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When humanistic scholarship is not beautiful

When Pablo Picasso first exhibited his work at the young age of eighteen, the reviews were not very promising.  His friends had found him a gallery space he could use for free, but there were also no funds available to properly mount the (mostly) bohemian portraits.  So the canvases were literally pinned to the walls, and in rows since there were more artworks to hang than the small gallery space allowed.  The main review in the Diario de Barcelona (dated 7 February 1900) was not kind:  Picasso was said to exhibit “an obsession with the most extreme form of modernisme… a lamentable derangement of the artistic sense and a mistaken concept of art.”

A decade or so later Picasso was first exhibited in the United States, and although he garnered early and strong enthusiasm in France and Germany, the American reception was also underwhelming.  Personally promoted by Max Weber (the artist, not the sociologist), the photographer Alfred Stieglitz exhibited Picasso in New York City in March 1911 at his 291 Gallery.  Although the show was later described as launching Picasso’s American career, it was something of a bust at the time – only one painting sold, and that for just eleven dollars.  Gertrude Stein was an early American advocate, but when she tried to interest her friends the Cone sisters in Picasso, they said no, on the grounds that his work was repulsive cubism (actually the specific word they used was tommyrot).

Picasso provides a ready example of a broader phenomena that subverts the public reception not only of twentieth century modernist art (and music and architecture) but also taints the wider scholarship of the humanities.  And I think this problem is more endemic to the so-called crisis of the humanities than its alleged inaccessibility to wider audiences, its failure to celebrate national cultures and literary traditions, or its increasingly distant relationship to the professional worlds of commerce and the professions.

The challenge is that the work product of the most brilliant scholars and artists laboring in the humanities (especially over the last half century), broadly defined, is often actually unattractive, sometimes even ugly:  jarring, intentionally disorienting, inelegant, apparently self-absorbed, tedious, at times even disgusting, and understandable only within the contours of a highly specialized and technically sophisticated audience whose reach (by definition) will be small.  By contrast to some other domains of human endeavor, where increasingly rigorous technical standards of evaluation have also been tightly wedded to sustaining standards of aesthetic elegance (I have in mind activities like figure skating and landscaping and perhaps even fields of study like mathematics, where the ideal achievement seems to remain the beautiful proof), work done by humanists is now widely dismissed as having abandoned its duty to actively attract audiences.

The viscerally negative reaction induced in many very bright students to some of the leading written works of humanist thinkers is better explained by this shock of first encounter than by its political agenda or by any innate inability to perceive its claims.  And the simultaneous public adoration and (for the most part) scholarly disparagement of the research published by the Joseph Ellises and David McCulloughs of the world (and one might add the Thomas Kinkades and John Williams of painting and movie soundtrack fame) only highlights the often intentional arms-length relationship sustained by serious humanistic heavyweights and their potential publics.

Now of course ugliness is not necessarily undesirable.  No imperative dictates that scholarship enact an aesthetic allure for its audiences, especially if it accomplishes other purposes (such as generating useful knowledge or essential insight).  Nor does the observation have universal relevance:  too many exceptions of elegant and even beautiful work are produced to launch this as any kind of generalized indictment and in fact it is a regular tactic of the humanities’ opponents to exaggerate the critique.

Meanwhile, a number of quite defensible factors have combined to lessen the perceived importance of beauty as a goal of, say, philosophical or literary production.  One is the raging debate over the status of aesthetics itself, which was sharply problematized under the emergence of modernism and structuralism, both often seeing surface appearance as a deceptive fraud masking underlying matrices of meaning and political signification, and beauty a concept more evasive than helpful.  (Of course considerable recent work has accomplished something of an aesthetic turn, as the pendulum swings back toward a view of aesthetics as empowering and not simply obliterative of difference; this is the point explored by Castiglia and Castronovo).

Jürgen Habermas argued some time ago that we are also seeing the inevitable outcomes of the specialization of knowledge accelerated by late capitalism; in contrast to an earlier Enlightenment view that the work of the scholar should culminate in findings that advanced the aspirations of Truth, Beauty, and Justice, today we inhabit a fragmented lifeworld where the philosophers fixate on truth and the lawyers fixate on their technically specialized concepts of justice (the wider complexities of Habermas’ views on aesthetics are elaborated by Duvenage).  One could actually trace such forces back as far as Rome; the Latin phrase pulchritudo splendor varitatis (“beauty is the splendor of truth”) is more than twenty centuries old.  Today, specialists in the humanities occasionally disavow the very idea of making their work accessible to wider literate audiences as antithetical to their projects, which they often reasonably argue obligate the use of difficult vernaculars.

