The Education of Frankenstein: Why Can’t College Dump the Fake News?

In the academy’s attempt to be hip and find a voice among the regular population–I didn’t realize we had lost ours–it can find itself pitching the low ball. Not always, of course, but when it does, the thinking goes, in order for scholarship to be fun, humanities events have to 1) be popular culture (not challenge it), 2) advance stereotypes (while claiming to vanquish them), and 3) satisfy publicists who count attendance numbers for the purpose of outreach statistics (rather than count the number changed lives).

On Halloween, Duke/UNC is participating in the international oral read of Mary Shelley’s FrankensteinFrankenstein is one of the most important books in Western literature.  Few people have read it but everyone–all those regular populace types–know the Boris Karloff version: green face (though the movie was in black and white), bolts in his neck, seven feet tall, slow walking and nearly mute.  Mary Shelley’s monster–unnamed, “Frankenstein” is the creator’s name (and Shelley did not make him a doctor)–is of course none of that.  Eloquent, human appearing, pitiable given Victor Frankenstein’s abandonment of his “child”, no one can read the story of the new Prometheus without making the many terrifying connections to our present day.

Sadly, the Duke/UNC reading event relies completely on the shopworn, inaccurate, Walmart imagery to attract readers to the event.  A flat-headed Herman-Munster character dominates the poster.  The event happens on Halloween because, of course, Shelley’s monster is nothing more than a ghoul who kills people (and begs for trick-or-treat candy I guess).  What a wonderful antidote to winter doldrums it would have been to have had the reading in January, when the book was actually (and anonymously) issued.

I commend the thoughtful humanists at our Triangle universities–many of whom I work with–who refuse to dumb-down scholarship, who engage their students in the contemporary questions that digital humanities, multi-cultural research or discursive teaching excites in them.  Perhaps more reflective events organizers will take their model from them.  Students don’t deserve to be served the same old hash, no matter how many more that comfort-food entree might attract.

I recommend signing up to read at this event.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Life

When John Ashbery (one r!) died on September 3rd, America lost one of the few literati who could write effectively about art.  Others, from John Updike to Teju Cole, have tried it, but miss I think the very point of writing about the graphic, corporal arts:  that they happen in a space, the space, that we also inhabit. Read an Ashbery poem about a painting and you will never forget the work of art again.  Ashbery of course made his living during his mid-years as the executive editor of ARTnews, so he had a bit of an advantage.  He was, however, a truly visual person and it takes nothing less than that to write about the visual arts.  All of Ashbery’s poetry is palpable without relying on description.  Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is justly hailed as among his best poems and is, I think, art criticism as well.  A poem comfortable enough with art history to quote Vasari.  It’s not the distortion of the mirror in Parmigianino’s odd, experimental painting today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum that fascinates but rather how the mirror reflects emblematically the late renaissance period he painted.  And like the Mannerist painter, too, Ashbery has not been universally hailed.  No one in art history should be ignorant of either Ashbery or Harold Rosenberg.  Sadly even among graduate students that I run into today, it’s not common.


John Ashbery.  Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror. New York: Viking, 1975.

Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola), 1503-1540. Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (c. 1524). Oil on wood panel.  24.4 cm.  Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.



Best Local Art of 2017 (so far . . .)

The March 3rd Installation in front of Jarvis Hall

One of the finest art installations of 2017 happened on Duke’s East Campus.  The performance was brief, well attended–hundreds of students–but little publicized–like not at all.  That’s because the organizers didn’t conceive of it as an art project.

On the late afternoon of March 3rd, Brightview Landscaping set to work planting trees on the lately denuded east campus.  As I left for work that day I witnessed with visually rich display.  The raking afternoon light acting like bullet-spotlights in the Blake Byrne gallery, illumined the natural textures of the tree limbs, the shiny glisten of the black plastic and the contrast of the crudely sprayed letters again the curved ball surface. The forklift operators and hole diggers seemed immune to the beauty.  Plastic wrapped spheres with incongruous letters in series on them.  “Q”?  Cue-ball?  “QB”?  As in QB7?  Queen’s barrister?  Queer?  The artists were silent, or perhaps absent.

And perhaps that’s best.  Installation art, like photography, teaches us among other things to appreciate the natural occurring metaphor in life. The beauty of things as we pass on our way.

