DiGiWriMo – November 3

Today’s post is dedicated to tenets, themes and traits of American Renaissance art.

(Between the paragraphs, I am wondering if the idea of an American Renaissance has leaked into current political discourse, i.e., the willingness to look back to classical underpinnings for modern examples, buried for years beneath the faux progressivism of modernity and neo-liberalism.) 

This comes almost exclusively from Prof. Thomas Somma’s published and unpublished papers that we’ve used in docent training.

The American Renaissance lasted from 1876 to 1917, from the nation’s centennial to the beginning of World War 1.

(Again, between the paragraphs, I am wondering what were the forces correlated with the end of WW1 that snuffed out the renaissance movement in art. And was there a 20th century American Renaissance in literature, in poetry especially?)

First, the American Renaissance as an ideology identifies with the classical traditions of the Italian Renaissance and of ancient Greece and Rome, and seeks to include the following tenets:

  • personification, i.e., use of the human form symbolically and metaphorically;
  • humanism, or the study of living human beings, how they move, how they are constructed, how they think and react to one another;
  • skepticism, i.e., the individual use of their own intellect, critical thinking, and the celebration of the intellect, of making sense of the world by applying the intellect;
  • the use of classical art as a pedagogical tool, to teach something, to appeal to the intellect.
  • inclusiveness of the best aspects of all previous cultures, especially aboriginal and indigenous ones, and saving those aspects for all posterity.

(Between the paragraphs, I see these tenets all but disappearing/disappeared in modernist discourse. Somma suggests they might re-emerge/reappear in post-modernism.  I used to think the Wynton Marsalis alternation between classical music and avant-garde jazz was a possible expression of that tendency, of that re-emergence.  Just heard that Marsalis is experimenting with a violin concerto. Might be a hopeful sign.  MJQ and others experimented with what they used to call “third stream music,” a synthesis of classical and jazz elements. Yes, there is hope.)

Here are a few characteristics (in no particular order: these are all from the Somma article, by the way, listed as aspects of Jeffersonian belief, inherited from the Enlightenment):

1) public access to accumulated knowledge is essential to the integrity of a free and democratic society (rationality, the rule of law, and unfettered access to accumulated human knowledge as intellectual cornerstones of a modern enlightened republic);

2) the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom is in and of itself an essentially moral endeavor;

3) the diversity of nations and cultures contributing to human progress;

4) the lifelong pursuit and practical application of knowledge;

5) the cultivation of wisdom as a civilizing influence (the two Minervas, of peace and culture and of defensive war, and the lampbearers, distant cousins to the Statue of Liberty, illuminate the library visitor’s personal journey along the path towards truth and enlightenment);

6) individual exemplary achievement in law, government, science, and the arts;

7) promotion of the common American Renaissance notion that modern “civilized” institutions are actually rooted in aboriginal cultures and that the entire human family contributes to civilization’s general progress;

8) the educated American worker is the true source of the nation’s power and wealth.

(Between the paragraphs for a final time. This is coming together for me as a universal and an inclusive ethic. Pulling back the external layers, I have to confess that it sounds to me more like current conservative trends in politics, preserving the standards of the distant pass, and less like other existing streams of political thought. That may make me bad to a lot of readers of this blog. I accept that.)  

And three themes of the American Renaissance:

  1. reliance on art historical sources from antiquity and the Italian Renaissance;
  2. a belief in the social usefulness of art; and
  3. unity (and harmony) of the primary arts (painting, sculpture, and architecture)


Somma, Thomas P. American Sculpture and the Library of Congress. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy. Vol. 80, No. 4 (October 2010), pp. 311-335. Accessed at http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/655873 on September 30, 2016.

Somma, Thomas P. “The Sculptural Program for the Library of Congress.” Unpublished manuscript, Ithaca College, July 15, 1996.

Somma, Thomas P. (Producer). 2006, November 14. Statuary in the Thomas Jefferson Building. Library Docent Training Webcasts (Episode 9). Webcast retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=4251

DiGiWriMo – November 2

Si fractus illabatur orbis, / impavidum ferient ruinae

“Should the whole frame of Nature round him break,
In ruin and confusion hurled,
He, unconcerned, would hear the mighty crack,
And stand secure amidst a falling world.”

(Horace, Odes 3.3.7-8, translated by Joseph Addison.)

These are times that require a stoic view.

I went to bed early after a long day and missed both the Cubs victory and the weekly ModPo webcast. I also missed the breaking news about the Clinton Foundation. All these things can be caught up later, fortunately.  One of my MOOC group friends sent out a link to a Charlie Rose talk with Eric Kandel that you can find here, discussing his book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science. Need to look more closely at Jackson Pollock and my favorite artist, Aaron Douglas, both of whom have paintings in museums and galleries here in what was formerly known as Chocolate City.

