Welcome, Members of Parliament

Welcome, Members of Parliament. This blog is designed to act as a student forum for anyone enrolled in my classes at a Dallas-area proprietary college, former students, and/or others who find our conversations interesting. The Parliament will be moderated to ensure civility and relevance. The directions we take, the paths we follow, and the concerns we address are all up to you.

Monday, December 27, 2010

New Course Site Up

In case anyone's interested, the pages for my new class (Philosophical Perspectives: Technology and Utopia) are up. Not complete yet, but up. So, if you're considering it for an upper level humanities elective, the basic information and a tentative schedule can be found linked to the Owldroppings main page.

Anyone enrolled in my sections of History of Art and Design II might want to hold off printing slide lists, because I haven't finished updating the list. That's in the works for this week. Ditto my Humanities intro class.

I'm already looking forward to the new quarter; hope you all are having a pleasant break and getting some well-deserved downtime.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Art History in the Movies: Hildegard of Bingen

History of Art & Design I students may remember, from our discussion of illuminated manuscripts, the image Hildegard of Bingen painted of herself receiving a vision. So you might imagine how pleased I was to read in the Daily Poop this morning about a new film, showing at the Angelika in Dallas, called Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen, and directed by Margarethe von Trotta. Here's a trailer (sorry about the German--but there are subtitles).

I always recommend seeing good films that help make the past more "present" to us, and the review of the film makes it seem promising. It looks like it focuses on her visions more than anything, but she was a remarkable woman and certainly deserves to be recognized by a broader audience than antiquated art history instructors and lovers of Gregorian chant.

If you are at all interested in Medieval music, you might also enjoy this YouTube version of her Kyrie Eleison:

Real fans of the genre can check out some of the best versions of Hildegard's music, recorded by Anonymous 4; my favorite album is 11,000 Virgins (samples are available at the link).

This just in: Painless (Art) History. I got a link to this YouTube page through my daily dose of Good. The perpetrators are history teachers, and much more familiar with pop music than I am. I'll probably show a couple in class, but you may want to check them all out before finals--no matter which of my classes you're in.

Monday, November 22, 2010

More Nincompoopery about Nekkid Bodies

Oh, puh-leese! Not again.

Last week the Daily Poop (aka the Dallas Morning News) ran a story about parents' objections to a textbook used in Plano's high school humanities class for gifted and talented students. The book in question is Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities. The reason? According to the article's author, the parents who protested the book's use claimed that "the college-level textbook reveals the darkest of artistic expressions" and objected to their daughter's being forced to look at the naughty images--of Michelangelo's David, the Hermes of Praxiteles, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, and Goya's Third of May 1808.

Now, I would agree that the Goya depicts one of the darker moments of human history, but am pretty sure that fourteen-year-olds have seen much worse on the news. If, of course, they watch the news--and if their mommies let them.

But we've heard this song before. In 2006, a Frisco teacher was fired for taking her charges to the Dallas Museum of Art, where one of them apparently caught a glimpse of some naughty bits down the hall and blabbed to mommy. These were fifth-graders, all of whom had obtained permission slips from their parents.

To Plano ISD's credit, they've rescinded their withdrawal of the book, although the parents are pursuing a review through the State Board of Education. Given that board's history, who knows what'll happen (for my take on the Board, see these posts on The Owl of Athena: Back to the Future and Educational Secession). I cannot help, however, but to see the whole episode as yet one more example of how education in Texas is being compromised by short-sightedness and ignorance.

There's apparently a Facebook page on this issue (authored by Ashley Meyers, who graduated from a Plano high school and now attends Northwestern University). Since I'm not a participant in this particular social network, you might want to look up the page and let us know what the 500 followers are saying.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Future as Past

A slide show in the New York Times this weekend, The Visual Design of 'Megamind,' made me think first of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and then about Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Alex Proyas's Dark City. The Art Deco influences are obvious to anyone who's ever made it through History of Art & Design II, but the others might be a bit more obscure. What made me think of Brazil is the slide of Megamind's Lair; Dominique Lewis's view of Metro City made me think of the last scene in Dark City. The Hugh Ferris-inspired shot of Metro City looked like something straight out of Lang's 1927 classic--which was also a classic application of Art Deco.

Artists get ideas from everywhere, as Terry Barrett reminds us ("All art is, in part, about other art"). In fact, it's very difficult for us human beings, metaphor-makers that we are, to come up with anything truly original, even when we're imagining the future. It's enormously difficult for even the best science fiction minds to imagine visually a place we've never experienced, much less beings we've never met (hence the present-day default setting: aliens as marine creature-like embodiments of our worst nightmares). So Art Deco, which seemed futuristic at the time (the 1920s and '30s), was really grounded in a romanticized version of the machine aesthetic from the late nineteenth century, with a bit of Bauhaus and Art Nouveau thrown in.