Thank you in Polish

Polish 3

It’s always a pleasure when I get thanked with a book or in a book.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have this happen lots.  Oddly, some scholars for whom you’ve gone the extra mile don’t mention you or the library at all and others, your contribution to which seemed just part of your job, thank you by name.  Of course, librarians don’t do it for that.  When you love information, where it lives, where it might hide, and how another’s research will make it speak, you don’t count the time.  Acknowledgements of my help to research always come as a surprise to me.

For the first time in my life (that I know of), I’ve been thanked for a resulting book in whose language I cannot read.  Why that makes me feel strange, I don’t know since I can’t take responsibility for what any scholar writes with the material I helped find.  And yet, a pleasure of this job is to scan those texts and marvel how it all fits together.

Lidia Klein, a graduate student from Poland in the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies, inscribed her latest publication to me with her thanks.  To know Lidia is to want to do anything for her:  constantly happy, continually understanding, a serious thinker.  An architectural historian of eastern Europe, her scholarship is considerable.  I was delighted, then, when she gave and dedicated a copy of her latest publication Żywe architektury it will sit among the myriad of other books I’ll never read.  But for a different reason than the others.

The author translates her title as “Living Architectures. Biological Analogies in Architecture of the End of the 20th Century,” a text I’d love to read.    But Polish is beyond me.  I realized many years ago that for me and foreign languages, I’ve spent twice as much time as most to learn half as much.  And I’ll never get around to Polish.  Perhaps for that reason, Lidia’s gesture is all the more intriguing.  Gratitude, however little it is deserved, is humbling.  Gratitude for something you’ll never understand is part of living in diversity.  Thank you, Lidia, and all the people who have mentioned a kind word on my behalf.  But thank you, particularly, Lidia, for reminding me of gratitude’s mystery.

Art History Books and the 1940s


Recently a pristine copy of the 1942 The Life of Forms in Art by Henri Focillon came across my desk.  This is not a book much studied currently, a largely formalistic essay on art by an expatriate French art historian at Yale.  Whatever its intellectual value–and it was still being mentioned when I went to graduate school in art history in the 1970s and ’80s–the volume in my hands struck me as a marvelous object, a memento of a politically dark time in the world, a memento mori of the life of academics, and as a piece of Duke history.  Do books just have to be about the information they have inside?

I know the text of this book from the 1948 Wittenborn paperback edition which I read at The University of Chicago library.  Wittenborn Books–that famous New York art book shop and publisher on East 57th Street and later 1018 Madison Avenue, updated the original Yale University Press design with kind of a Matisse-style layout by Paul Rand.  Thus I was surprised to see the first English-translation issued in so staid a form.  Green buckram, that characteristic covering reserved for academic imprints, and the gold spine lettering now largely gone from university-press titles.  The book’s a vademecum, a synthesis of approaches to art without being a specific system.


I tried to imagine the publishing world of 1942 America. Focillon, in failing health, was on his yearly exchange from the Sorbonne’s Institut d’Art et du Moyen Age when the United States entered World War II.  He was caught stateside, a rather better place to be all in all than occupation France.  In the Lilly Library, if you want to get an idea of what it was to exist in the United States in 1942, simply look at the advertisements in the Vogue or National Geographic magazines for those years.  Every advertisement, be it Palmolive soap or Philco air conditioners (below) had to related to the war effort.  Life1

It’s strange to think of the idea of ‘form in art’ and read this vulgar stereotype advertisement.  The Axis in 1942 seemed to be winning everywhere.  Country after country overrun, the Holocaust machine in full operation and, in this country, shortages of everything: rubber, sugar, paper and even the copper to make pennies (U. S. 1943 pennies were steel).  Focillon’s original French text had been composed in 1933, the year of Hitler’s rise to power.  It was translated into English by two New Haven scholars, Charles Beecher Hogan, a modest Yale English professor who had conveniently married of the wealthiest women in the country, and the other a student of Focillon, the eminent Yale art historian George Kubler.  Kubler, would twenty years later exceed his master by writing his own short treatise, the still-brilliant Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things.  All this publishing history is well-known.

Books, however, have locus.  A colleague of mine in libraries worries that library collections will become indistinguishable from one another.  Yet collections are shaped by the richness of their individual volumes as much as by their collection uniqueness.  The copy in my hands was owned by an eminent Duke faculty member, the late Lawrence Richardson, jr (1920-2013).  Richardson was a classics professor and author (of many books) but for me a treasured personal copy of his 1992 New Topical Dictionary of Ancient Rome.  I looked at the fly-leaf signature.


