Sunday, December 28, 2008

Spencer Sutton Interview

As part of a larger research project in teaching methods and pedagogical experimentation, I began interviewing a select group of students taking my art history survey class at Connecticut College. See further discussion in earlier posting. My first subject is Spencer Sutton, a junior fine arts major, whose connection to alternative music I found most compelling. I've learned a great deal from this interview, confirming some notions about how intelligent and creative young people today engage with culture. I found especially interesting the retrospective nature of discovery, the processes (even the media) through which cultural history is acquired, the relationship between visual and musical taste, and other such topics. I should also note, that Spencer listens to a lot of the same music that I do. The generational difference between us, however, makes this all more fascinating because his discovery was not contingent on a contemporary urban public underground scene; it was privately cultivated through a kind of historical research not different from art history. Rather than highlighting all the interesting things that Spence has taught me, I post a transcript on the whole interview. I thank Spencer for his willingness to be interviewed and for allowing me to post our conversation. I also thank Spencer for sending me samples of his art (below) to help the reader understand his creative process.


December 2, 2008
4:15-5:00 pm

Cummings Hall, Office 207
Connecticut College
New London, Conn.

KK Why did you take the art history survey class (AHI 121)?

SS I’m an art major. So, primarily, I was taking this course because it’s good to always have a retrospective view onto various styles of art that have progressed throughout time, so that you can incorporate that kind of stuff into your art, and that’s really a focus of my art because I do narrative things, big theological things. I would borrow a lot, things from the Ancient Greek periods. Even recently, when I went to the Metropolitan, there was the New Guinea exhibit that I sort of stumbled upon. That was just so cool for me. Those kind of things that I can blend into the religious iconography of my art.

KK What’s your relationship with the music scene? Is it connected to art, or is it separate?

SS Well, it’s connected in a way. I always draw and listen to music at the same time because it does influence the trajectory of the piece. The darker scenes are influenced by darker music, obviously, same thing with the lighter stuff. I came to music in high school. I guess, I felt always fairly alienated from popular music of my era certainly, because there is a certain lack of feeling and emotional content. I was always retrospective as I a min the art history world. I listened to Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana and then even later I got into the Gothic stuff of the seventies like Joy Division and The Cure and things like that, which I felt had so much more feeling than the current stuff. I was drawn to it through alienation.

KK Did this happen at the same time you decided to do art, or was it separate?

SS Well, art, I’ve just been doing forever from Ninja Turtles to today. When I established myself not just as someone who draws cartoons and things like that on the weekend to someone who did it consistently, like a vocation, those coincided with when I got into music. Yeah, they definitely went hand in hand.

KK Tell me about your pre-college experiences. Was there something that influenced you from either the art side or the music side, that came from your environment, from where you grew up. Did you grow up in the city? Was there a certain scene or group of people that introduced you either to the visual arts or to the music stuff?

SS I grew up kind of all over the place but mostly in suburbs. I went from suburb to suburb around the New England area and the funny thing is that I never really entered the city until college, surprisingly enough. I was always oriented in the suburbs and kind of isolated from the bigger scenes in Manhattan. Now, in college, I have moved in there, because mostly my friends and I have gotten a little wider connections with those sort of resources. So, I’ve moved in there. I was really not connected to any musical scene other than what my friends were listening to at the time. And we were listening to the older stuff, too, so I latched on to that.

KK What was the medium of that discovery? It sounds like it involved some research on your part. What were the places where you did this research? Where there record stores you used to go to, or through the Internet? Was it albums, CDs, downloads?

SS It wasn’t downloads. I assume that most people of my era would answer the question as download, download, download. It’s fine. I would listen to old albums of my father’s, for example. He had all these vinyls, Jimmy Hendrix and things like that, The Beatles. And it sort of progressed from there into things that interested me more. Not that those things I’ve abandoned because they’re near and dear to my heart. But then that were outside the realm of what he enjoyed and more of what my friends enjoyed like Nirvana and things that I would pick up from someone on the bus. But it was definitely the album which was interesting because the album kind of disappeared in my generation. We have just singles. Singles, singles, singles, singles.

KK When you say the album, do you mean the CD or vinyl?

SS It was both. I think first the CD. My dad had a lot of stuff like that and my friends had their CDs. I remember the first time I saw The Ramones’ album Rocket to Russia that my friend Quinn had. And he would just play it on and on repeatedly on the bus and I would pick it up from there. Then it went to the vinyl stuff. It’s an odd sort of progression backwards even through technology.

KK Going back to the art side. It seems that your first experiences came through popular culture, cartoons, Ninja. Is it something that grew out of your connection with American graphic culture?

SS Yeah. It did have its roots in popular culture, things like the hero culture. I was five, six years old and would do Superman and things like. And then it went to other things. Then I became religious and followed those sort of imageries.

KK Did you have any training like art classes in high school?

SS Yeah. I had the education in high school and in college but really, my first kind of formal education was with my father. We used to do self portraits of one another. That was the first time I ever came in contact with the academic side, fine tuning the skills. And then, I had art majors and minors in high school and guidance there.

KK Was there ever any intersection between…, because, I know, a few weeks ago we were talking about The Minutemen, SST Records. Especially in Black Flag, a cartoon type of drawing entered things like album covers.

SS Yeah, The Misfits kind of thing, inspired by B movies, right?

KK In fact, Raymond Pettibon, who is now a very established and collectible artist, is the brother of Greg Ginn of Black Flag, and he started doing Black Flag’s show announcements and also the album covers for the Minutemen.

SS Oh really?

KK So, I was wondering if there was ever a moment of intersection for you between the music culture and the visual side, like in terms of illustration. Or was the visual culture completely independent from the music in terms of narrative or story line, having nothing to do with musical expression. Do you know what I mean?

SS Right. Whether I was drawn to both the imagery of it and also the music aspect. A little bit. Sometimes. If someone’s got a really bland album cover, you’re always turned off by it. I don’t know. But that was never the primary influence. I would first hear the music. If it had a great album cover… I love the Joy Division album Unknown Pleasures with the waves. That kind of cover creates a mood to the music. I would never use that image to degrade the music or toss it away but it definitely creates a setting that bolster the experience, certainly.