To complicate matters, we're now seeing a combination of Industrial Revolution-era technologies with another adaptation of Art Deco into an alternative view: the past-as-future aesthetic of Steampunk. I don't mean this as negative criticism, because it seems a perfect compromise to an old geezer like me. But to give you an idea of how out of it I really am, I looked for a good link for "steam punk" and was quickly corrected by Google.

As an alternative to the now old-fangled "Where's Waldo," may I offer a new game for art and design history students: locate the art-history influences in your favorite new film.

Report back when you find interesting connections.

Image credit: the original 1927 poster for Fritz Lang's film, Metropolis. Via Wikipedia.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Art and Archaeology in the News

This will be a regular feature of the Parliament, in hopes of furthering students' understanding of course topics--and perhaps fostering a bit of curiosity.

Archaeology Magazine this month offers a plethora of articles relevant to both my art history and humanities classes. The issue is available on the periodical shelves in the Library, and some of the information is available in online abstracts:

The Power of Chocolate traces the cultural distribution and importance of cacao in Mesoamerica and the American Southwest.

In class this week I mentioned the opening of the House of the Chaste Lovers in Pompeii. The well-preserved frescoes provide good examples of Roman painting, as well as a peek into the domestic lives of the upper crust in rural Rome.

New discoveries in Tuscany (Italy) are helping scholars better understand the Etruscans, and digs are turning up evidence about domestic life in Italy before the Romans, as well as examples of gold jewelry and other luxury goods. The photo that opens this post is an example of Etruscan artistry, although it's not one of the objects discussed in the article.

Since we’ll be covering daily life in ancient Italy in both History of Art and Design I and Intro to the Humanities during week 4, these last two articles will perhaps be of some interest. The Humanities class will be discussing the Maya during week 6, so the chocolate article will be useful to everyone –especially the culinary folks. But don’t we all love chocolate?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is featuring a Roman mosaic from Israel in a current exhibit. The link takes you to an overview of the work, and a short video. As I’ve pointed out in class, mosaics rely on the same optical principal as pixels. This one depicts all manner of critters, both from land and from sea, with rather remarkable detail. There’s also a link to the Met’s YouTube page, which includes over 300 short videos on just about every topic imaginable related to the history of art and design.

Image credit: 5th-4th century BCE Etruscan gold necklace, displayed at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Photo by Mary Harrsch, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Things Medieval

I just happened to notice in this morning's edition of the Daily Poop that the 38th season of PBS's spectacular series, Nova, begins with an episode of interest for History of Art & Design I students especially. It may also spark fond memories among my HAD II students.

At any rate, the episode is called Building the Great Cathedrals and airs tonight at 8 pm locally on KERA. It will be repeated on Thursday the 21st (on KERA World) at 9 am, 3 pm, and 5 pm. The link takes you to the Nova page, which includes interactive features on the building process, engineering points, and the chemistry of stained glass. The program runs for 60 minutes (in answer to the perpetual whine, "how long is this movie?").

One of my loyal students whizzed by my classroom Friday night with a copy of The Secret of Kells on DVD. I've been waiting for this since before the Oscars last year (it was nominated for best animated feature, competing against the likes of Up!). So this weekend I ran out and snagged the Blu-Ray edition, which is just plain scrumptious. This has got to be one of the most beautiful animated films I've ever seen, and is directly related to the manuscript illumination segment of HAD I. The link is to the promotional trailer (I tried to embed it here but it was too wide, so I just linked it).

The features on the Blu-Ray include the director's discussion of inspirations--including Medieval manuscripts, Celtic designs, and even Gustav Klimt. If his remarks don't make art history worth knowing, nothing will.

Image credit: Chartres Cathedral, southern facade, by TTaylor, via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Welcome and/or Welcome Back

The first day of a new quarter always represents promise: everything's looking up for the moment, and there are slews of new faces and names to remember (something that grows more and more difficult for me every year), as well as new experiences to, well, experience.

To start things off I thought I'd mention some events of potential interest to student-artists occurring around the country and here in Dallas.

The first of these is the Dallas Museum of Art's new exhibit of fifteenth-century funerary sculptures, The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy. They provide an unforgettable example of the Renaissance reconciliation between Classicism and Christianity, with exquisite small-scale depictions of grief. I'll work on an extra-credit assignment for those who need a little inspiration to get to the exhibit--but you really shouldn't need to be coaxed.

