated on the good people at Social Text back in 1996, perhaps some residual reciprocal suspicion remains. I've been a bit out of the loop on these debates, so perhaps the academic environment IS less amenable to collaborations that seek to find correlations between the sciences and the arts. Maybe the science guys, empirical types that they are, were/remain suspicious of a bunch of literature folks saying that the General Theory of Relativity in some way explains Cubism and narrative innovations of the time.
And maybe Messers. Vargish and Mook will loosen up a bit as they present their arguments in the book proper. Let us hope.

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