KK So, if you were to describe some kind of aesthetic, some kind of greater project that you have, whether artistic or musical, what would it be? You said spiritual, you said that your art is pretty much about the spiritual side of things. You mentioned alienation from high school. Would you say that there is a kind of aesthetics that characterizes you. Something that is above and beyond both the visual and the musical? Would you brand yourself under some category? Would you say there is a Punk aesthetics, or New Wave, or Grunge? would you say that you’re part of a larger thing?

SS Well, that gets to be really hard because there are these categorizations that I have drawn from, you know, the Gothic stuff, the Punk rock stuff, the New Wave stuff, and the Grunge stuff. But I don’t know. I come to school either in a T-shirt or a college shirt and don’t see myself as a preppy because of it and Id don’t see myself as a punk rocker. I am influenced on a daily basis by, you know; I’ll wear a Sonic Youth shirt one day and then do the button down.

KK So there is no style that you have to embrace?

SS But again, I feel that there still is that somewhere, but I just have never really focused on it.

KK That makes sense. It is interesting. It sounds like you see yourself as a kind of historian. You are a historian from a young age.

SS I thin more and more everyone’s doing that, everyone is becoming retrospective.

KK As a historian, a visual historian or a musical historian, describe how you do your research. Does it go from one thing to another? Do you have a system? a discipline of how you organize all these sounds or visual symbols?

SS I feel that I am more of a purist when it comes to art. I’m able to go out and look at it and say this is fantastic. But then, when It comes to music, there is a little bit of a filtration unfortunately. I’ll meet someone with whom I have common interests and we’ll discuss our favorite groups, and if I’ve never heard of one, he’ll tell me what it is and then I’ll go out and listen to it. And then I’ll make my analysis at that point. I feel that there is lot of stuff that I’ll never even get into contact with because it’s just not within my realm, which is unfortunate. I feel that I should be broader in my views. So, I feel that I’m kind of snooty when it comes to music, like I wouldn’t willfully accept one form of music. I wouldn’t listen to an album enough because I’m annoyed by a certain taste or a genre. Whereas in art, I can say forget about the genre, it is what it is and I can just characterize it that way.

KK So you are more flexible with art

SS Yeah, more flexible. And I wouldn’t want to admit it but I have to.

KK That’s interesting. Going back to art history, would you take more art history courses? Do you see any benefits in the structured way of learning about art? And I’m asking this completely honestly, I’m not trying, as your teacher, to push you answer into a certain direction, but there are different ways by which one learns about art. One is to sit in the classroom and have to learn the canon, another one is discovered and is, therefore, more compelling. I would be curious, which method you would prefer better. Does the structure work for you, or do you prefer a personal discovery. Be honest.

SS Right, because I am in the academic setting. Well, I feel that initially, I thought it was important to make categorizations and figure out how one style is distinguished from the next. And I do still feel that these are important. But now I’ve reached a point where I really want to take it for what it is and be able to just… and not always apply this and that, and what this guy said, and what this historian’s perspective was on it. And be able to experience art on a solely visual perspective basis. Yet, I still feel the value in categorizations, taxonomy and things like that. So, I don’t know, I’m on the fence, I guess. It’s hard to say. Because I feel I wouldn’t have come to this conclusion that art should be appreciated for what it is without the academic perspective in a way.

KK I am wondering if you envision a kind of art history class with less structure, or less chronological rigor. Can you imagine an art history class where there would be freedom of movement between periods, and through which you can create your own research. Which goes back to my question, how do you do your research as an artist?

SS Where you relate things that weren’t related before?

KK Yeah. Can you imagine a classroom setting that would be more of an open-ended art history class? I guess that’s what you can do on your own, but I always try to think about the discipline of art history and how sometimes it can be itself so structured that it pushes people away from the beauty of the material.

SS Yeah. That’s really the trouble. I feel that such kind of course would be valuable, but it would have to be a high level course, like one of the 400 level courses, or something like that because, like I said, that foundation is essential for a student to be able to interpret art. I don’t know, not really be able to interpret it, but just to have a grounding. Then you can get into the free form stuff, which really, you know, makes you the art historian, where you can get out of all there restraints that academia has put upon them.

KK And ultimate, it’s true that the survey, even the text book is just s o…

SS It’s like that’s how it is

KK Right. That’s how it is, move on to the next period. But if you learn to do the analysis on your won, you could potentially do it yourself. Like you said, you had an assignment to go and look at an ancient piece at the Metropolitan Museum and you ended up in an exhibition on New Guinea. It got you somewhere else…

SS …where you had never been before. Right, somewhere you had never been before; never seen that stuff.

KK Good. One final question. Now, professionally. Are you a sophomore?

SS I’m a junior. Yeah, I’m old.

KK Have you completed your art history requirements?

SS Yeah. Actually, this one and the other one I’m taking, the Northern Renaissance, course would be it. I’ve now taken three. And all were very different and I’ve enjoyed them all.

KK In the future, you probably will never take more art history, but the more important question is, once you graduate, what do you think about doing? an MFA program? I know it’s a hard question, what would be your ideal job?

SS The ideal job? Hm. I always wanted to do something in animation. I always realized that becoming an artist is just impossible. I’d love to do character animation, things like that, but I feel that I’ll always use my education in applying art.

KK have you ever taken any of the computer science classes? I know there is a major at Conn College that’s very technological and art based.

SS I haven’t. I’ve done internships, figuring out Photoshop and things like that. It’s funny. I hear that they have this Maya program where you learn a lot of this stuff, but the teacher that once taught it is no longer here. I’ve really been wanting to take that course, but there’s, you know, just the computer.

KK Does this mean getting more education, or getting more internships, going to New York, perhaps in high design or animation?