Of particular interest to anyone studying anatomy and life drawing, The National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC) is featuring selections from its library in an exhibit on The Body Inside and Out: Anatomical Literature and Art Theory. The brochure can be downloaded in .pdf format (8 pages) and contains some useful information on the history of visual understanding about the body.

The Meadows Museum at SMU has scored something of a coup in exhibiting El Greco's Pentecost as part of a three-year alliance with the Prado Museum in Madrid. The Meadows collection focuses on Spanish and colonial art, and the new partnership can only prove to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

In honor of one of the themes we'll be pursuing in my Humanities class (memory), take a look at the Museum of Modern Art's education pages--this one featuring Salvador Dalí's Persistence of Memory, with an explanatory video. Although I'm not one of Dali's acolytes, most of my students find him irresistible, and this seemed like a way to acquaint you with what MoMA has to offer. If you find yourself in St. Petersburg, Florida about a hundred days from now, you could also visit the new Dalí Museum, which has been under construction for the past two plus years.

A new feature of this blog will focus on discovered work by new artists: those I didn't know existed until I ran into them on the web, or until my students mentioned them to me. The first of these is Turgo Bastien, a Haitian-born abstract artist whose work reminds me of the scarification designs and Luba memory-boards we'll talk about in the Humanities class. His mixed media piece, Another Call From Africa, opens this post.

Have a great quarter, People. Let's do some good work and have fun.

Image credit: Turgo Bastien, Another Call From Africa, 2009. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Newest MacArthur Fellows

I don't imagine that many of my students are "tuning in" this week, but the Daily Good just hit my mailbox with a reminder that the newest batch of MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grants" have been awarded. Some of you probably have no idea of what I speak; if not, click the link.

The reason I mention them is that they represent the breadth and depth of creativity available in this country. The fellows include artists, writers, scientists, musicians, and all manner of creative folk. So, if you want to know what your education is helping to foster, these are the people you should be watching, rather than the latest pop-celebrity.

For an overview of the 2010 crop, go to Meet the 2010 Fellows and browse through their many, varied, and rather astonishing talents.

Here's a 2009 TED talk by a previous Fellow (2002), Bonnnie Bassler, from Princeton University, talking about how bacteria "talk" to each other:

The video's only 18 minutes long, and I promise you that watching it will make you smarter--and possibly jack up your creativity a little in the process.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Art, Science, Storytelling, and Life

I'm adding another TED lecture to your repertoire this week, namely one by Scott McCloud of Understanding Comics fame. Almost all of you should have encountered him by now, if not in your intro to design classes, or storyboarding, then in Writing II (or is it I?).

At any rate, I came upon it by accident when I was looking for TED lectures that might reference the Renaissance (one of the tags on the video, but not really referring to the actual period in art history). This turned out to be one of those wonderful moments of serendipity the web makes possible, because it's relevant to our class in several ways, even though it doesn't really have anything to do with the Renaissance.

One of the first things he does in his talk is to map out three kinds of vision: blind faith (things you believe in but can't see); stuff that's physically visible and thus manifest precisely because we can see it; and what's possible: what we can en-vision. These distinctions are useful, because they can help us talk about art through the ages, and begin to understand how people perceived art in different contexts.

Better yet are his principles for using vision: learn from everyone; follow no one; watch for pattern (where visions of the future begin to manifest themselves); work like hell.

Essentially what this leads to is a path toward innovation--making the new connections that make new stuff happen. In other words, it leads to creativity.

Later, in his discussion of the relationship between art and science, he notes a connection between vision and meaning that points directly to my lecture on the origins of writing: the rebus. Remember the rebus I showed you when we were talking about the origins of alphabets?

Well, this is a good example of the visual made audible--and the achievement of sound through vision. When you think about it, hieroglyphic writing systems depend on this marriage of the aural and the visual in order to make the transition that actually divorces sound from object.

One more thing: if you ever want confirmation that I'm not completely off my noodle about those infamous "rules of technological development," McCloud affirms at least one of them when he reminds us of the error Marshall McLuhan warned about: putting the content of new technology in the shape of the old. Or, according to Uhlmeyer's rule #312, "New technologies often follow the form of the old."

This video is longer than the previous one (about 17 minutes), so grab a snack and sit down for a few minutes. It's a bit dated (filmed in 2005), but quite enlightening nonetheless. Feel free to comment on interesting points you notice, or connections you make as a result of having watched.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Now and Then

Sometimes the connections between past and present are brought home to us with vivid clarity--as they were when I watched this TED video by Jacek Utko on designing newspapers. As he tells you what he does, pay attention to the graphics; think about how his innovative newspaper designs use the principles of manuscript illumination.

