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Big Idea Blog

Big Idea Blog


I am not a philosopher, have never pretended to be. But sometimes, in that drowsy period before I fully wake up;, Big Ideas come into my head, and I try exploring their ramifications, and if they seem promising, grab a card and ballpoint from my bedside table and scribble them down. My Big  Idea for this morning is: What if I’ve lived long enough to see the total exhaustion of really viable new ideas and styles in art and culture and society?

As a budding writer at Berkeley High School nearly seventy years ago I enjoyed penning satirical pieces about people who liked to do the “wrong thing” because it was new and would bring attention to them. This observation of the would-be innovative continued, and I chronicled in my comic writings the latest attempts to find “something new” to do in order to appear original. In my scholarly writing on Chinese painting I turned from admiring the self-consciously innovative, “Look at my new style!” scholar artists to lamenting the decline of the slower=building representational tradition, and the failure of Chinese collectors to preserve some of its finest products, so that we can see those only in Japanese collections.

The time came when it seemed to me that, at least in the eyes of lots of aspiring artists everywhere, all the things that were aesthetically sound and productive had been done too many times already, obliging them (under the rule they implicitly accept, that art cannot even seem to repeat itself) to do what I called “dumb things”--as in the sign I was going to hang in our art museum when I became acting director in the1970s, after Peter Selz (a major advocate and promoter of these “progressive” movements in art) had been retired--my huge sign, hung from the highest balcony in the central space, would read: “DOING DUMB THINGS AND CALLING IT ART IS OVER!” The sign was never made, and doing dumb things became the very basis of the most progressive art and cultural expressions. Now we have arrived at an age when the really successful artists don’t even do the dumb things themselves, they have workshops of assistants to do them for them--the Jeff Koons,-Damien Hirst, Ai Weiwei types--who all learned it from the Great Innovator Andy Warhol--“I’ll blow up commercial images and reproduce them by silk screen and become famous!”--not even his own idea, as I’ve noted before. But New! And the full-page “art event” promotions in the Arts Section of the NYTimes are typically devoted to articles on the latest Dumb Things (under the rubrics of Conceptual and Environmental and Performance Art), with pictures of people standing around gazing at them and pretending to be aesthetically moved.

But a broader What If: Have I lived from an age when it was normal and respectable to do things that Made Sense into one in which all the sensible things are long-ago outdated and discredited, dismissed into an unacceptable “We’ve done that already” status, so that practices once outside polite mention are so constantly “in our face” that we (or some of us) feel the urge to say: All right already! So you’re gay (or whatever), do it and don’t keep telling me about it so much!” (Yes, I can write the rejoinder to that, about how much they’ve suffered in the past and how we now need to make up for that suffering…) An article in yesterday’s NYTimes is about the S&M (sado-masochist, that is) community and the clubs and bars that cater to them specially--fetishists, bondage and dominatrix devotees and the like. And while exercising my deepest feeling of tolerance, I still feel also the urge to say: Do it but don’t tell me about it, or try to turn it into mainstream practice! Let’s keep something in the shadows!

More broadly, coming at last to my Big Idea: What if I’ve had the misfortune of seeing in my long life span the transition from an age when Making Sense was valued into one that pushes ever further out into all the areas once considered beyond toleration: political opposition that permits no real compromise, ethnic hatreds that make the Somethings want to kill the Other-things, not just herd them into enclaves and ghettoes; a financial world in which getting richer at the expense of the less-well-off is not only tolerated (end of the Good Society) but openly espoused and promoted--not only by business executives themselves but by legislators and judges who have been bought by them. The benefits of recovery from our near-recession are going, a NYTimes article tells me, not to middle- and lower-income workers to raise their salaries or hire more of them from the ranks of the unemployed, but into the super-swollen bank accounts of the corporations and their investors. And we have turned, too many of us, into denizens of a culture of violence--my daughter-in-law Kay posted on Facebook an article about a legislator who carried a box-cutter into the state capital without a concealed-weapon permit, arguing that she needed it for self-defense. The same specious argument is endlessly pushed in our faces by gun advocates whenever gun control is proposed: We need our guns to shoot the bad guys!

Once that stage is reached, what can lie beyond? What kind of world can follow on an age of that? Like everybody, I want to live a while longer, but to watch that happening? Not the cheery old-age prospect I’d once hoped for, and confidently expected.

End of Big Idea (which is, for today, my proposal for the Right Answer to the “This is the way the world ends” question.)

- About Online Courses

Newspapers and magazines are featuring articles about the proliferation of online college courses, some setting forth the benefits of these, others (fewer) the drawbacks. My own feelings about them are decidedly mixed, but probably more negative than positive: I want to see them made available to people who have no chance to attend real college courses for credit, but I don’t want them to be thought of as really equivalent to a course that requires regular classroom encounters.

When I was preparing to launch my first, PRV series of video-lectures, I talked about them and showed a few excerpts at a symposium in Taipei; and an old friend and colleague who happened to be there, Don McCallum (who teaches Japanese art history at UCLA), made a point strongly that I hadn’t considered as much as I should have. College administrators wanting to save money, he said, might well use my video-lecture series as a course for credit, requiring students to watch them and perhaps take exams after them, thus saving the cost and trouble of hiring instructors to teach the courses. Recognizing this as a real possibility and a mis-use of my lectures, I was careful in my introductory remarks to the first one to say clearly that the series would not constitute an academic course and should not be misunderstood as the equivalent of one: a real course, in my opinion, requires direct and personal interaction between teacher and students of a kind that online courses cannot, even when they try to supply long-distance equivalents in cyberspace communications, examinations, etc. Nothing you get while sitting in front of your computer (or--augh--holding it in your hand) is a real equivalent to the personal contacts students have with good teachers.

