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Help wanted: art history majors. President Obama, please copy

Cartoon by Joan Altabe
Joan Altabe from book "Pollster" written by Steve Schroer

Last month when President Obama urged workers at the General Electric’s gas engines plant in Waukesha, Wisconsin to learn a new trade to make more money “than they might with an art history degree,” he seemed to suggest that art history is some dust-heap of irrelevant miscellany.

Granted trades like plumbers can earn bigger bucks than history writers, but someone has to mind the storehouse of recorded history. As importantly, someone needs to tell the story of art with today’s perspective. We need a new generation of art historians to answer questions unasked in the past.

Example: Venerated art historian Kenneth Clark failed to note a modern-day side effect to seeing the ancient Greece’s Venus de Milo (a.k.a. Aphrodite of Melos), despite acknowledging its currency in modern life: “There must be hundreds of products from lead pencils to facial tissues, from beauty parlors to motorcars, that use an image of the Aphrodite of Melos in their advertisements, implying thereby a standard of ideal beauty.”

Nowhere in Clark’s statement about the statue’s popularity is there recognition that a nude female made docile by lack of arms has become the beau ideal of womanhood.

Granted, Clark wrote his thesis in the ‘50s when women’s issues weren’t in the collective consciousness. But one expects an historian of any era to at least note Venus’ history: she had arms once. (One was found when it was unearthed in the early 19th century).

Clark isn’t the only art historian oblivious to the ill-effects of the Venus image. In his 1950 “Principles of Art History,” Heinrich Wolfflin compared Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” to the Venus de Milo and a similarly posed Venus by Lorenzo di Cridi - both of which shyly cover their nakedness with their hands. He said only, “Nothing is more illuminating than to compare the similar curve of the arm in the two pictures.”

“Nothing”? How about the historic fact that Venus was no more modest than she was docile? While married to Vulcan, she took on several lovers like Zeus, Hermes, Aares, Dionysus, Mars and even a mortal – Acheses.

Who but an historian in our time is going to ask how a femme fatale became an acceptable emblem of passivity and modesty? Why is Venus, a veritable Casanova counterpart, given form as bashful or passive, and why do we perpetuate the myth?

Another unasked question that a new generation of art historians can raise: why do NFL team executives worry that Mike Sam, the first publicly gay player in the NFL, will be a “distraction.” Or that his teammates will suffer with him in the locker room?

Same-sex relations were practiced openly among athletes in ancient Greece. You can see it in classical Athens’ pottery and sculpture. But most schools don’t teach classical studies anymore. We need art historians to enlighten the NFL and others unknowing of human history. We need art history majors more than ever.

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