Archive for category Art

Angels and Demons

Emma and Jenna by the Fontana di Quattro Fiumi (Bernini)

And the demons won, at least logistically.    We had a busy day planned.  I was to do an Angels and Demons tour at 1:00, and a seminar on Vico at the Colosseum at 7:00.   Some students went to a concert designed to mix the art of Caravaggio and the music of his era, exploring the connections between music and art.   Others had a seminar on Catullus and Roman poetry.    Those went very well, and the Caravaggio + music concert was combined with a lecture in English that fit perfectly with the themes of this course; Steve and the students who went were enthused.

For me, the day just didn’t work out.   I didn’t realize that the main churches on my tour were closed between noon and 3:00, and thus we couldn’t go in and see the art work.   When I got to the Colosseum at 6:40 to scope out a seminar space only two showed up.  They reported others were interested, but were scattered in Rome.   We decided to reschedule and they left.   As I was leaving four others showed up, but it was getting late, and I didn’t want the two punctual ones to miss out.    So basically my stuff flopped today.   I am going to do the Angels and Demons walking tour again tomorrow at 3:30, and work Vico into a final seminar tomorrow evening.

Diana and Chris were ready for the Vico/broad look at history seminar, but we rescheduled

I will describe the walking tour today, but I may get better pictures when I repeat the walk tomorrow.

Angels and Demons is a novel by Dan Brown later made into the movie.   In that film a group called the Illuminati are alleged to have kidnapped four Cardinals just as the College of Cardinals was about to go into conclave to elect a new Pope.  The four were the top candidates for the job and in the story they are assassinated one by one in holy sites around Rome, with Tom Hanks following clues to try to stop the killing and ultimately save the Church.   The tour was to use the connection students have with the film or book to help them learn more about the people and history behind these places.

The first stop (based on the fact our hotel is near Termini) was at Santa Maria della Vittoria, where the Bernini sculpture “St. Teresa in Ecstasy” is located.   This statue was inspired by Saint Teresa of Avila, a Spanish mystic who was part of the counter-reformation.   She emphasized the importance of a contemplative life mystically connected with God through constant mental prayer (as opposed to ritual spoken prayer, which was the norm those days).   Once while ill she described an emotional experience of becoming one with God during her prayers, feeling “excessive” and “sweet” pain, on fire with the love of God, after having a gold spear thrust into her.

Due to her life of works she was canonized in 1622 and in 1970 Pope Paul VI made her a “Doctor of the Church.”   The language St. Teresa uses to describe her experience can be read as akin to a sexual encounter, and many thought that Bernini tried to capture not just the ecstasy of God’s love but Theresa in the throes of an orgasm.  This made the sculpture at times controversial, and of course fed into the  Angels and Demons story.

Next we took the subway to Flaminio, where the church Santa Maria del Popolo is located.   Named for the poplar trees that used to stand there, it’s a beautiful little church and a piazza defined by a large obelisk.   Inside on the left is the Chigi chapel.  (Again, we’ll have to come back Sunday to visit it)    The chapel was designed by Raphael (1483-1520), completed later by Bernini (1598-1680), who also supplied sculpture.    A beautiful high renaissance work, the chapel’s design, involving pyramids, signs of the zodiac and other things that seem odd for a Christian church now, lends itself to Dan Brown’s story.

At the closed Maria del Popolo

Both the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, our next stops, were parts of ancient Rome.  Piazza Navona was called Circus Agonalis (the name seems to have evolved from agone to navone and finally navona), where games were held.   Its centerpiece is the famouns Bernini sculpture “Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.”   In the story the final candidate for Pope was rescued from drowning in that fountain.   We discussed how both the Pantheon and Piazza Navona have changed through time, but help bridge the gap between ancient and present.   Rome’s personality is still shaped by the attributes from ancient Rome.

We also viewed  Castel Sant’Angelo.  It was the mausoleum for Hadrian and was constructed by 139 AD, about the same time the Pantheon was built.   As Rome declined it was transformed into a military fortress in 410.   Popes would often take refuge there in the tumult after the fall of Rome, and Pope Nicolas III had a pathway built between the fort and the papal apartments to make it easier for the Pope to flee to the safety of this gigantic fortress.   Connecting to past seminars, the pathway was built during the time of Aquinas (1200s), Dante had Nicolas III condemned to the third Bolgia of the Eighth circle of  hell for bribery, and the pathway was used during the sack of Rome in 1527, just after Machiavelli’s death.