The script is clear and the date precise, “October 13th, 1942”.  He must have bought the book the day it was issued.  It seemed initially odd for a classicist to have been so interested in what a French medievalist thought of form theory that he would have bought a copy “hot off the presses” as it were.  Somehow, readership has a way of crashing into one another.  Today we theorize how the traditional scholarly text is dead, how future publishing will rely on a series of socially-networked contributions to knowledge.  In 1942 there was only the author and his budding reader.  Richardson would go on to write his dissertation on the painters of Pompeii’s Casa dei Dioscuri (though through Yale’s classics department).  It made sense he’d want to read what art historians thought about the analysis of form.

What a terrible time to be thinking about the monuments of European art, of culture and freedom.  How did anything get published much less in green buckram and gold lettering?  Focillon had earlier asserted boldly that “the hand controls the eye.”  At that publication year, people everywhere were dying to fight an esthetic that only allowed for racial purity and the most stilted form of warmed-over Roman art (a la Albert Speer).  If scholarship is challenged today, it’s nothing like the challenges of researching or publishing in 1942.

What I will miss most about holding the book-as-object is not so much the physical piece (online reading suits me just fine) but the absence of evidence of the tradition of scholarly reading.  One can appreciate just as well in an electronic text as a printed book the hardships of publishing during World War II.  But gone from us will be the notion of who might have read the text in another era:

What stranger’s feet may find the meadow,
And trespass there and go.
Nor ask amid the dews of morning,
If they are mine or no.

RichardsonLawrence Richardson, jr., in Italy in the 1950s.


The Warburg: What is a Library?

WarburgThe University of London is considering merging the Warburg [art] Library with its main collection.  Anyone who’s taken even a day of classes at the master’s level in art history knows the idea of this unique library.  Though its history has been romanticized, the Warburg is a true scholars’ collection:  completely open-stacks, completely on-site, completely subject-specialist selected, completely scholar organized.  Modern academic libraries can no longer sustain this kind of arrangement and it would be unreasonable to expect them (us!) to do so.  But every university should invest in one subject collection in their library holdings where physical discovery and insight can happen.

The Warburg Library history is right out of a G. K. Chesterton novel.  Aby Warburg, a psychologically unstable but brilliant cultural historian decided to forgo the riches of his family business (same extended family as today’s Warburg Pincus Investments), if only he would be allowed to research and study his own topics and create a library, unhindered.  Warburg’s intellectual method was the study of the migration of classical learning and the recurrence of myth in visual arts, a vogue of scholarship more or less passed.  His idea, however, that humanistic intellectual connections are based on discovery–on a certain amount of caprice–is (re)proven every day.  The Warburg Llibrary, first in Hamburg and then in London, spawned the greatest–and most singular–art scholars of the twentieth century.  In addition to Warburg himself, Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Gombrich, Fritz SaxlHugo Buchthal, Edgar WindErnst Cassirer, all trace their intellectual careers to the mode that established this library.  A Google Scholar search shows over 500 references (mostly scholar’s appreciations in book introductions) to this library.

But it’s hard to show the value of this on a provosts’ spread sheet.  Large academic libraries (save one that I know of) gave up browsing years ago because they couldn’t house all their books together.  Some disciplines didn’t miss it but others, such as anything connected with image study, took a loss.  The question is, can the University of London afford to keep a unique art scholarly library open for the sake of a whole discipline?  Should it even try?

The Warburg is the opposite of that bellwether of academia, the MOOC.  It’s neither massive, nor online, nor publicly open nor a formal class.  I’m excited about MOOCs, I think they’re a great idea.  However, if the Warburg is dismantled, we’ll only one day end up re-inventing it because of its necessity for a certain kind of scholarship.  That, ironically, was, broadly speaking, the phenomenon of what Warburg studied.

Was it Eliot’s Toilet I Saw?