Yes, the guy has an accent (Polish), but so do you (Texan). Get over it. And for the attention-spanned challenged among you, the video is only six minutes long.

After you watch it, talk amongst yourselves. We'll chat in class week 8.

Friday, August 6, 2010

How to take an exam

Some of you are beginning to freak out about the midterm (in both classes), so I thought I'd offer some words of advice.

Keep in mind why you're being tested in the first place: to find out if you're grasping the learning objectives put in place for this course. Believe it or not, instructors do not test people for the fun of it, or to torture them, or to give themselves something to do in their copious free time.

Instead, we test you see whether or not the collaboration between teacher and student is working. If, for example, nearly everybody in my classes missed particular questions, I'd know that either the students were ignoring my presentation on those topics (not entirely impossible), or that I wasn't making the points I thought I was (fairly probable). I would then make sure to go over the information again, trying to make it clearer. I would adjust points accordingly--but only if the wrong answers were clearly my fault.

Sometimes it is my fault; I assume too much or I present the material in ways that don't get across the points I want to make. On the other hand, the "fault" frequently lies in lack of preparation on the part of the student. Since I provide multiple opportunities for students to arrange the information into learning-friendly forms (like slide lists, charts, maps, etc.), their inability to access that information, study it, and think it through comes primarily from not completing the tasks.

I know there's a huge amount of information. I also know that to many of you, I'm almost speaking a foreign language (all those terms from Greek and Latin and French and Italian!). But you are in charge of your own education, and you're paying a pretty penny to get it. As the NASA administrator famously said about the Challenger shuttle accident, "I can explain it to you again, but I can't understand it for you."

So, here are some tips on how to get through the midterm:
  • Read the material. This sounds like a no-brainer, but many of you rely solely on the lectures. Even if you take really great notes, reading the assigned pages in the book will help you make sense of what we talked about in class.
  • Complete the slide lists with images from the book and the supplementary web list, do the worksheets, and know the locations on the study map. I can't imagine why anyone would choose not to complete one or more of these items, because they help you learn the material and you get to use them on the exam.
  • Make sure you keep the materials in your workbook in order. If you go to the trouble to complete the items mentioned above, but don't have them arranged properly, you'll spend too much time hunting around and you'll miss the chronological context that's so important in these classes.
  • Read the instructions on the exam carefully. For each section. Make sure you understand what I'm asking you to do. If you don't ask, I can't explain it.
  • After you've read the instructions, make sure you follow them. All too frequently, when I go over the exam at the beginning of the test period, everybody's so anxious to get it over with that they forget my warnings about paying attention to directions.
  • Don't forget to think. Because I don't give true/false, fill-in-the-blanks, multiple-choice tests, you do have to interpret questions and materials in order to earn a decent score on the exam. Even if you're completely stymied by the question, take it apart--analyze it and try to figure out what I'm asking. If you really can't understand the question, be sure to ask. I might not be able to understand it for you, but perhaps my explaining it to you again might help. At least in terms of the question itself.
  • Finally, here's a little hint for those of you who actually read this blog. In many cases, the answer to a question can be found elsewhere on the exam. This is sneaky, but it also helps to get you to make connections.
I am, after all, the Queen of the Weasels.

PS: Get a good night's sleep the night before, and stay away from adult beverages until after the exam. Just sayin'.

Image credit: Things could always be worse. This is a photo of students taking an exam during the 1930s. At least y'all have desks . . . (it comes from Wikimedia Commons).

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The mysterious and the not-so-mysterious

I'm afraid I leaped up onto my soapbox to spout in the Tuesday afternoon class on the question of who built Egypt's pyramids and how. I'm a bit sensitive to this because I don't have much patience for uncritical thinking, but I also know that it's not my students' fault.

We're mired in a world so devoid of real imagination that even educators seem to think it necessary to hype "mysteries" and "secrets" in order to grab attention away from popular culture. In doing so, they've concocted something they call "edutainment," which has turned out to be neither educational nor particularly entertaining--at least to those who do the real work of archaeology.

So, for those of you who want to know how pyramids were built, two issues of Archaeology's online magazine can shed some light on the ramp question: How to Build a Pyramid, and Return to the Great Pyramid. Both of these make hash of my claim that we know how the pyramids were built; what I should have said is that we now have a pretty good idea of how it was done, but the details are still unclear.

Since other fads involving space aliens also came up, I suggest a look at a really good article on the crystal skull craze, also from Archaeology: The Skull of Doom. Many of you may find it way too long, tedious, "boring," or whatever, but it really delivers the goods. The Wikipedia article on the topic is pretty informative, too, and contains a whole slew of resources for further research.