We also discussed a bit about the story line of the book/film, namely the role of the Illuminati.   There was a group with that name founded in Ingolstadt, Germany in 1776, clearly long after Raphael, Galileo and Bernini were dead.  We shifted the discussion away from conspiracy theories to the lingering and yet unresolved tension between the secular and the sacred.

Behind the students the passageway from the Vatican connects to Castel Sant'Angelo

What gives Brown such fodder for his stories is that in that era intellectuals were starting to discover a world that couldn’t be explained completely by church doctrine.    For artists and scholars the real, material, human world was becoming more important, yielding a quiet rebellion against church authority in the Catholic world.  After 1517 there would be a century of open rebellion and war from the protestants.

The intellectuals didn’t doubt the existence of God — how could a world like this come into existence without a creator?    The question of ‘where did God come from’ was brushed aside because only in the material world do you need an act of creation.   Yet they were questioning key tenets of Christian faith and recognizing corruption and hypocrisy in the Church.

Fears of punishment during the counter-reformation and concern about just staying employed meant that doubts and dissent had to be quiet, often in small secret societies that could meet and talk about things in private that could have led to severe consequences of made public.    They may even have had hidden messages and small conspiracies, but probably nothing too dramatic.   After all, even in Brown’s story the Illuminati are ultimately not the villains, and may not be real.

Still, I find Angels and Demons to be a useful book and film in opening the door to get students to think about the sites in Rome differently, to want to learn more about them, and to discuss the tension between the sacred and secular that persists to this day.   One can quibble about errors and the license he uses to make the story interesting, but anything that can engage people with the past and want to learn more is very welcome!

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Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio

Statue of Dante outside the Uffizi

The works of  Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio in the 1300s foreshadowed the dramatic change western civilization was about to undergo and revolutionized literature even before the development of the printing press.   This was an essential part of the cultural and intellectual transformation sweeping Europe.

Luann discussing Dante in Florence, during a Dante walking tour

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) managed to live to the age of 62 in a century which saw many lives shortened by the plague.   His home of Florence lost as much as 70% of its population in the worst outbreaks.  Francesco Petrarca (Petrach) lived from 1304 to 1374, also avoiding the plague.   He was almost always traveling, gaining the label of the “first tourist” because he did what many then considered odd — he traveled for pleasure.  Both were influenced by the work of Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321).   Dante had Beatrice as his muse, Petrarch had Laura.   Dante had 100 cantos, Boccaccio’s Decameron contains 100 stories.

Dante’s Divine Comedy was published around 1317, meaning it was about a decade after Giotto’s work in Padova.  Dante started working on it sometime after his exile from Florence in 1301, thanks to a shift in the Florentine political winds.  In fact Dante knew Scrovegni and Giotto, living in Padova for awhile himself.   Some believe Dante assisted Giotto in at least some aspects of his work.  Dante and Giotto each reconciled their humanism with devotion to the Catholic Church.   For all it’s imagery and moments of revenge as he placed personal enemies in various parts of hell, Dante’s Divine Comedy does not contradict Catholic theology.   The punishments fit the crimes, and Paradiso is true love through union with God, deeper any human or romantic love.

But Dante wrote in Italian, not Latin.   He poked fun at authorities and people in the church, even if he remained true to church teachings.   He used over 600 expressing authentic human emotions, and wrote a work that is among the greatest literary accomplishments of European history.

It's not all art, music, politics and literature -- sometimes it's PASTRIES!

Petrarch and Boccaccio were of the next generation, and were friends who wrote each other frequently.   Petrarch has been called the “father of humanism” thanks to his profound and moving poetry, and both Boccaccio and Petrarch led the way to rediscovering the work of the Romans and the Greeks.   They were scholars, admiring the humanism of the ancients and determined to bring it into their world.

Some students went to Pisa, and Luann's Boccaccio seminar was to be in Fiesole, a scenic Tuscan village where the ten Florentines in the Decameron fled to and told their stories. But an Italian Bus strike forced us to find a park in Florence.

