Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy #4

For three weeks in the summer of 2016, twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, and Christian ministries departments of both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges gathered at Gordon College’s residence in Orvieto (Italy) to explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments. 

Participants were invited to write brief personal narratives that highlighted one or two particular aspects that encapsulated the experience.  This series of posts features several of these essays.

Lisa DeBoer (Westmont College)

The three weeks in Orvieto, living with, traveling with, reading with, poking around town with, relaxing with and eating with, fourteen other excellent, thoughtful people reminded me of what “deep learning” feels like. The “eating with” was especially important—not least due to Maria’s amazing cooking.

It’s been six weeks since we wrapped up our time in Orvieto. I’ve been pondering, trying to figure out what, exactly, it is I’ve taken away from the experience. The pondering has made me realize that not since my days as an undergraduate, where occasionally I was asked to write a reflection paper at the end of a semester, have I been asked to self-consciously, straightforwardly name what I’ve learned, what new questions I’m asking, what I’ve valued about a learning endeavor. Of course, most of us probably do this in the amorphous context of our background thinking all the time. But that’s a different kind of mental processing from being asked to nail it down, say it out loud, and to write it out. This is something of an irony for me, as I’m one of those professors who does ask students to write down what they think they will take away from a class. So part of this reflection is what I learned (again) about learning in the course of this seminar. Another part is what I learned about un-learning in the course of the seminar.  And I have this assignment to thank for pointing me to both of these things that I learned.  

What I learned (again) about learning

It has been 28 years since I was an undergraduate at a Christian liberal arts college. I spent another eight years in graduate school, but that’s a different type of learning. That’s professional education. By the end of our three weeks in Orvieto, what struck me most was how the character of how I was learning felt so much more like the way I learned in college, as opposed to the way I learned in graduate school. This was first and foremost, a residential, Christian, liberal arts experience. I learned like I want my students to learn. With the people in the room, not just alongside them; engaging in free-range, “big picture” thinking, not only discipline specific and disciplinarily bound thinking.

On the one hand, this rediscovery is a truism. We learn best in community because we learn from one another. We learn best through engaged back-and-forth discussion, following the questions where they lead, not simply through the acquisition of the facts and methods required by any given discipline. We learn best in a group that has shared goals, rather than in a competitive, zero-sum environment. True, all of that. But I’d not had the chance to be on the receiving end of this kind of learning for a long time. I help create it for my students in my classroom (I hope). And I enjoy little snatches of it here and there with my colleagues on campus over a good lunch discussion, or at a faculty retreat, or sometimes in a committee context. But those moments, however refreshing, are intermittent, and incidental.  “Christian Liberal Arts Learning” is something we do mostly for our students. Not all that often for ourselves. 

The three weeks in Orvieto, living with, traveling with, reading with, poking around town with, relaxing with and eating with, fourteen other excellent, thoughtful people reminded me of what “deep learning” feels like. The “eating with” was especially important—not least due to Maria’s amazing cooking. It’s hard for me to imagine the conviviality we shared around the seminar table happening in quite the same way, without the fellowship we shared around the dining room table twice a day. Leah’s “mutual invitation” exercises were also key to this “deep learning.” In an ordinary academic seminar, we could anticipate learning from our varied disciplinary expertise and our varied personal backgrounds. That would happen in any traditional, academic “summer seminar.” But in this setting we also learned from our faith backgrounds, and even deeper, we were together long enough and in enough different ways to learn through and from our different personalities and temperaments. Even though, when we talked in seminar, we tended to preface our remarks with some disciplinary or confessional frame, it was also the case that we were all clearly speaking out of who we were in all of our grand, beautiful, messy, human particularity. Learning in this kind of setting is truly formative; it’s an education of the whole person.

What I learned about unlearning

These thoughts have been percolating in my head for the last six weeks. But now the new school year is almost upon me, and I’ve got to revise my syllabi.  Including my Art 124: Italian Renaissance Art syllabus.  How timely!  

Except that my summer seminar has unsettled my thinking about what this class should be about. I realize, in looking over what I did the last time I taught this class, that I taught Italian Renaissance Art (surprise, surprise) like an art historian.  That is, I more-or-less took for granted that certain key artists and monuments, that stylistic change over time, and that dominant patterns of patronage were the main currents we needed to trace. As a specialist in Northern European early modern painting, the “big question” guiding my syllabus was a disciplinary, methodological question: how did early and obsessive attention to Italian Renaissance art embed particular assumptions about art in the very bones of the discipline? And are those assumptions the most appropriate ones for the study of all art, as early practitioners of the discipline seemed to think the case?  Evidently, I’d bought the argument that those assumptions were at least appropriate and adequate for the study of Italian Renaissance art.

Our seminar has prompted me to ask whether the tools of the discipline, notwithstanding their roots in the study of Italian Renaissance art, are fully adequate for its study.  After all, art history as an academic discipline took shape hundreds of years after the art in question was made. The interests of those earliest art historians in attribution, in stylistic innovation (note, innovation, not merely change), and in the ferreting out of textual sources for complex symbolic and iconological programs gives us one take on what’s noteworthy about Italian Renaissance art.  It's not a trivial take, or a wrong take. But is it the only take?  

Challenged by our discussions and our site visits, and challenged by reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age with a colleague on campus (and also with Jamie Smith’s commentary How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor) I’m trying to teach this class a little less like an art historian, and a little more like a person trying my best to imagine what life felt like for the original makers and viewers of these works, and what, about their experience of the world, might be important for me to take seriously.  How did living in a more “enchanted” world, where nature was a divinely ordered “cosmos” rather than a scientifically defined “universe;” where the self was experienced as porous to that cosmos, rather “buffered” (Taylor’s word) from external powers; where personhood was understood in the context of community, rather than as the achievement of autonomy—how did all of this inflect Giotto’s arena chapel? or the elaborate tombs of prominent humanists? or the meanings of the descriptors “graceful” and “marvelous” and “sweet” as they play through the pages of Vasari? Above all, how does this world challenge our world?  And vice versa?  

So thank you, John, for requiring this exercise. And thank you, to all of you, for reminding me what good learning feels like and for challenging me to remember that while I can and should be an art historian in the classroom, I can also be more.