SS Yeah. I’ll probably have to have more skills in those fields, but it’s amazing that just the techniques of drawing are really valuable now days. I mean, people base everything on just simple drawings. They are scanning these things; there is also the computer aspect, but people haven’t abandoned the raw techniques. So, I hope to be able to contribute that.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Violence in the Empty See

Many of us, archaeologists, historians, art historians, that deal with destroyed material culture and spolia make a cardinal mistake in pretending that we fully understand the motivations of ancient or medieval violence. We simplistically project explanations for violence from our modern sensibilities into the past. Joe:lle Rollo-Koster's new book throws a wrench into such assumptions. Raiding Saint Peter: Empty Sees, Violence and the Initiation of the Great Western Schism (1378) (Leiden, 2008) explores the looting resulting from the creation of a double papacy (in Rome and Avignon) in 1378. More fundamentally, however, Rollo-Koster explores the ritual violence that traditionally ensued after the death of popes, namely the faithful's pillaging of his property. On face value, this makes no sense. Why would a group of Christians destroy the property of their own church? Looking at the double nature of the bishop's body (like the king's two bodies) and employing Victor Turner's concept of liminality, what we have is the anthropological unpacking of a medieval practice. With the death of a pope, the ecclesiastical estate entered a liminal state that required not only the development of special liturgies and customs, but also expiatory carnivalesque behavior like looting. The democratic origins of ecclesiastical election, moreover, made the bishop's property communally shared (in theory). Once a new pope was elected, he ritually re-distributed the common goods through customs like the magical showering of coins, a gesture that terminated the cycle of violence.

Rollo-Koster's analysis is exhaustive and fascinating; I cannot do justice to it in this short posting. The art historian will especially appreciate the specific discussion of spolia (pp. 107-118); Dale Kinney's fundamental work on the subject (which informs my own understanding) is incorporated. This book is a must even for a reader not interested in the Great Western Schism, or the history of 14th-15th c. church politics. Its breadth and depth of knowledge about ritual violence should cause most of us to reconsider notions of pre-modern violence and its reflection in archaeology. For a more thorough (and informed) review by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, see The Medieval Review (Dec. 6, 2008).

Professor Rollo-Koster teaches at the University of Rhode Island's History Department. Having enjoyed Raiding Saint Peter, I am curious now to read additional articles on confraternities, prostitutes, death, memorialization, and other topics listed in Rollo-Koster's department's web site. I found Rollo-Koster's historical-anthropological approach extremely refreshing, which carries beyond the events of 1378 (treated with painstakingly detail in the second part of the book). In all honesty, I knew very little about the looting of the Empty See during the Schism. Now I understand its relevance for the study of all liminal states in medieval history

Coincidentally, this book came into my attention at the same time that Greek protesters looted downtown Athens and Thessaloniki. Even the most senseless of violence, Rollo-Koster teaches us, has disguised anthropological meaning. The Empty See of papal Rome might illuminate the sociology of disenchanted Greece. Since we project modern notions of violence into the past, why not reverse the process and project medieval phenomena into the present. I'm thinking of a process akin to George Bataille's economy of excess. The Greek state suffers from some obvious (and fixable) problems. The anthropological dimension of these problems, on the other hand, might require some harder analysis (psychoanalytical or not). Something to think about.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Teaching Thursday: Interviews

Teaching the ancient-to-medieval half of the art history survey, I experimented with narratives that connect the past to the present. Namely, I complemented the linear historical coverage with discussion topics from contemporary art/life in the form of homework assignments and class discussion. For instance, when studying Stonehenge, I had the students respond to a sculpture by Darrell Petit located at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum on campus. When covering Minoan art, we considered Damien Hirst's unprecedented Sotheby's auction this Fall. Hirst's Golden Calf was sold for $18 million. I challenged the students to consider whether its value depended on the historical understanding of the Minotaur. A bull rhyton from Knossos illustrated in our textbook (Janson's, 7th ed., p. 90) gives value to the modern piece and in strange postmodern sense, the teaching of the survey enriches Hirst's purse. When considering the civic role of the Greek kouros (using Andy Stewart's interpretation of war and eros), we compared it to Suzanne Opton's project Soldier + Citizen. Or, when studying classical architecture, we analyzed the Lincoln Memorial, the Democratic National Convention and the relationship between the Doric Order and Barack Obama's presidential campaign. The last was discussed on this blog, see "Democratic Classicism" (Aug. 30, 2008), "Republican Flag" (Sept. 4, 2008), and "Architectural Wars," (Sept. 6, 2008). This proved to be one case where my blog entered into my teaching; the blog, essentially became class material. When we studied Roman portraiture, I had the students interpret each other's photographs, asking them to criticize the artificial iconography of even photographic portraits (including Facebook profiles). The new edition of Janson's History of Art (2007) makes some of these connections directly. For example, Andy Warhol (Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962) is juxtaposed with Byzantium (Vladimir Virgin, 12th c.) in the Introduction (p. xxii). The conceptual link between the ancient-medieval and the Renaissance-modern halves of the survey is an issue that I have discussed at lenght with Andrea Feeser, my colleague at Clemson University. We had begun reorganizing the teaching of the survey along such diachronic lines. Originally, I had hoped to blog about these experiments, but I never found the time. Frankly, carrying out the class itself took all my energy and creativity. Many of these assignments were not planned until the last minute. I had to gauge the students' interests from week to week; improvisational freedom was essential.

As the semester began to wind down, it dawned on me that my connective attempts may have been unorthodox for a traditional survey, but they were still staged by me. I couldn't help to wonder what narrative connections the students may be constructing left to their own devices. Then, on October 31st, Studs Terkel passed away. Among other memorials, This American Life (Episode 368, Nov. 7, 2008) transmitted some of Terkel's interviews from the Hard Times radio project. Perhaps as a tribute to the pioneering oral histories of Terkel, I decided that it was time to cross another boundary; this was not a temporal boundary (linking past and present) but a reversal of story-telling. I decided to record my students' thoughts directly. I picked two students and asked them if they were willing to tell their stories on a voice recorder. If I had thought of this earlier, I could have recroded many more students, thus, providing a more representative sample. Instead, my selection was highly motivated; basically, I picked two students who publicly exhibited a clear interface between the history of art and architecture and their personal lives. Both agreed to have their identities revealed and in the next few weeks, I hope to publish their interviews on this blog. Although I am not aware of any other such projects, I hope this becomes an academic StoryCorps.