But notice that qualification: good teachers, not just teachers. Part of the definition of a good teacher is that she or he gives personal time and attention, lots of it, to students. A good scholar need not be a good teacher. One of the super-stars of our department always insisted on Tuesday & Thursday teaching times so that she could take off four-day weekends, and she was not easily accessible to undergrad students. I always had the Monday-Wednesday-Friday times for lecture courses, usually in early afternoon so that I could schedule “extra hours” after class to show more materials or hold discussions. And I always assigned, and read, term papers. At one of our graduations, a graduating BA complained that he had gone through his entire undergraduate program in art history without ever having one of his papers read by a professor. That, I think, was shameful. I required term papers of all students in my upper-division courses; they could choose the topic themselves, within the subject area of the course and to suit their individual knowledge and interests, but it had to be discussed and approved by me at an office visit, at which I would deliver admonitions and suggest readings. And I always read the papers myself, and commented on them, sometimes at length. I still have copies of some particularly good ones. (And my two-page, densely typed handout “Rules and Suggestions for Term Papers” was a classic--it is accessible on this website as CLP 162.)  

Conclusion: Online courses can’t replace good teaching. But they are better than nothing, and as good as poor teaching--better than some of it. .

- Some Thoughts On (and Writing By) the Late Maurice Sendak

So as not to end this blog with the previous paragraphs--best not to finish with an end-of-the-world pronouncement if you mean to go on writing more blogs in future days and weeks--let me add some comments on the recent publication of Maurice Sendak’s My Brother’s Book, based on a manuscript that he never published during his lifetime. Stephen Greenblatt, in his Preface, recognizes it as Sendak’s quoting and reworking of themes from Shakespeare’s “Winter’s Tale,” in which he expresses his “longing to be reunited with his dead brother Jack.” The pictures are indeed, as Greenblatt says, more in the manner of Fuseli or Blake than of the Sendak we know best. What the text and pictures don’t give us, alas, is the old, lovable Sendak that one can read to and with his children.


I have already, in one of my Responses and Reminiscences on this website (no. 82, “Bill Crofut and Alistair Reid”), made some suggestions for books and records that parents who want to raise literate children can read to them, or play for them, from an early age. The bookplate that I made for my daughter Sarah (Fig. 1), carving it in linoleum and having it printed on gummed paper, depicts some of them: the Mad Tea Party from “Alice” at top, the Little Prince at middle left and Doctor Dolittle at middle right, and the Winnie-the-Pooh characters at bottom. I could have included, if there were space, Rat, Mole, and Toad from The Wind In the Willows, or some characters from Dr. Seuss.) Some of the Sendak books can of course be added to that list--I don’t need to name them, they are too well known to need it. But let me recommend especially, because it seems to be so largely forgotten, the early (1956) Sendak book Kenny’s Window. This was a favorite of myself and both my pairs of children, which I read to them early and often (Figs. 2, 3, title pages of “Kenny’s Window.”).



You can’t buy the original edition any more, it isn’t popular enough to keep that in print, but a smaller paperback is available. It’s a dream-story about a little boy alone in his bedroom with his pet bear, playing out his fantasies, challenged (by a horse on the roof, if I remember right) to answer mysterious questions. My daughter Sarah wrote a letter to Sendak telling him how much it had meant to her in growing up, how it had helped to shape her inner life. Unhappily, Sarah didn’t keep a copy of her letter. But she was a good writer from an early age--she won a school prize for her verses with pictures while still in an early grade--and her letter must have been heartfelt and moving. Moving enough that she received a note from Sendak, which she still preserves in her copy of the book (Figs. 3, 4). a note dated Dec/ 6 ’79 and reading:





“Dear Sarah, I never answer letters anymore, I can’t. There isn’t time. I could not, however, resist your letter. I can’t say why--except, perhaps, it simply touched me. Maybe that isn’t so simple. It could be that you make me realize--oddly, for the first time--just what my work can achieve. And maybe it has also to do with Kenny, my first, beloved child. (It is not in bookstores hecause it does not sell--unlike Max, Kenny is too retiring.) I think I cannot write so good a letter as yours, so let me just add my thanks to your thanks--and thank you for telling me as you did. It made me happy. If the Only Goat and the Mother Goose Theatre enhanced your childhood--then I am a contented artist. Maurice Sendak”


And that, as a piece of self-revelation from a very private man, is at least as moving, for me, as My Brother’s Book, and I offer it as that to all other Maurice Sendak devotees--especially those parents who, like me, have read his books and looked at their pictures with beloved children and observed how they can, as Sarah’s letter testified, change their inner lives for the better. I hope you will raise your voices so as to get “Kenny’s Window” republished in something like its original form. Sarah’s letter may be among Sendak’s preserved papers somewhere, and I hope also that it will be discovered and published, as it deserves to be, as the piece of writing that made this famous writer-artist realize, “oddly, for the first time,” the effect his books could have on the inner lives of children who read them, and on their difficult passages of growing up.


- So, an upbeat ending for what began as a downbeat blog. What we oldsters have messed up can in some part be repaired and restored by our children, especially if they are as talented as mine.

Proud, and cautiously hopeful, James Cahill

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