Their impact should not be understated.   The Italian language used today was based on the literature of Boccaccio, Petrarch and Dante — Italy was divided until 1861 and had dialects so diverse that people in Naples once thought a northern Italian was from Great Britain, his language seemed so bizarre.

However, their most profound impact is how they helped influence the rebirth of knowledge Europe was beginning to experience.   Who we are as a culture — how we think and what we value — was influenced by these three men.  Images of hell held by both the religious faithful and rebellious teens often come straight from Dante’s Inferno.  Dante originally called it Commedia; Boccaccio added Divina.  All three have influenced poets and writers for centuries.

But while Dante railed against those who had been unjust and corrupt, Petrarch went deeper through introspection and his belief that God gave humans intellect and creativity for each person to use to improve their experience of life.   He remained a devout Catholic, but his shift of focus from the Church to the Greeks and Romans and their humanism helped begin a process that ultimately would undermine the church.

There are worse places we could hold class

The story line of Boccaccio’s Decameron shows one reason everything was about to change .   The plague would wipe out huge chunks of Europe in its multiple recurrences in the 1300s, obliterating many old traditional power structures and creating new opportunities.   This also put the Church in crisis, evidenced by its growing corruption and the split Papacy.  Their emphasis on humanism came just as the old order was severely weakened by an external event.

Boccaccio’s stories and language were often lewd and risque.   Yet the story tellers — the real people fleeing Florence to Fiesole to avoid the plague — are proper and moral.   Like his friend Petrarch, Boccaccio did not see any contradiction between his faith and humanism.    His literature nonetheless broke with traditional forms, even as his stories were based on old folk tales.

Through them Florence emerged from the plague ridden 1300s with a new sense of respect for the Greeks and the Romans, brushing aside the old focus on just the church.   They can’t be given causal credit, of course.   They were part of a cultural change that was sweeping Europe.   Perhaps more important was how Aquinas injected Aristotle into both European thought and the church in the 1200s, as well as the increased knowledge coming into Italy from the more progressive and advanced Islamic world.   The rise of Florence would have as much to do with the Medici’s accounting methods making them the bankers to Europe as the legacy of the literature of the 1300s.

And that’s what makes this travel course so exciting to teach.   We work through how the world was changing and help students move away from simplistic “Petrarch changed the world through his poetry” or “Dante revolutionized literature” claims to a more nuanced recognition that change was coming on multiple levels in art, literature, music and politics.   Something was awaking in Italy, especially Florence, as we get towards the 1400s.   Rather than a force of nature, this was a social force of culture and knowledge.    It expressed itself through individuls, but can’t be explained just by looking at individuals.

What is it?   What was going on?   How do we make sense of it?   The answer may be like Boccaccio’s stories.   Many of them have lessons or morals, but they don’t create a coherent moral code, and some seem to contradict.   We have multiple perspectives, but there is no overarching narrative or causal pattern.    Petrarch’s introspection illustrates the power of reflection as being as important as external forces and patterns.   There is no one way to look at this and explain it.   But as the students come to see, knowing about this, reading the literature, seeing the art, and learning about the past not only shows us something about who we are, but enhances ones’ experience of life itself.    I think that would please Dante, Boccaccio and especially Petrarch.

Often the best conversations about the issues covered in the course occur over meals in small groups! Here Steve (lower left) is probably as knowledgeable about Italian cuisine as he is about music history

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Humanism

The Scrovegni Chapel

On Wednesday our class took an excursion to Padova to visit the Scrovegni chapel.   The chapel is noted for its famous frescoes depicting the life of Christ, starting with Joachim and Anna, Mary’s parents.   Giotto (1267-1337) painted these frescoes from 1303 to 1305.   You can do a web image search if you want to look at them — I didn’t bring my camera inside — and if you do you’ll notice something.   The figures are very life like and expressive.  Emotions show; the story is told realistically.

Students learning about Giotto outside the Scrovegni chapel

In the seminar today Sarah explained that this represented a dramatic shift away from traditional medieval painting towards humanism, with Giotto influencing painters for generations.

For centuries the proper way to paint had been to use God’s perspective, rather than the human perspective.  Practically this meant that spiritual things were large and imposing, while humans were small and insignificant.   Humans who were spiritually important (the apostles, church leaders, other biblical figures, etc.) would be larger than average humans, with size depicting the spiritual importance of the subject.