The first student, Spencer Sutton, is a studio-arts major who is also an afficionado of alternative rock music. I learned this only from the punk rock buttons pinned on Spencer's book bag; the buttons became conversation starters. The second student, MM, is an architectural studies major with a love for Frank Lloyd Wright. This love became physically manifest on her skin when, last summer, MM got a tattoo of a Wright window pattern on her back. In my interview, I tried to get a portrait of that connection between art and life. So stay tuned. Before the fun starts, I must finish grading.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Peasant Food Fusion

My friend Jennie U. called me from Titan Foods, "America's largest Greek specialty food store," located in Astoria, NY. She wanted to know if there was anything Greek that I may have been craving. Trachanas was the first thing that came to mind (but also bucatini pasta for pastitsio). A few weeks earlier, I had been perusing through the Portuguese section of my local supermarket in Middletown, CT. Something called "Milho Para Cachupa," or Yellow Samp caught my attention; it looked a little like corn but was otherwise totally foreign. After some research, I realized that samp is hominy, or maize kernels. According to the Oxford Companion to Food (by Alan Davidson, 1999, p. 383), hominy was one of the first foods that Europeans accepted from Native Americans. The Portuguese-American connection, thus, makes sense. Hominy is peasant food, or at least in the lower scale of economic value, similar to grits in the American South or polenta in the European South. The Joy of Cooking (1997 edition, p. 250) instructed me in the preparation of hominy, which involved soaking overnight and boiling for 2-hours.The end result (baked with tomato) was fantastic. I appreciate this kind of taste, a thoroughly deep and nourishing state of pleasure that only peasant staple offers. If one had to assign a taste to survival, it would be the taste of such grains. Like garbanzo beans, hominy expands. Since I was eager to use up the 2-lbs of samp that came in the bag, I prepared a massive quantity with lots and lots of left over.

Then the trachanas came in the mail. Trachanas has an almost magical value in Greek cuisine. It is the food of shepherds, a grain infused with milk or yogurt. As dry food, it does not spoil, it is light, making it transportable and ideal to trans-humance. Once the shepherd builds a fire and boils the grain, the dairy is released. Protein-infused carbohydrates provide sustenance to the nomad.
Although trachana is basic food for most village Greeks, it is snubbed by metropolitan society, so it's rarely available. I remember my father would reach nirvana with the smell of trachana, reminiscent of his youth herding sheep after school in Leukada, a small village in Fthiotis, the home of Achiles. To read more than the Wikipedia entry on trachana (or tarhana in Turkish), I recommend Stephen Hill's and Anthony Bryer's "Byzantine Porridge: Tracta, Trachanas, and Trahana", in Food in Antiquity (Exeter, 1995). Needless to say, I cooked the trachana the moment as it arrived. The house was filled with the smell of goat milk, transporting me to my father's village but also driving my vegetarian wife practically out of the house.

Noting the left-over hominy in the refrigerator, I couldn't resist throwing it into the trachana soup. The end result, a fusion of Greek and Native American foods, was refreshingly good. The probability of native American food--translated into Portugese cuisine--mixing with an equally obscure shepherd dish from Greece is so low, that I think my combination might be totally original. Perhaps, I have invented a new dish.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Carlo Cirelli Portrait (1915)

Giorgio de Chirico
Portrait of Carlo Cirelli (1915)

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Gallery 169, Modern and Contemporary Art, first floor
Promised gift of C. K. Williams, II

"a Carlo Cirelli gentile
mio e multisensibile amico
G. de Chirico
Ferrara ottobre M.CM.XV"

This is only a quick sketch of one of the most amazing new possessions of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, located in my favorite room with Picasso's Three Musicians (1921) and Leger's The City (1919) on either end. The painting has additional meaning because it belongs to Charles K. Williams, II, director of excavations at Corinth (1966-1997) and one of the most important figures in the intellectual development of American archaeology in the 20th and 21st centuries. I haven't had a chance to talk to Mr. Williams about the portrait, but I will go ahead and write some premature thoughts. I saw the painting for the first time on June 29, 2008, ca. 12 pm; at that very moment, who would pass right next to me but Michael Taylor, PMA curator of Modern Art? This was a true Surrealist coincidence. In 2002, Taylor curated "Giorgio de Chirico and the Myth of Ariadne." I was so struck by the sudden appearance of Taylor (he rushed right by me, almost brushing my shoulder) that I was rendered speechless; if I had been bolder, I would have stopped him right then and there to inquire about Mr. Williams' promised gift. The magic would have been completed only if Mr. Williams himself appeared on the halls of the great museum.

What is most exciting is that in July 2009, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will hold an exhibition on Mr. Williams' collection of early 20th-century art: Adventures in Modern Art: The Charles K. Williams, II Collection. The exhibition will be curated by Innis H. Shoemaker and a catalog will be published by Yale University Press. I CANNOT WAIT!

Anything that I might say about the de Chirico painting is, thus, provisional. I am counting on my good friend Jennie Hirsh to visit the piece and give me a more learned interpretation. Hirsh is a specialist on De Chirico's portraits and self-portraiture, see "Self Portraiture and Self Representation: The Painting and Writing of Giorgio de Chirico" (Ph.d. thesis, Bryn Mawr College, 2003) and highly anticipated book manuscript.

On yesterday's blog, I gave some thoughts on British Surrealist John Nash and archaeological method. In the case of Carlo Cirelli, the archaeological connection is tenuous, hinging on Mr. Williams and his artistic taste. Giorgio de Chirico was raised in Greece. His father was an engineer working in the construction of Greece's rail system. De Chirico grew up in Volos, where one of his earliest childhood memories involved the Turkish armada. Most importantly for the history of modernism, he received his first artistic training at the Polytechnic Institute in Athens (1903-1906), where he became close friends with Greece's future avant-garde. After his father died, the de Chirico family moved back to Italy and Giorgio enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (1906-1911). Carlo Cirelli entered de Chirico's life during his military service, while stationed in Ferrara.