Found some passages from Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology (luckily the library had a copy on the shelf and lucky for me it was a Wednesday when I usually work) that I hope to incorporate into my docent work.

It’s admittedly a rambling blog post, and short, but wanted to get the Horace quote out there.


DigiWriMo – November 1

OK. This is not a novel. It’s just that it has been so long since I posted anything to this blog. Today that all changes. For the rest of November, at least. Maybe.

Someone landed on my poetry blog last night and “liked” a poem I wrote during August Postcard Poetry Month.  So I took a closer look at that poem, wondering what made it attractive to said anonymous person.  It is a sonnet, non-modern perhaps because it has some internal rhyme and consistency, maybe post-modern.  I was thinking these thoughts this morning when I got to my docent class.  That’s when it dawned on me: focusing on art and architecture history in my docent class is altering the way I look at poetry. Is that a bad thing? Before you answer, I think it is a pretty cool thing.

OK.  Before we get too deep in the weeds about the whys, here is the sonnet in question:

Bus stop (the 31 to Tenleytown)

I neither wanted nor needed freedom
in my youth. My brain, on fire, needed
a container with lots of oxygen
to cool and feed its insatiable thirst
for truth. Older now with vision clouded
by smoke & smog, I seek that same freedom
I once disdained, forsook, refused, denied.
Older now with knees that ache at the thought
of bridging the divides that hide inside
my conversations – – wait! My bus arrives
at its destination at last! One more
shuttle to catch, one more chapter to read,
one more sonnet of love or fate to extract.
And one more thirst, across the years, to quench.

It was one of those rare days when I chose to ride the bus instead of the subway to work. My knees need a break from those subway station escalators every now and then. I started writing the poem on the bus, but finished it at work.  My colleague at work read and liked it, especially the line about “the divides that hide inside,” but I know she is just a sucker for rhymes. Maybe. And that is not a bad thing on most days. So I added it to the collection and forgot about it.

Then today, this morning, I noticed my poetry blog had a hit. Hmmm. Then I went to docent training class and we had a videocast of an art historian/professor, Thomas Somma, about DC statuary, except only the audio worked, so we had to focus on the words and see the images he described in our imagination, sort of like poetry, right? Anyway, here is a pertinent paragraph of his talk:

“That’s basically the aesthetic language that the American Renaissance artists adopt.  And certainly, by the time we get into the 20th century, that’s seen as very conservative.  And this is actually one of the reasons why the art that we see in the Library of Congress for a long time was not studied by American art historians, it was not taught by American art historians, it was not emulated by American artists, because they were modernists.  And modernism means a number of things, but one of the things that modernism means, the modernist sensibility, is to disconnect from the past; a sort of assumption that the way things were done in the past are no longer relevant to the present.  That’s always been a fundamental aspect of modernism, beginning in the middle of the 19th century and carrying right through the 20th century.  So, a style that is so dependent on looking back to the past is something that was just out of vogue with the art establishment throughout the 20th century. 

Now that we’re in a post-modern period, so-called post-modern period, we’re past modernism.  We’re in a more pluralistic, even a globalistic cultural period.  And so many artists, many art historians and so on, are reevaluating the past, are reevaluating styles in the 20th century, artists in the 20th century that were more dependent on the past.  And so we’ve got a renewed interest in buildings like the Library of Congress, like the Pennsylvania State Capital, like the courthouse — Appellate Courthouse in New York, and on and on, because the art of these buildings, you know, was ignored for so long, and now we’re going back to look at them; they’re taking on new values.  Okay, so this two-headed approach, looking back to the past for role models upon which to build a foundation off of which we’re moving to the future; a turn for influence back through the Italian Renaissance, back to ancient Greek and Roman Art.”  (From transcript of Thomas Somma 2006 webcast of lecture to Library of Congress docents.) 

So I am thinking about art and wondering if American poetry has a similar renaissance that got buried by the modernists. And I am feeling pretty good, for once, about liking sonnets, about trying to write sonnets, even though they don’t always have a rhyming scheme “as classified by those who classify.” And I am thinking it might be time to re-evaluate the poetry past. And I am thinking that perhaps there was an American Renaissance in poetry, but because the poets were black for the most part, they sort of got buried in the so-called Harlem Renaissance. Later in his talk Somma mentioned Matthew Arnold, but he was British (Back in the day I memorized portions of his poem, Dover Beach).  I gotta go back and check out Matt Arnold!

So what else is up? My participation in ModPo has stalled. I’ve missed some webcasts because of work. I haven’t kept up. Work is cool, but I haven’t done any classroom teaching like before, and I feel that part fading out a bit, though I still get psyched and excited about Freire and hooks, about ethnography, and about the rhizome as it applies to everything educational. As soon as the docent training is done I’ll get back to some of these other pursuits. But for now, the docent training is thrilling, and fulfilling, and everything I had hoped for in this chapter of my life story.

I think I’ll log off on that note.  Peace out, y’all!