revisionism

Every Wednesday evening, I have a Medieval Studies course from 5:30-8:30 about Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Middle Ages.  I’m of the sort who stays beyond the mid-lecture break.  Except the Wednesday before that which just passed, that is.

And here’s why I left at the break.

First of all, allow me to say that I value revisionists for one reason (as historians, not as people, I’m sure as people they have many other reasons to be valued): they ask questions that need asking.  I just disagree with their perspectives and answers.  We had a guest lecturer from L’Universite du Quebec a Montreal (JENN: I forgot how to do accents!), who is an art historian who specialises in the Renaissance (this is important later).  She pointed out, rightly so, that we shouldn’t compare art from previous ages to ours and declare it as inferior (essentially).  This is true; but we still have to compare it with what we know at some level, because our world is what we know and our best frame of reference, therefore.

Anyway, she declared that art history has to be cleared of bias.  Later in the lecture she said that the Church uses art to brainwash people.  This is clearly a very loaded and biased statement!  So, she has already failed at her dream.  And unbiased history will always be a dream, for the modern dream of unbiased history was born in the Enlightenment, and the modern critics tear older history books apart for their bias–yet those older historians sought to write “pure” history with no bias.  In his book Who Was Jesus? NT Wright writes that “we must give up the myth of neutrality, whether our own or that of any single source.  Only then can we start engaging in real history.”  I agree.

Thus, the Church using art to brainwash people was the first reason I chose to leave.  The primary, though, was as follows.

She had a hang-up about mimesis.  Mimesis is the idea that art at its best mimics nature and is as close to nature as possible.  She went on about this quite a bit, and how a lot of modern art books declare this, and thus demonstrate that Egyptian art is “inferior” to Greek art as a result, and that Medieval and Byzantine art are similarly inferior to Renaissance art.  Actually, she didn’t say that last bit; that would have been balanced.  Instead, she explained how in the Renaissance the mimesis myth was promoted by artists in order to suit their desire to be presented as God-like creators and art historians as the wonderful discoverers of genii; as well, it suits the context of Christian art; the Church legitimizes the idea of Salvation and the necessity for good behaviour.

She kept arguing this point quite a bit, pointing out the church vs. Jews and Muslims, whose art is not mimetic; therefore, their revelation is inferior in the church’s eyes.  Blah, blah, blah, essentially.  The reason “blah, blah, blah” is about what she said was what I pointed out to her during a pause wherein she asked for questions.

“If mimesis was developed during the Renaissance, it wouldn’t be applicable to Christian art in this period, since it wasn’t mimetic yet, would it?”

She said I shouldn’t say, “Not yet.”  I said that it eventually became mimetic in the West but never did in the Orthodox tradition, which favours a more spiritualised rendering of its subjects.

She conceded my point.

Thus, over half of her lecture thus far had been useless.

Not only this, but when she began doing the comparative art analyses, almost none of the Christian art was Medieval; it was almost entirely Renaissance.  Granted, some of the Islamic art was Medieval, yet some of it was not, including an image from an 18th-century manuscript!  And there was essentially no Jewish art to speak of.

The mimesis issue was my main reason for leaving.  (Others: she said that Christian art is Anti-Semitic in that it uses Jewish stories as though they were Christian; she referred to archaeological “discoveries” as though the things found in the Egyptian desert weren’t really discoveries [but if the locals don’t know it’s there, it’s really a discovery; and if you don’t know it’s there, it’s still a discovery for your culture and self, is it not?], she implied that the New Testament has an allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament [which it doesn’t], and clearly had almost no biblical knowledge of the matter in the art being discussed.)

So, revisionism.  Basically, this was a lady with an art-historical axe to grind.  She’s probably a quiet revolution post-Catholic, seeing as how she is Quebecoise.  She had a thesis about the Church and the West’s imposition of its values upon the art of the world, specifically through mimesis, and she wanted to make sure we knew about it.  Only the thesis was completely irrelevant to the Medieval World.  Most revisionists tend, at some level, to be anti-Western, as though Western culture has nothing to offer; or, if it does, nothing we can offer comes from the educated, wealthy, powerful people of the past.  If we are to truly learn about what really happened, we have to find the accounts of the losers, not the victors.

Except the losers are biased as well!  Everyone is biased!  I am biased!  I happen to like the Church.  I find mimetic art more beautiful and appealing than Orthodox, Egyptian, and Islamic art!  I’m sorry–but it’s true.  I realised this at some level while I was in Athens.  My favourite bits of the museums were the Classical statues.  I loved the pagan temples more than a lot of the churches.  I realised that, artistically, I may be a pagan.

Yet despite my bias, I can appreciate non-mimetic art.  I do love icons.  And Egyptian art is cool–even if, to my untrained eye, millennia of Pharaohs look alike.  And modern art is often highly non-mimetic but often abstract or, if concrete, highly stylised.  She seemed to ignore that in her critique of modern art-historical technique.

Le sigh.  I’m going to read my Bible (with an Anglican bias, I’m sure), then pray (with the bias of someone who’s read The Way of a Pilgrim), then go to bed (with the bias of someone who prefers queen-size beds to his tiny creature here).

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