Who was Carlo Cirelli? He was not a particularly close friend of De Chirico, but a fellow soldier that attracted the painter's early attention. We can reconstruct the circumstances of the work, from The Memoirs of Giorgio de Chirico, trans. Margaret Crosland (New York, 1994), pp. 81-82:

"Among the Ferrarese whom I knew at that time there was a corporal who worked at my regimental depot. He was a highly original boy. He would sit in the storeroom of the depot, among pyramids of shoes, gaiters, cloaks, jackets, etc., and carry out, with the patience of a medieval chatelaine, the most beautiful and complicated embroidery. He had long finger-nails, which were lustrous and extremely well cared for; his hands often felt hot and then he would raise his arms over his head and move his hands, like certain dancers performing in the aesthetic style. He did this to cool his hands, he would say. The bedroom floor was so highly polished with wax, so smooth and gleaming, that you had to walk one tiptoe and spread out your arms in order to keep your balance, like a tightrope-walker or someone learning to skate. If you did not take this precaution you were in danger of falling down at every step and ending up flat on the floor. He had bought from an antique dealer an old bed, an historic bed, which he had covered with a baldachin and with heavy, expensive hangings. The name of this individual young man was Carlo Cirelli. I painted his portrait and gave it to him, some for year later this portrait was sold, probably by Cirelli himself, to the Milanese collector Adriano Pallini, who bought it for a large sum. Signor Carlo Cirelli never gave any sign of life. Naturally, the portrait was his property and he could dispose of it as he wished, but I think that after the sale of that portrait, which had not cost him even half a lira, he could have remembered me and without paying me a high percentage of the price received, he could at least have sent me a little present--for example, well, half a packet of Tuscan cigars, which four years ago could still be found easily and cost relatively little. This has happened to me in fact with other friends who earned large sums by selling paintings of mine which they had acquired first for modest sums. These dear friends never had the slightest feeling of gratitude towards me; in fact I would say they are slightly irritated when any reference is made to the splendid profit earned for them by the fruits of the honest work due to my genius."

De Chirico was obviously ticked off that his "gentile amici" sold his portrait for profit. Earlier in the Memoir, De Chirico's description of Ferrara and its society is striking, as a place of sensuality affected by hemp-induced delusions.

"The Ferrarese are also terribly lecherous; there are days, especially at the height of spring, in which the libidinous atmosphere which hands over Ferrara becomes so strong that it can almost be heard, like rushing water or the roar of fire. Professor Tambroni, the eminent phrenologist, who at that time directed the Ferrara mental hospital, and whom I knew, explained to me that this abnormal state of the Ferrarese is due to the fumes given off by the hemp and to the perpetual humidity. In fact, the entire city is built over ancient macerating vats." (ibid, p. 81)

In Ferrara, De Chirico also met poet Corrado Govoni. Visiting his house on the hot days of summer, reminded him of this life in Greece:

"I met poet Govoni, but rarely saw him. He lived in seclusion and did not welcome many people. I remember his house which seemed to be lost in the middle of the countryside. On the rare occasions when I went to see him the heat of the dog-days lay over Ferrara. The heat was suffocating, but in the poet Govoni’s house all the shutters were closed. It was shady and deliciously cool and I was reminded of certain houses in Greece, in summer, during my childhood. There was also Govoni’s wife, a very beautiful woman with a light brown skin, with that deep gaze, that ‘nocturnal’ gaze and those special eyes which are characteristic of some women of Ferrara." (ibid, p. 80)

De Chirico's sensualized memories of Ferrara remind me of Ancient Corinth. I know it's quite a stretch, but in the early 20th century, Greek poets had sensualized the archaeological site in similar ways. In 1939, that sensibility was passed on to Henry Miller who visited the site and wrote in The Collosus of Maroussi (New York, 1941) p. 212:

"There is something rich, sensuous and rosy about Corinth. It is death in full bloom, death in the midst of voluptuous, seething corruption ... Everywhere this lush, over-grown, over-ripe quality manifests itself, heightened by a rose-colored light flush from the setting sun. We wander down to the spring, set deep in the earth like a hidden temple, a mysterious place suggesting affinities with India and Arabia."

The sensualized representations of Corinth is another matter all together, first noted by Mike Keeley. But that's another story altogether, perhaps the subject of a future post.

The Archaeological Institute of America is having its annual meetings in Philadelphia this year. I urge all participants to escape the sterile conference environment (unless they are staying at the PSFS building next door), visit the Museum and contemplate one of the most beautiful De Chirico portraits in an American collection. What lies in store for the visitor is one of the most erotic depictions of a male hand in the history of painting. Having Ferrara's (and Corinth's) summer imageries in mind will add to the portrait its due amount of heat.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Surface Survey and British Surrealism

Survey archaeology's main intellectual challenge has been to reconcile two extreme scales, the tiny object and the expansive landscape. In order to fill this vast epistemological gap, archaeologists have deployed an arsenal of weapons from cartography to statistics. While dissolving the difference of scales, archaeology's positivist language pretends to reconcile the conflict between object and landscape, which in many ways lies at the foundation of the human condition. Literature has explored how we experience place and time, how we reconstruct our own sense of selfhood through our memories, objects, and places. One could read the history of Modernist fiction as nothing more than an attempt to reconcile objects and persons with landscapes and memories, to collapse short and distant focal lengths. Remembrance of Things Past, To the Lighthouse, or even Ulysses are very much surface surveys.

I was reminded of the object/landscape conflict today at the Yale Center for British Art , where I love to digress. Today, I wanted to take a closer look at British modernism, which tends to be overshadowed by its French and German siblings. Today, I had also just read a manuscript by Guy Sanders and a memorial on A. H. S. Megaw (by Hector Caitlin, BSA 102 [2007] pp. 1-10); so I had gotten myself into a royally British mood. At Yale, I was delighted to discover a painting that best explores archaeological conflict, John Nash's Mineral Objects from 1935. I have not yet located a color image of the painting, so I include my quick sketch at the top. John Nash (1889-1946) is considered to be the founder of a distinctively British form of Surrealism. He explored the uncanny relationship between subject and object by positioning mock-monumental objects against the landscape of his southern England. Mineral Objects shows two pottery lathes set on a rolling coastal landscape at Dorset.