Somehow students prefer class here than in a university classroom

With Giotto we moved towards what would be called humanism, or shifting the perspective from that of God and the spiritual to the human and the material.   This meant human emotions mattered in art, literature, and eventually music.

The 1300s have emerged as important in this course so far.   We often talk about later figures such as Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Galileo, and Machiavelli.   And the action was intense in the 1400s and beyond, especially as the reformation and the rise of the “age of reason” emerged after 1500.  However, this was set up by a vibrant century starting with Giotto’s work.

The turn towards humanism was a first step towards science, capitalism, and enlightenment philosophy.  It was to recapture an essence of ancient Greek and Roman thought lost after the collapse of the Roman Empire.  Picking up on the theme of the last post, I found it powerful to go from a world of Ipads, smart phones and social networking into a chapel symbolizing the first steps towards our modern way of thinking.

Giotto himself doesn’t get credit for the change.   He was part of a new way of thinking spreading across Europe, inspired by the fact that Aquinas had brought Aristotle into western thought.   Aristotle’s realism watered down Plato’s idealism, and even the church would find itself becoming more and more seduced by the material.   The 1300s were the time when the papacy split and at one point there were three Popes at once.  But it also represented a shift towards more corruption and materialism in the Church that would grow over the next three centuries.

This also started the process of individuation in the West.   We are the most individualistic culture in history.   While some like to posit individualism as “natural” and “how it should be,” the reality is that in nature human cultures have tended to be collectivist and often very hierarchical.   Giotto’s emphasis on the emotions  of individual humans shifted the story from one of God controlling the fortunes of pitiful humans to one of humans starting to take control of their own destiny.

In that little chapel in Padova, looking at often damaged yet restored frescoes, I realized I was seeing both the past and the present, the symbolic rebirth of humanism in western thought and a reflection of how we got to be who we are now.   It was a powerful sensation, realizing that the past is indeed alive in the present, even as we race into the future.  And that’s what this class is about too — to help students connect not only with Italy and its past, but with how we in the West became who we are, thinking the way we think.

And if we eat well along the way, all the better!

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Politics and Art in Milano

A street protest in Milano, Feb. 21, 2009

Today we reached Milano, and had a full day. We went to our hotel, a nice place called Hotel Serena. It’s sort of a let down after the cozy Abaco in Florence where we had the whole place to ourselves and could congregate in the breakfast area. Here we’re divided here between four floors and it’s more institutional feeling than the 500 year old building kept up so beautifully in Florence. Still, not bad and not too far from the station. We arrived, had lunch, and then headed first to the Duomo. My lunch was great — Foccacia della casa. Pizza crust baked thin, olive oil, covered with ham (proscutto cotto), rucola salad, fresh mozzarella cheese and yummy tomatoes. Oh, so good!

En route we encountered a massive protest which ran the length of the Corso Venezia.   I’m not sure what it was about, but it included communists, labor unions, and groups against racism.  What I liked about it was it was a typical Italian political demonstration.  Everyone was having fun, no violence, the police and the protesters worked together, and it seemed more like a festival than a political protest.    I suspect it was primarily an anti-racism pro-integration rally, though the Left in Europe has been growing stronger because of the financial crisis.  Many believe that capitalism has been shown to be fatally flawed (the most pro-market anti-regulatory countries, Ireland and Iceland, have gone from being models to in or near bankruptcy) and Europe has to veer left.    So far it seems the more radical left has benefited more than the moderate left, but we’ll  see what coming years bring.

Then we got to the Duomo — the third largest church in the world.  Wow!  Such a different style than Florence, very impressive.  The inside was so massive it seemed unreal, I can hardly imagine how it was with just natural light and candles.   They didn’t allow photos inside (even without flash; people were violating that rule and even using flash, but I try to respect the rules in a church), but the outside is impressive:

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This photo doesn’t do it justice, from other angles it looks like it’s “drip art” the columns are every where.   Then when we were done walking through the huge gothic church we came out and found that the protest had made it to the Piazza Duomo, and speakers were firing up the crowd.  Kids were having fun, throwing confetti around, and it was a carnival like atmosphere.   Some photos:

Protest on the Duomo Pizza in Milano

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Here are a couple of night images of the Duomo:

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The night images are from after we visited Maria delle Grazie, where Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” can be viewed.   We thought we had reserved 17 tickets, but they only had 15.   Neither Sarah, who is an Art Historian, nor I had seen the famous painting.  But we have 15 students, so they got the tickets and they were wowed by it (and felt sorry for us for missing it).   I had to be happy looking at the jigsaw puzzle on the wall of the caffe across from the church where we had espresso while the students viewed the huge mural.   We told them to describe it well in their journals, and we will live vicariously through them.