Some of my students have complained that I make studying some of these questions less intriguing--that it's more fun (entertaining?) to imagine all manner of wild stories. But that's a little like the argument against science in general: that studying and analyzing phenomena like the rainbow takes all the wonder out of life.

I can't for the life of me figure out how understanding the way light works when it hits a prism lessens the wonder of a rainbow. Doesn't knowing how the ephemeral display of light through raindrops splits the spectrum make it even cooler? The phenomenon is so fragile and momentary that appreciating its fleeting beauty makes it seem, to me at least, even more wonderful (as in "full of wonder").

Does knowing how the pyramids were built make them any less amazing? I don't think so. Realizing how inventive folks were all those thousands of years ago inspires awe rather than extinguishing it. Human beings have been and still are screwing up right and left, but knowing that we do have our moments of glory is kind of reassuring.

But the real problem to me is that seeking mystery for its own sake indicates a gap in the human imagination. If we can only learn stuff if it's "entertaining" (or "mysterious" or full of "secrets"), we're in trouble. There are many aspects of life, the universe, and everything that we don't understand. But if we don't respect reason enough, we're doomed to remain swamped by ignorance and hype.

Students simply must learn how to distinguish the reasonable from the idiotic, the truly mysterious from the merely puzzling, and the expert from the charlatan. But please don't be afraid to ask questions; even if I hop back up on the soap box, we'll all benefit from your asking.

Real learning comes from wondering, and from developing strategies that help you find cogent answers your own questions.

Image credits: The lithograph of The Pyramids of Geezah is by Louis Haghe from an original drawings by David Roberts between 1846 and 1849; it's from the Library of Congress, but also available on Wikimedia Commons. The Crystal Skull photo (of the British Museum specimen) is from the Wikipedia article on the subject.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

History is important; art is even more important.

The title of this post comes from one of my students; it was the best reply I got of the many written on the backs of the yellow index cards I distributed last week. I asked people to think about why it might be a good idea to take an art history class, and most of the responses were thoughtful if not entirely unpredictable. I was a bit surprised that so many were interested in understanding the continuity from past to present, and projecting it into the future. Although several quipped that they were coerced into taking the class (it's required in most programs), most seem to think that it wasn't a bad idea to know something about the history of their craft.

The comments were also rather refreshingly hopeful, and a large number of them saw knowledge of art history as being important to them professionally: gaining a useful vocabulary, knowing what's already been done, being inspired by the works of great artists.

Another student remarked that "It's hard to make a future when you have no knowledge of the past." Now, this kind of insight is exactly what makes my little Borg-enhanced heart go pitty-pat. Many folks my age have noticed an almost terrifying a-historical bent among today's young people, so finding out that we're (at least in part) wrong actually makes us feel better about the future.

After going through a slide show that demonstrated several practical uses for art history, we went on during that first class to discuss the nature of art and its relationship to design. In all three sections of History of Art & Design I I got the sense that everyone really did see a point in the exercise--that learning about history can, in fact, be helpful to artists and designers in the present.

Time will tell, but I'm pretty optimistic about this quarter. I hope at least some of you will contribute to this blog and keep the conversation lively. Here's to ten more good weeks!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Beta Post

I've long wanted to host a blog focused on my students, and since my Summer quarter will be relatively light (four courses and administrative duties), I thought this would be a good time to begin.

The title comes from the imaginative invention of collective nouns for birds, and is fortuitous in this case because of the "owlfarmer" connection (derived from my surname) and the fact that I would like this project to act as a creative forum for students who are in the process of gaining wisdom. It also ties in with my other blogs, but since they tend to intimidate, inflame, or puzzle some of my student readers (so that few of them ever comment), I thought this would be a more student-friendly venue.

I have several plans for the Parliament, including the awarding of extra credit in classes I'm currently teaching. I'll put together a checklist of requirements before the Summer quarter starts. I'll also invite guest-posts from past and present students, and encourage the contribution of original artwork to illustrate topics we're considering. Occasionally, as when my History of Art and Design II students participate in the "Photography and Modernism Workshop," I'll post the results of class projects on the blog, and welcome comments in response.

For now, I'm using one of Blogger's new templates, but welcome help from students with appropriate expertise in designing our own page. I'd like the basic layout to stay the same (because I'm entering my doddering years and like familiar spaces), but the title could use some work, and I'd love an attractive, nicely textured background. Suggested gadgets would be nice, too. All work must be compatible with a Creative Commons license, but other than that I'm open to all manner of submissions.

I look forward to working with Members of Parliament; feel free to offer suggestions, comments, design and technical advice, etc. This will always be a work in progress.