Nash is here using British archaeology the same way that Giorgio de Chirico or Aldo Rossi used Graeco-Roman archaeology for their Mediterranean provocations of memory and melancholia. The two conical pottery lathes are constructed from a type of shale quarried at the cliffs of Kimmeridge, which is now protected as a Jurassic Coast World Heritage site. In prehistoric times, the black stone was used for bracelets and adornment. When it was discovered, it became known as "coal money." In the Roman period, the shale was crafted into conical lathes around which pottery was spun. In Nash's painting, the manufactured gray geology becomes monumental and is juxtaposed with the rolling landscape. The two engage in a relationship that beautifies both but illumines neither. The archaeological find and the gigantic landscape are one and the same but irreconcilable. One is smooth, colorful and varied, the other is geometrical, phallic, but small.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Airport Chapels: Detroit

Almost exactly a year ago, Bill Caraher wrote some Travel Notes from a 30-hour-long international odyssey spent on airports. The posting explored the notion of Third Space, Edward Soja's powerful paradigm for analyzing the postmodern condition. Bill took notes for those 30 hours in a special notebook. I was reminded of this notebook recently, when Bill blogged once again in transit, this time from the Grand Forks International Airport on his way to Montreal.

As the Holiday Season approaches, we migh spend many hours in the heterotopia of airports (see Foucault, 1967). Recently, I've been intrigued by the sacrality of airport heterotopias, and here I'm not speaking metaphorically, but I'm referring to a recent architectural type, the non-denominational Airport Chapel. I had no idea that such a thing ever existed until the Eleutherios Venizelos airport opened in Athens. Flying out of Greece in 2003, my dear Aunt Popi came along to bid me farewell. Aunt Popi had immigrated to the United States in 1953, and she has a deep psychological connection with leaving home; she loves taking people to or picking people up from airports, having herself dramatized so many highlights of her life in those spaces. Popi goes beyond the airport. Whenever she spots a plane flying up in the sky, she blesses it with the sign of the cross (a very subtle and fleeting sign, considering the minuscule size of a plane seen from the ground). I think my grandmother started doing this when Popi took her first flight to the United States; the idea is that every plane in the sky must have some person leaving his/her mother, getting uprooted, and in need of blessings. Some readers will find it interesting that Orthodox forms of devotion have adjusted to modern technologies. After all, didn't a sign of the cross appear in the skies during Emperor Constantine's victory revelation at the Milvian Bridge? Aviation and devotion have a long history. From my aunt's point of view, airports are spaces of life-altering events, uprootings and returns, not spaces for casual business commuting. A room dedicated to divine concerns is the most logical thing in airports for Popi.

I must confess, I know very little about the history of airport chapels ( starting with Our Lady of the Airways, Boston Logan Airport, 1951). Nevertheless, I feel compelled to document them. They are fascinating spaces. Today, I'm giving a final exam in my History of Art class, where I'm asking the students to define the minimum requirements for a religious space (church, synagogue, mosque). We must write the history of airport chapels because here we'll find the minimum requirements for religious devotion. What are those elements that transform a generic room into a chapel? Most airport chapels seem to recycle generic notions of Christian decoration, making slight quotations to a rich history of churches. The very stuff we, art historians, teach our students with slides and digital images gets recycled as popular imagery within the interior of non-confrontational, non-denominational chapels. There is often low lighting, some back-lit stained glass windows, mosaics, a pseudo-altar or pulpit, etc. From a Protestant point of view, there are no liturgical requirements, but the visual references are always there.

During the Holidays, as people pass through airports, waiting for long connections, I encourage them to seek the chapel and report back. Let's collect some evidence and then make some observations. During my last airport visit, I did exactly that in Detroit's airport, which has a "Religious Reflection Room." It's not easy to find. After following signs, riding up an elevator, and walking through some corridors, one finds a marked room (see sign at beginning). Once you open the door, you enter a drab space that looks like this:

Surrounded by seats along four walls, marked in the cardinal directions, lies a bizarre religious space caught in the weirdness of postmodernity. A compass on the carpet situates you globally, an important detail if you need to face towards Mecca. The lack of Christian iconography suggests that a Moslem audience was considered for this space. There are some Bibles lying on a chair, but also some prayer mats and Korans lying in the corner.

The Islamic overtones raise all kinds of interesting questions. A Muslim does not need a "religious reflection place" to pray, but can pray anywhere. Is this an attempt to segregate Muslims away from an assumed Christian airport? South East Michigan has one of the highest concentrations of Arab Americans, ca. 150,000 people, see "Hockey and Hijab,"
Economist (December 6th, 2008) p. 79. Dearborn is the home of ACCESS (the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services) and an Islamic Center bigger than any nearby church. The Arab American National Museum also just openned. Can you imagine McDonalds selling halal McNuggets? There are two in Dearborn. So perhaps, the Detroit airport chapel is a statement of Arab American pride. Demographically, one may wonder whether the audience might be not travelers but the airport's Arab Americans working force.

Then there is this bizarre sign next to the door of the Reflection Room, which complicates matters. It says, "This is a Religious Reflections [not Reflection] Room NOT A BREAK ROOM. Employees using this facility as a break room are subject to CONFISCATION OF BADGE," signed personally by Lester W. Robinson, the the CEO of the Airport Authority. It must be one of the most dense social artifacts of the entire airport, loaded with assumed meanings, assumptions, directives, prohibitions, control, policing, discipline and punishment.