Jerome McGann, the University of Virginia literary critic, has recently addressed the issue in a rather particular way.  Speaking of poetry he writes,

Poetry has become a byword for incomprehensible language.  It is our fault, scholars and educators, that poetry has acquired this reputation.  We have hyped its depth, profundity, importance…. We have some important unlearning to do.  We get into trouble, we get others into trouble, when we set either the criterion of “meaning” or the criterion of “beauty” as the measure of value for imaginative works.  Like theory, criteria are ponderous things, deadly to the imagination.  Yet these criteria pervade the discourse of culture, both inside and outside the academy.  On the contrary, poetry and at function at more fundamental, even primitive, levels.  Beauty and meaning, what the ancients called pleasure and instruction, are secondary constructions laid upon poetry by scholars who try to explain how poems work, how they arrest, astonish, reveal.

As one can see, McGann, despite his interest in the “death of beauty,” is not committed to a renunciation of poetry or criticism but rather to their reconceptualization.  And it remains important to insist on the often vital role paid by enactment of the grotesque in leading a society to a broader comprehension, and even to yield, in some cases, pleasure (Matthew Kieran:  “…even though an artwork may be constituted from repugnant materials, depict perverse scenes or people, we may be afforded pleasure by attending to them rather than being repelled by them”).

Still, even without judgmentalism, one might as well acknowledge that the intellectual currents that have produced increasing technical specialization in all of the humanistic endeavors have also necessarily come at the price of making them less attractive to those who encounter what will seem on first approach and to the uninitiated as impossibly obstuse and even repulsive scholarship.

All this is on my mind because of the recent controversy over the termination by Fort Hays State University of its debate coach on account of a screaming obscenity-laced argument he had after a debate round at the 2008 national tournament with the professor who directs debate at the University of Pittsburgh.  The YouTube video was painful to watch and of course has now been ridiculed on nationwide television as a kind of Professors Gone Wild.  The exchange was extreme and by my lights wholly uncharacteristic of the broader activity (at least with respect to its incivility, if not with respect to the passion all bring to their encounters).  But the commentary, and the schisms it has reawakened (or brought to public view) within the debate community actually are far older than the introduction of identity politics, performance activism, and philosophical argument to the activity that occurred in the 1990’s.

Academic debate is a paradigm instance of the phenomenon whereby a merged humanistic practice (rooted, after all, in the ancient art of rhetoric) of intellectual substance and eloquent (even beautiful) style has for the most part given way to the elevation of intellectualism over persuasion.  To the average person first encountering high level competitive policy debate, the experience is thus now most often unpleasant, and in fact, until thoroughly initiated, many are a little repulsed by the hyperfast screaming, inadvertent spitting, and red faced gasping characteristic of the activity.  Fortunately, for many that first encounter also conveys some sense of the incredible thinking and research skills needed to succeed in competitive debate.

Debate is an amazingly worthwhile intellectual endeavor and even as practiced at the most competitive levels still evokes a certain compelling though occasional persuasiveness.  Its participants develop astonishing aptitudes for critical thinking, the mastery of actually vast domains of public policy and philosophical literatures, and in part this is so because as an activity it has downplayed the conventional elements of recognizable persuasiveness.  But as with all the broader humanities, this extracurricular activity pays a price for its accentuated emphasis on particular and idiosyncratic modes of delivery that has for the moment made it (sadly) too easy to caricature.  And so even as brilliance regularly emerges, involvement (especially at the high school point of first entry) has dwindled.

I’m dismayed by the fact that beneficial co-curricular activities like intercollegiate debate are often outright opposed by faculty members who, in the name of abhorring its hyper-specialization, would never think for a second to discount their own scholarship for its arcane and limited and sometimes off-putting reach.  Such a reaction is, I believe, hypocritical.  But the fact of such hypocrisy should not be read as denying the importance of a discussion about whether the extent of intellectual specialization has too greatly come at the expense of the wider attractiveness of humanistic scholarship for intellectually literate audiences.

Ugly, perhaps, but true.

SOURCES:  John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Prodigy, 1881-1906 (New York:  Alfred Knopf, 2007 edition); Richardson, A Life of Picasso:  The Cubist Rebel, 1907-1916 (NY:  Knopf, 2007 edition); Jerome McGann, The Scholar’s Art:  Literary Studies in a Managed World (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2006); Matthew Kieran, “Aesthetic Value:  Beauty, Ugliness, and Incoherence,” Philosophy 72 (1997): 383-399; Pieter Duvenage, Habermas and Aesthetics:  The Limits of Communicative Reason (Cambridge:  Polity, 2003); Christopher Castiglia and Russ Castronovo, “A ‘Hive of Subtlety’:  Aesthetics and the End(s) of Cultural Studies,” American Literature 76.3 (September 2004): 423-435.


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