Why I’m Not an Art Historian

Author: Aimee LaBrie

As a student in the MLA program at Penn, I’m taking a graduate pro-seminar called “Studies in World Art: Religion, Politics, and Culture.” We meet every Tuesday night from 5:30-8:10 in a small conference room in the Jaffee Building (just an aside: one thing I love about meeting there is that one of the admins keeps a full stock of candy in a bowl…It’s the honor system; you can take as many butterscotch hard candies or red licorice or pop rocks as you like. I confess that I always take more than my share). Here is the building, in case you have forgotten what it looks like. If only it were this green now.

The class is taught by Professor Larry Silver, who is a soft-spoken man with a snowy white beard and hair.  He has been everywhere and seen everything—every cathedral or architectural marvel you can name. Each week, we sit around a large conference table and he shows us slides of ornate temples in Damascus and 5th Century Buddhist sculptures in China and paintings by Giovanni Bellini, and I realize again and again the gaps in my education; how much I don’t know about the world, how much is missing in my knowledge about history. I took Advanced Placement history in high school, but honestly, all I remember from those two years is that my teacher, Mr. O’Donnell, often dressed up in costumes to illustrate a lesson. One time, he came in wearing a toga to teach us about Hannibal. The only thing I retain from that lecture is that Hannibal invaded a country while riding in on elephants (I only recall that because I love animals).  And there you have the sum total of my understanding of world history.

The Penn class is fairly class, and there are a few people who ask questions pretty much every time the teacher gives us a new piece of information. I try not to be irritated by this, but part of me (the impatient part…About 95% of me) just wants him to get on with the lecture versus learning why something is square instead of round or if it was built with toothpicks or really tiny logs. BUT! I think that also reveals my own shortcomings–I often don’t care much about the origins the work; I want the stories behind it. However, a lot of what we’re looking at is BCE (Before the Common Era. Something I learned in class!), and the creators are anonymous. So, there’s not a strong narrative thread in the class, no stories about the artist or who s/he was painting for, no drama about what happened to the piece or who owned it or how it was discovered. It’s all very factual.

On the other hand, we get to see slides of work like this:

Bodhisattva Guanyin, Ming Dynasty, (1368-1644 AD)

And this:

The Battle of the Bridge of Milvio by Piero della Francesca

I’ll never be an art historian, but I can love to sit in the dark and watch these slides flash by.

I read somewhere recently that you can create new brain cells by simply engaging your mind with new information, new knowledge, new tasks.  One more good thing bout working at Penn–it’s making me smarter.

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Filed under Aimee L.

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