Personally, this very sign makes it impossible for me to feel reflective, other than in some Marxist sense of critical thinking. Authority, ownership, labor and leisure get all twisted up. How does a private company intersect with the public sphere? the sacred and the profane figure into the equation.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

13th-Century Church at Vasilitsi, Messenia

Nikos Kontogiannis' "Excavation of a 13th-Century Church near Vasilitsi, Southern Messenia," Hesperia 77 (2008), pp. 497-537, is a wonderful contibution to the archaeology of rural Greece. Yesterday, I discussed the historiographic significance of publication in the Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens; today, I want to discuss the article itself and what I found most interesting about the excavations.

The ruins of a church between village Vasilitsi and Selitza in Cape Akritas were excavated in 2000 by the 5th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities. Based on well-stratified numismatic evidence and destruction layers, the building is dated to the 13th century. The building is unglamorous in both its architecture and material contents, but that's precisely why it constitues an important project. It provides invaluable information about rural life in the medieval Peloponnese. Unlike more urban excavations (like Glarentza or Corinth), the site does not provide evidence of cultural interaction between Latin and Orthodox populations, a question that, since the mid-19th century, has dominated the study of the Morea. Some readers might protest that the site is not worth its 40-page report because the material culture is generic. But that is exactly what scholarship needs. As an excavation report, it documents all the evidence with great detail. Here, I will leave aside the importance of data as data and discuss my six favorite conclusions.

The building was founded on a slope, so part of its foundation lay directly on bedrock. The medieval settlements that I've been studying are also built directly on limestone outcroppings. A few years ago Mary Lee Coulson and I were pondering on how much evidence we actually have on Middle and Late Byzantine foundation trenches. At the time Coulson was trying to figure out the foundations of Merbaka, after the Archaeological Service had sunk a trench inside the building. Vasilitsi adds to the growing body of evidence showing that many Byzantine foundations had low footings, sometimes resting directly on hewn bedrock shelves.

The church floor was of beaten earth and mortar, nothing fancier. This is important because we have grown accustomed to expect opus sectile (in the fanciest case), stone slabs (we salivate over spolia), or at least ceramic tiles. As a result, excavators have dug through many Byzantine floors, thus losing crucial stratigraphic information. A dirt floor was perfectly fine for the Byzantine population.

The building has a unique typology of the cross-vaulted type. Byzantine architectural historians have relished plan typology, from Millet's "Mistra type" to Orlandos' pseudo-scientific A, B, C,... sub-1, 2, 3,... system. I am not a keen believer in typological determinism, nevertheless, the absence of a dome and the protruding vaulted transept above the nave make up a distinctive building volume (there are only eight such examples). The proposed 3D massing model by M. Michailidis is compelling. The church at Vasilitsi, moreover, contradicts current theories about the narthex, which also protrudes above the nave. Vaulted high transept and narthex provide much food for thought especially in the perennial question of Western influences (from Italy, Epeiros, or the Latin rulers).

The church at Vasilitsi shares some striking similarities with another building, Ayios Vasileios at Paniperi (also in Messenia). Kontogiannis here poses the compelling hypothesis for a common workshop. This is great stuff, especially since our knowledge of Byzantine ateliers is so miserable. Richard Krautheimer's landmark essay on medieval imitation opened up a whole set of inquiries. One of my favorites is the comparison between Hosios Loukas in Steiris and Agios Nikolaos of Kampia that Vasilis Marinis presented in the 1996 Byzantine Studies Conference at the University of Maryland.

Three burials were discovered at the church of Vasilitsi. Lilian Karali's osteological report is excellent. Kudos to the project; so rarely do church excavations analyze, let alone save, skeletal remains. For instance, we learn that the adult male of Burial 1 suffered from some metabolic disease (like anemia), may have experienced stress through starvation, and endured hard physical labor. The adult males of Burial 1 and 2 were interned outside the church, but adjacent to the north wall. This raises all kinds of questions about funerary practices, and the sacrality of rural churches. Even more intriguing is the burial of a young child (Burial 2) inside the naos. In my posting Byzantine Children Burials (August 24, 2008), I discussed new evidence for fetus burials from the Athenian Agora (excavated by Ann McCabe) and children burials in the narthex at Xironomi (studied by Paraskevi Tristsaroli). We can now add this child burial to the discussion. This is an incredibly rich subject that, I hope, someone picks up as a dissertation topic.

I am thrilled that Kontogiannis published two scaled photos of a roof tile (p. 519, fig. 21), making it only the fifth or sixth published roof tile from the medieval Peloponnese. The list includes a few tiles from Corinth (Charles K. Williams III), Eleian Pylos (John Coleman), Nichoria (John Rosser), and the Morea Project (Fred Cooper). Perhaps there is more; generally, it is rare for excavators to document their roof tiles, while most through it straight in their excavation dump. We lack good archaeological evidence on medieval roof tiles. In contrast to the Romanesque and Gothic roof tile in France or England, Greek archaeology has not worked out any typologies. In Pergamon, for example, we know that roof tiles changed dramatically in the 13th c. Vasilitsi's tile is a cover tile; it has a high ridge that differentiates it from earlier Byzantine tiles. As a student of Fred Cooper, I believe his theory of the diagnostic Frankish-period roof tile. Following Cooper's typology (inspired by Charles Williams' observations from Corinth), the Vasilitsi cover tile is great evidence for a Frankish type.

My shortlist of highlights from Vasilitsi, of course, follows my own biases and interests. I am sure that others will find plenty more to chew on, including the numismatic analysis by Alan Stahl (Princeton's Frankish-coin genius) and Julian Baker (Ashmolean). Baker has analyzed much of the new Frankish evidence from the Peloponnese, including Demetris Athanasoulis' excavations of Glarentza and Sheila Campbell's excavations of Zaraka. The pottery is also noteworthy.