The walk back was grand.  Milano has wide pedestrian zones surrounded with grand old buildings, with large numbers of people roaming the streets, window shopping, having fun, while various street musicians perform.   This is something we lack in the US, the Italians have a flair for enjoying life and taking things  in stride, we have a fast paced high demand culture.   I think a walk out in a place like Milano, in the shadow of the Duomo and other magnificent buildings, is very uplifting and energizing.

So we had some Art History and Political Science today here in Milano.  Protests, Da Vinci, and one of the world’s most impessive Cathedrals.  In the evening I got train tickets for tomorrow’s day trip to Venice.  It’s the last day of the trip, and we’re going to end it in style.   It’s Carnival in Venice, however, so things will be packed.  Also, because the Sunday trains are full, we only got a standing room ticket for the two and a half (if we’re lucky) hour ride back.  But it’ll give the students a glimpse of Venice at Carnival.  I love Venice, but have never been there during Carnival (usually we do Venice on this trip, but it was too expensive this time because of the celebration — Carnival is essentially the same thing as Mardi Gras, though celebrated differently here).

As always as the trip winds down I realize I’ll miss the energy and excitement of Italy, as well as being part of the experience of students learning about a new culture.  At the same time, I miss my family and can’t wait to be back home.  I’ll try to get a blog entry in on Venice tomorrow!

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Art and Wine

Leonardo's Anunciation (on my hotel room wall)

Leonardo's Anunciation (on my hotel room wall)

A gloriously beautiful and sunny, if also chilly, day in Florence.   We climbed the Duomo to the top of the dome.   That itself is an adventure, it’s like climbing 35 stories, at times in between the inner and outer dome.  It was the largest dome structure in the world until the late 20th century; when Brunelleschi first planned to build it, he didn’t know how he’d pull it off.   Part of the climb includes a walk on the inside of the church, hundreds of feet above the people below, next to the giant ceiling frescoe (one of the largest in the world) depicting the last judgment of Christ.  The detail close up is amazing, and the view of Florence and the Tuscan countryside is superb.   Today was so clear one could see snow covered mountains in the distance.

Then the Uffizi, Florence’s grand museum with a renaissance collection surpassed by no one.  Officially opened in 1765, the gallery has been around since the mid 16th century and could be viewed by request.  The Medici family designed a palace here, with administrative offices (hence the term Uffizi) in a building with two long corridors.   In that sense it was the first modern museum, systematically collecting artwork for public viewing.   In summer there are long lines, sometimes waits of well over an hour.  In February, you walk right in.

One sees the development of renaissance art as well, starting with Giotto and late medieval/early renaissance painting, moving away from the flat, lifeless abstract images towards dimension, emotion and what we call humanism.   A favorite of everyones is, of course, Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus,  though it’s likely this is really the arrival of Venus to Cyprus, being pushed by the winds Zephyrus and Aura.  To me this captures the 15th century ideal that faith and reason, or spirit and matter, can be reconciled, there is a balance that is truly inspirational.  I examined that painting for well over 15 minutes.

In the next room was one I liked even better, and looked at just as long, by Leonardo di Vinci, “Annunciation.”   I walked back and forth between rooms to compare the two, and marvel at these timeless works of art.    Da Vinci’s intrigued me.   The Angel telling Mary that she would have a child from God is facing slightly down, but her eyes are looking up, straight into Mary’s.  Mary looks serene, as if she understands and accepts her role.   She’s reading something, the letters look vaguely Greek.  In the background there are boats, a city, and mountains.  The angel is sitting on grass and flowers, dark as if a mix of typical ground plants.    Mary is on a floor, with some kind of trunk or dresser box in front of her.  Behind her you can see her bedroom at the edge of the painting. 