A piece in the NYT‘s “Weekly Review” by James Collins on not outliving one’s office supplies began by quoting Eliot’s “Little Giddings,” one of the Four Quartets, the last and posthumously published poems by T. S.  I was not familiar with the poems and so, it being Primavera, I went to Perkins Library to check it out.  The sole copy available is an exceedingly worn first edition (1943), spine repaired with book tape and its pages some of the most heavily annotated, defaced, tortured, marginalia’ed I’d ever seen.  Here is the Angst of at least seven discernible hands (if my paleography is correct), crazed graduate students, bleary-eyed undergraduates, and perhaps a dutiful girlfriend helping her harried boyfriend, all trying to pull meaning from this verse the past seventy years.

Much has been written about marginalia, that study of reader’s commentary in the blank portions of (mostly medieval) texts.  It’s a form of public feed-back, crowd-sourcing-before-crowdsourcing.  When I was a graduate student, library book marginalia annoyed me.  I didn’t care if a reader ten years earlier thought the paragraph at hand was Kopros. Dutiful English word translations of the foreign quotations were always handy–though I usually quibbled with the German.  Today I take a tenderer view.  Those poor English majors, today working in the family business or those literature Ph.D.’s now high school principals, never having had their say on Eliot in any public forum, except in Duke’s sole copy of the Four Quartets.

The more I looked at these comments the more the pages appeared as art. Circles and arrows resembling David Cutcliffe’s diagram for an end around.  Fragmentary thoughts:  “different emotional tone,”  “epic simile,”  “See BN III [and then circled] The way down.”  The ‘way down’, indeed.  If Julian Schnabel’s canvases can be considered art, this must qualify, too.  So much of Eliot was devoted to recalling old texts (“can these dry bones speak?”).  How rich the layers upon layers of phrases–and what else is poetry but perhaps that very thing, forming a new text, a nearly different one from the original, without the palimpsest erasures?

Assuming some of this annotation is contemporary to the publication date, the earliest responders are likely dead.  All are gone from this place in North Carolina.  What I once saw (and am professionally required to see) as defacement, I find now as monument.  Like the graffito left by Goths during the sack of Rome.

I’ll let you figure out the ‘secret’ of this blog’s title, purportedly written in the men’s room of Faber & Faber, where the poet was employed.




Lee Phelps 1918-2014

Phelps1-large Ruth and Lee Phelps, 2000

Duke Libraries are blessed to have generous and discriminating donors.  As a group, donors rightly are drawn to the high-profile collections for which our Libraries are known.  In sparer cases these donors retain their interests in the circulating subject collections from which their interest developed. Last Thursday, one such person, the Ur-donor of my collecting areas of art and architecture, died.  Donor and friend.  Read, then, below, how to be both.

I met my namesake shortly after arriving at Duke’s East Campus Library in the 1990s.  He was already retired (one of the last times we had lunch he quipped, “I’ve been retired from Duke longer than I worked there!”).  From the start, “Professor Phelps” was interested in what we did in art libraries, not just books.  The long-time head of the German Department, his avocation was art and architecture, but like most things Leland Phelps was interested in, it was difficult to distinguish a hobby from career.  Together with his wife, the late Ruth Phelps, they were already passionate art collectors, connoisseurs or musicians.  It should be every librarian’s privilege to discuss library acquisitions in a home with Schumann being played in the background on a baby grand piano. Such was nearly any visit to the Phelps’.

Library donors maintain a keen interest in how their money is spent, and rightly so.  Art books of importance, however–expensive things outside the regular budget of an academic art library–are often about strange art:  Barnet Newman’s splash paintings, or the ragged representations of Berlin street whores of 1920s German Expressionism (dressed, as their subterfuge was at the time, as widows), or the fat-and-fur sculptures of Josef Beuys.  Donors are some times hesitant to plop money down on those monographs.  But not in Lee’s case.  He understood.  He understood as a scholar you need to study it all, even that which you don’t admire.  Yet in most cases, he did.  He loved modern art, innately sensing that progressive culture demanded chancy products.  It seemed to me the more difficult the book topic was, the more likely he’d fund it.  Catalogues raisonnés (the scholarly “all the works of an artist” that are the core of undergraduate papers and dissertation-research alike) funded by the Phelps at Duke include:  Paul Klee (five volumes), Wassily Kandinksy (four volumes), Egon Schiele, Christo, Nolde, Jawlensky and Beuys.