In conclusion, Nikos Kontogiannis' article achieves a goal far more important than the data itself. It reassures an international reading audience that the Byzantine Ephorias in Greece are doing an incredible job, excavating sites properly, documenting them meticulously and publishing them in a timely fashion. If we hear anyone making derogatory remarks on the scientific quality of Greek archaeology, all we have to do is throw them a copy of Hesperia 77, no. 3, and hope it hurts.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Hesperia Transformed

I had to pinch myself after opening the latest issue of Hesperia, the Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA). Was I dreaming, or is it true that a 40-page article on an excavated Byzantine church graces the journal? Modestly, underneath much fanfare, Hesperia has been slowly transforming itself into a well-rounded, sophisticated, contemporary journal. Founded in 1932, Hesperia has been most closely associated with the excavations of the ASCSA. Unfortunately, that association has pigeon-holed the journal to classical studies and wider readership has been limited, although this is changing. Hesperia wasn't always periodically single-minded. As I've argued (in Hesperia), essays on Byzantine, medieval, or Ottoman material culture appeared in the pages of the journal every year between 1932 and 1945. And suddenly, between 1945 and the 1960, classicism prevailed and Byzantium was banished. This had something to do with the Cold War and the dominance of professional classicists.

Hesperia's recent transformation began when it changed its layout. But more importantly, it changed its intellectual orientation when its editors began a process to self-evaluation, asking questions about the character of the institution. A major turning point occurred in 2007, when Hesperia editor Tracey Cullen published an article that analyzed the journal from a historical and statistical perspective (Hesperia 76, pp. 1-20). Members of the ASCSA old guard were upset by this methodology, but this had to be done. Cullen, then, proceeded to celebrate the journal's 75th Anniversary by encouraging historiograhic articles. Without Cullen's editorial encouragement, for example, I would have never found the confidence to push ahead with my ideas about Byzantium, ASCSA excavations at Corinth and the avant-garde. The next landmark came when the Association of American Publishers honored Hesperia with the 2007 award for best designed journal. This WAS HUGE, but it went unnoticed. Hardly anyone at the ASCSA even knows about this great honor. There was no celebration party, no champagne fizzling, no deserved self-promotion, no public kudos for ASCSA's publication office at Princeton.

Nikos Kontogiannis' "Excavation of a 13th-Century Church near Vasilitsi, Southern Messenia,"
Hesperia 77 (2008), pp. 497-537, if for me another landmark for the journal. Printing an excavation report of a rural Byzantine chapel shows confidence and maturity. Publishing an article by a scholar from a Byzantine Ephoria is also incredibly refreshing. Nikos Kontogiannis has spent most of his scholarly carreer in Messenia, working at the castle of Pylos. I was lucky enough to meet him by chance in 2005, while visiting a friend at Princeton's Program of Hellenic Studies. Kontogiannis was a visiting scholar, researching "Castles and Fortified Cities of Messenia: Evolution and Function in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period." A few years later, Kontogiannis was promoted into the newly-formed 23rd Ephorate of Byzantine AntiquitiesEastern Boeotia Archaeological Project (EBAP); although officially a Canadian project, EBAP has strong ties to the ASCSA.
in Chalkida, Euboia. Here our paths crossed again as Kontogiannis supervises the activities of the

I would like to highlight a perceived discrepancy between what the classicists in the United States think of the ASCSA and how the institution has changed in Greece. This discrepancy is problematic given that Classics departments in the Unites States keep the ASCSA solvent by contributing annual fees and sending graduate students. Part of the problem comes from the fact that most classicists once associated with the ASCSA do not visit Athens regularly. Philologists especially, who do not really need to be in Athens, are most distanced. Attend the ASCSA's alumni meeting at the AIA and this will become immediately clear. Many American scholars have missed the expansion taking place within the ASCSA's archaeological mission in the later 20th century. When Robinson began to dig in Corinth again after the War (in 1959), he excavated Byzantine and Ottoman houses. In the 1990s, Charles Williams focused intensely on Frankish levels, as well. The tradition continues today under the direction of Guy Sanders, by far the most brilliant Byzantine archaeology alive (I wish more people understood this). Similarly, the Agora excavations have focused heavily on the booming 12th-century Athens. It is important to note that T. Leslie Shear Jr. published the first stratigraphic section of a Byzantine house in Hesperia 53 (1984), pp. 50-57. A look over John Camp's most recent 2002-2007 excavation report makes it loud and clear that medieval archaeology is central in the activities of the ASCSA. Another highlight occurred in 2003, when Hesperia published Sharon Gerstel's excavation of the 14th/15th-c. rural settlement of Panakton in Boeotia. In the 1960s, Bronze Age specialists introduced the surface survey as a complementary method to excavation. The diacrhonic principles of survey opened up the way to medieval and post-medieval archaeology. One may simply look at the publication record of survey pioneer (and current director) Jack Davis. Research on Ottoman Greece has eclipsed Periklean Athens. What is surprising is not that there is a Byzantine excavation report in the last issue of Hesperia, but rather that the journal is not dominated by post-classical articles in every issue. One might argue that the Classical period has become secondary to the excavation priorities of the ASCSA. Even the student fellows seem to be heavily leaning towards Late Antiquity.

Nikos Kontogiannis is not a member of the ASCSA and that is another reason to congratulate the Hesperia's editors for opening up the journal to outsiders. Think of where the ASCSA would have been, if it had not collaborated with Ioannis Travlos. And it might not seem obvious to many readers in the U.S. that young Greek scholars in the Ephorias are the ASCSA's greatest new collaborators and life-line. Greek archaeology students do not just use Blegen library as a resource, but they contribute to the health of American projects. While working in Messenia, I'm sure Kontogiannis intersected with the Pylos Regional Archaeological Survey, for example. Currently, he is contributing to the Eastern Boeotia survey. While I was working in the Morea Project, his knowledge of castle archaeology was helpful as well; and we only met once!

Kontogiannis' article in the last Hesperia reminds me of another great moment in the history of the journal, when Edward Bodnar, John Travlos and Alison Frantz published the excavations of an 16th century church, "The Church of St. Dionysios the Areopagite and the Palace of the Archbishop of Athens in the 16th Century," Hesperia 34 (1965), pp. 157-202. May Hesperia 2009 surpass all past glories. As I've argued repeatedly, the survival of the ASCSA in the 21st century greatly depends on its openness towards post-classical periods and the post-classical inhabitants of contemporary Greece.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States