Back at the hotel I found out that Andrea M., also on the trip, had also focused on the same painting.   She started pointing out aspects of it by pointing to the copy of the painting in my room on the wall next to my bed, as another student used my computer to send messages home.   In other words, I have been in this room almost two days, was intrigued by that painting at the Uffizi, and until Andrea pointed it out I didn’t realize it was right here in my room.   Those who know me are nodding knowingly now — I tend not to notice details!   The picture above is of the painting in my room — the copy is partially cut off so you can’t  see Mary’s bed at the edge.  I still can’t believe I didn’t notice it until someone pointed it out to me. 

I lack knowledge about art (though Sarah’s mini-lectures help a lot) and after awhile I felt overwhelmed by the museum.   I did notice that all the paintings seemed to be either sponsored by or at some point acquired by someone in the Medici family.  That makes sense, given the origin of the museum, but also shows just how active the Medicis were in supporting the arts.   This also clearly shows that the arts aren’t just a luxury — political, social and cultural progress begin with art.   Be it painting, music, literature, theater or some other form of expression, without creativity there is stagnation.   That’s one reason fascism and communism could not last, they attacked  the creative spirit of individuals and tried to replace it with a forced collectivism.

Another topic of conversation today was wine.   In Italy you need not be 21 to drink, if you’re over 16 it’s no problem to order wine or beer with your meal, or even at a snack bar (all of which serve alcohol and are ubiquitious on the streets).   Yet it seems to be the Americans who overindulge.  The joke Steve Pane tells is that the American who shakes his head at the Italian drinking wine at lunch is the same American the Italian has to help home after he overindulges at night.  In part, the US law makes no sense — we send people who are 18 to kill and die in war, we allow them to vote, they can get married, but they dare not order a glass of wine with their meal.  That’s utter absurdity.

More importantly, though, this weird message sent that “alcohol is bad” only reinforces and magnifies negative aspects of alcohol use.  Yeah, there are people that overindulge everywhere, but in Europe people tend to learn that alcohol is to be used in moderation as a part of a larger social activity, the idea of going out to “get drunk” is uncool.  In the US, because alcohol gets this status as the “forbidden fruit,” college kids abuse it and don’t learn effective and responsible drinking.  The result is the anti-alcohol messages lead to the very thing they wish to avoid.   Its like how when parents overshelter their children in high school, they’re more likely to be unable to exercise their freedom responsibly when they go off to college.  You have to learn that life is not a series of rules to follow or break, but judgments to be made considering the consequences of actions taken.  In our culture, we don’t deal with alcohol well on those terms, and hence people  see it as a recreational drug rather than a compliment to social activity.

Americans like to think they are more free than Europeans because our taxes are lower; however, in many ways there seems to be a greater sense of freedom and personal responsibility in Europe.  People aren’t as litigious so they don’t sue each other over little accidents.   For instance, some of the towers one claims have stairways hat are rather dangerous, and would be closed down in the US out of fear of a law suit.   Here they’re OK with the idea that it’s up to the person visiting the site to decide if they want to risk the climb.   You also don’t have to make everything handicap accessible, that’s ridiculous.  Do as well as you can and help as much as possible, but handicaps are handicaps, people deal with them.    The US has gotten caught up in a culture of rules and laws, and has forgotten common sense.  Our laws on drinking show just how absurd, and how counter-productive such efforts are.

These two topics — art at the Uffizi, and alcohol consumption by young people — seem very disconnected.  Yet this trip fosters learning both by looking at the past, and comparing cultures and behaviors in the present.  We’ve also talked about health care (Americans are pretty clueless about European health care, thanks to scare tactics from US insurance companies), political thought, and the impact of Obama’s election on Italian perspectives on Americans.   The beauty of a course like this is that every conversation is meaningful (though sometimes we’re just being silly — we laugh a lot here), and we have a chance to explore both the past and comparisons between cultures in the present.    And we avoid any temptation for students to go out and overindulge by keeping them so active that by the end of the night they are too tired to go out! 

Tomorrow is Pisa for at least part of the day, with lots of info on Galileo (and probably a visit to the Science museum on Friday).   One way we keep students from overindulging is to keep them so active they’re too tired at the end of the day to go out.   And I’m tired too!  Buona Notte!

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Alienation and the Arts

For a number of years now I’ve been part of a travel course to Italy co-taught by professors of Music, Art History, Literature and Political Science (myself). We’ve offered that course in 2005, 2007 and 2008, and plan to offer it again next year. I have enjoyed these courses because by working with faculty from the arts I have begun to learn about a whole new cultural world with which I had only peripheral contact in the past. The arts do matter for politics; they are interconnected.