The real treat–to a bibliographer such as myself at least–was to encounter a student using a book from Ruth or Lee’s personal collection donated years before any of our own arrivals. Whenever I got the chance, I’d remind the nineteen-year-old that libraries run on the largess of the literate and generous.  The history of the Duke University Libraries bookplates could just about be written using solely Phelps donations.  Frequently these had been the result of Lee phoning up, “Did you see [dealer’s name] catalog that the Rothko book on remainder!” barely saying hello first.  “If you need it, I’ll buy it.”

Like donors whom you know well, it was with Lee that the friendship came first.  More than once our lunch conversations got so intent that I forgot to take the check he said he’d written for me.  Lee had been stationed in the army air corps in Europe immediately during the Korean war.  The ravage of the country still discernible brought him no pleasure. A bookman from the first, he spoke of getting hard currency into the local’s hands buying books from the dealer’s stalls in bombed out cities, regretting his military pay would not allow purchase of a copy of Insel Verlag’s little book on Kandinsky, each with an original Kandinsky in it.  Having grown up in Detroit, he knew the Institute of Art so well he could recount installations from the 1930s there as if he’d just come from the show.  My personal interest of art historiography was deeply rewarded by Lee.  He knew the inside scoop on W.R. Valentiner (1880-1958), the great director of the DIA and later at the fledgling North Carolina Museum of Art.  He was friends with Justus Bier (1899-1990), Valentine’s successor at the NCMA and saw to it that Duke picked up the riches of that scholar’s book collection when it came up for sale.  The rare raconteur, his were always stories with a point.

A text from the religious tradition he and I both shared reminds us that “Whomsoever much is given, much is required.”  It seems amazing to me, considering how much he gave, that any person was afforded so much.

Bookish: The Books That Shaped Art History (2013)

1Art history has always been a bookish discipline.  Since its founding in the XIXth-century in Germany, it relied predominantly on the codex to disseminate its wisdom.  Even without illustrations, which was characteristic of those first monographs, art history books sold. Until the late XIXth century, few people could view even famous works of art. These paintings and sculptures were largely in private collections or sat in “public” museums–institutions not open weekends and who discouraged those poorly dressed who they thought would not “benefit” from art.  Art history and the book are deeply intertwined.  The terms “folio” and “coffee table book” came into play as formats principally containing illustration.  Even today, the e-book for art is almost unheard of, largely because of intellectual property rights preclude including images.

Despite that tradition, art history is strangely neglectful of the print medium.  Literature reviews for art are almost non-extant in the discipline and bibliographies scarce.  Perhaps because art as a topic for publishing can range from the anti-intellectual to the heady, the discipline has never seen itself worthy of self-reflection.  Old art history books represent tombstones to many art historians:  they serve in later years only to document the mistakes the scholars made.  So, a commendation to Thames & Hudson for publishing such an un-glitzy book.  This book is required reading for anyone seriously interested in art history, a worthwhile read for the eminent art historians who wrote the appreciation of each of the titles they selected as for the list of selections themselves.

But What Does the Mirror Think?


To those of you who missed the Dec. 31st New York Times Op Ed page I recommend the rich writing and thinking that went into that page.  Every piece, David Brooks’ “The Sydney Awards, Part 2“, Frank Bruni’s “Tweet Less, Read More” (not per se about reading more) or Jennifer Finney Boylan’s thoughts on a missing friend like the longing for a gender you weren’t born with, each is a homily on la Condition humaine moderne.  Of course, the internet being more self-referential than Chris Christie, Bruni’s thought came from Matt Labash in the Weekly Standard in an article called “Twidiocracy” (this is the only time you’ll see me quoting a conservative positively).  The Labash article had its faults, but it included this passage about Twitter but apropos to social media in general:

[Twitter is] the constant mirror in front of your face.  The only problem is that it’s not just you and the mirror.  You’re waiting for the mirror to tell you what it thinks.

I guess what’s social media in a nutshell.  It’s so faceless while posing as someone so close.  The “mirror” is familiarly anonymous.  It’s creepy because it’s a living oxymoron.  I’m not against Twitter any more than I would be against picking a scab:  it won’t likely scar you unless you do it over and over again.  I keep looking at people staring at their cell phones–in busses, in restaurants, at church–and wonder if they’re finding any enlightenment in that thing?  Of course, I’m a cell-phone starer, too.  That’s what gives me the right to question it.

Brooks ends with Labash’s twitter from @GSElevator: “If you can only be good at one thing, be good at lying. … Because if you’re good at lying, you’re good at everything.”

Happy New Year