14 February 2012

The trouble with humanities

There are some things I wish I had learnt very early in life.
I wish I had learnt earlier than I did that inches are divided into eighths. I wish I had learnt earlier that basting a chicken does not mean sewing it and then picking out the stitches. I wish I had learnt earlier that the right way to commence sponja-ing the floor (Israelis don't mop, they sponja) is to dash water into the corners.
And I certainly ought to have learnt several years ago that COLLEGE CREDITS EXPIRE -- so that college courses taken in high school may have to be repeated... or Clepped.
This has been a public service announcement.

The Humanities Clep covers philosophy, literature, drama, art, music, and film, from prehistory to the present.
On one hand, it is interesting to catch up on what humanity has been doing for all those years -- filling in some spaces in my education.
On the other hand, the material required for the test is the most uninspiring branch of the humanities.

The math Clep tests your familiarity with math. Studying for it makes you appreciate the math in the world.
The science Clep tests your familiarity with science. Studying for it makes you appreciate the science in the world.
And the humanities Clep tests your familiarity with what everyone has to say about the humanities, which is not the same thing at all. Studying for it means memorizing lists like this:

James, Fred, George and Mary of the Tiddlywinks school of art, which emphasized light and movement, were succeded by James, John, George (the nephew of the first George), and Harriet of the Tiddlywoodles school, which emphasized light and color, and were succeeded by the Tiddlysquinks school, represented by John, Harry (the stepson of James of the Tiddlywoodles), Rene, and Mildred, which sought to revive the traditions of the Tiddlywinks, focusing on light, movement, and space, and Michael defaulted from the Tiddlysquinks to pave the way for the Tiddlysqundles who emphasized movement and color; and all the Tiddly movements took place in the age in which the unnaturalist movement of art, which drew on the naturalist movement of art, gave way to semi-naturalist art, and the return of naturalist undertones.

...instead of actually looking at the art.

I thought this was only because the multiple-choice nature of the CLEP test doesn't allow for better, but the art historian of the family confirmed, laughing, that emphasis on categorization (and questions of authorship) rather than content is actually quite common.

There are humanities scholars who spend their lives contemplating some of the greatest efforts of humanity over the millenia... and who, far from being inspired by these to deep and worthy thought, devote their time and energy to quibbling over whether an artist was a Tiddlywoodler or a Tiddlywiddler.
It is embarrassing. I believe it bypasses the point of the humanities entirely.


  1. I drew. I painted. I went AWOL from high school to visit art in Manhattan. Then I went to college and took Art History. We saw 10,000 slides in a darkened lecture hall and we met in small groups to discuss the 10,000 slides. Most of the term went by and I had not figured out Art History. I liked art. I made art. I made art for the Art History Department. Why didn't I like Art History? One day in the small group, we were looking at an "adoration" by a 14th or 15th century Italian master. There was that baby, and lined up looking at the baby were, in sequence from furthest-to-nearest to the baby, tall people standing, shorter people standing, tall people kneeling, shorter people kneeling, and a couple of crouchers. I was asked to say something about the composition, and the word 'decrescendo' crossed my lips. A light went on in the faces of the Art History academics and that was the moment I understood Art History: the giving of labels to visual phenomena. It is not Art History to say the figures in the painting are lined up in height order with the shortest next to the object of everyone's attention. It is Art History to call the arrangement 'decrescendo'.
    A few years later when I was in art school, I was at a party hosted by my classmate and his wife, the Art Historian. It was not a very relaxed marriage or a very relaxed party, and the Art Historian classmates of the wife were doing most of the talking. My classmate grew visibly more and more impatient. Finally he said to his wife and her friends, "If it weren't for people like me, people like you could not exist."
    The Art Historians froze in mid-decrescendo and the party ended before it got to the object of everyone's attention.
    It did occur to me that the Art Historians might have said the same thing to the artist. In fact, it may be more true that the people who talk about art and put labels on art fix the reputation of artists and define what everyone else feels obliged to take seriously as art more than artists do. All artists do is make the stuff.
    I have learned things from Art Historians. There are books on the subject I consider quite valuable. But blimey! Is it the poet's poem or the reader's poem or the critic's poem? Is it feeling something or knowing whose opinion to drop?
    Is it Torah or 'The Book of J'?

  2. I do see that categorization can be a useful way to get a handle on a complex subject - that the debates over whether this poem is rightly called an X or a Y can shed light on its inherent nature and purpose.
    I still think such questions are taken out of proportion.