Philosophers like Rousseau, Marx and Freud all posited an humanity wherein individuals are essentially alienated from their true selves. For Rousseau it was the existence of civilization, creating artificial wants and desires, making it virtually impossible for people to find true satisfaction. Caught up in wanting something more or seeking status, we lose ourselves in a game which by its very nature alienates us from our true selves and sabotages happiness. For Marx it was the economic system — exploitation leads to the construction of different cultural worlds, all created to service the existing mode of production, with humans of all classes separated from their true humanity by the nature of economic production. For Freud it is our subconscious, a dominant superego telling us that we are not truly worthy, and a powerful id containing passions and appetites, driving us to undertake actions which build barriers to understanding our true selves. And, while for Marx and Rousseau the causes were observable, for Freud the drives are hidden even to ourselves, in our subconscious. We know we’re not truly satisfied, we get angry when we repeat patterns of behavior that create problems or despair, yet somehow we can’t seem to avoid continuing these patterns. It seems to be who we are, while in reality it is our unconscious preventing us from discovering who we are.

I think all three of these philosophers reflect their cultures and times more than any universal aspect of what it is to be human. I disagree with Rousseau that civilization is such an evil; it’s merely a challenge for our psyches to overcome — how not to let the modern world make us dizzy and steer us away from honest introspection and self-awareness. I disagree with Marx on fundamental grounds because I am not a materialist — though his theory of alienation is perhaps the most persuasive aspect of his writing. And Freud’s contention that the superego is overly perfectionist while the id is untamable seems too pessimistic. Limit feelings of guilt and the superego can be held in check, think through the consequences of actions and the ego can stand up to the id. Yet Freud is right, I believe, that there is an unconscious, and that means you have to work at being self-aware enough to handle those challenges. You can’t limit feelings of guilt or think through your actions if you don’t delve deep into yourself and know what it is that drives and motivates you.

This brings me to art. It seems to me that alienation is better understood as humans giving up their sense of responsibility for their own lives; it feels like life is happening to them, and even individual identity seems a given — in a day where psychology and genetics dominate, people simply accept that they are as they were born to be, with no personal choice in the matter. This dual loss of personal power over ones’ life forces people to look for satisfaction from external sources, meaning one becomes more distant, even afraid of, a deep, reflective inner life. Living an alienated life thus entails at its core a sacrifice of creativity and originality. Conformity and fear of rejection bury the true, creative, playful inner self.

Art — including music, literature, film, poetry and any other form of creative expression is perhaps the most powerful source of opening up that inner self and countering the cold social forces of alienation. You don’t need to completely eliminate the capitalist mode of production a la Marx, and there is no reason for a Rousseau-esque condemnation of civilization and society. It may even be a more powerful way to release and in fact get to know ones’ unconscious than Freud’s difficult and sophisticated attempts at psycho-analysis (and I can’t really buy his ideas of sublimation — directing energy thoughtfully seems more positive).

This doesn’t include only producing art, but also in experiencing art in its various forms. When confronted with something truly creative, the mind is forced to interact and jolt itself into thinking about something from a different perspective. Of course, one can still resist; people who ridicule art they do not understand clearly are putting a barrier between themselves and their ability to experience something original or strange to their current patterns of thought. Also, there are different levels of creativity — a Rembrandt portrait may evoke less thought than a Picasso, a Wagner symphony may be more powerful than the latest hit from Carrie Underwood. Yet all of these have some power. Even in “pop” forms, we seem to need art. We need to keep our creative inner self alive to avoid experiencing life as drudgery. And, the more bold our attempts to engage and experience art in various forms, the easier it is to open our minds and experience the world as something spiritual as well as physical. Spiritual doesn’t necessarily mean religious; rather, I consider it that inward journey needed to avoid the traps of alienation.

I’ve been to Italy many times, visited museums, and explored and learned about the country and its people. Yet now that I’m learning real insight into Italian art, music and literature as part of these travel courses, I find the experience not only more rewarding from an intellectual level, but one that connects me with Italy and its history in a manner I had not imagined possible. And to me that kind of experience is the opposite of alienation, it is living.

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