Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How Do I Be a Good Human? A Question for the Humanities

I just read a passage by the philosopher Alain de Botton about the placement of art in museums—a dull-sounding topic, certainly, but I like the implications of his argument. De Botton asserts that instead of organizing art according to time or place (i.e. "The Nineteenth Century" or "The Northern Italian School"), curators should organize it according to themes, principles, or virtues.

So instead of a room of Victorian paintings, curators should create a room about how to deal with loss, a room about how to enjoy pleasure, a room about diligence, etc. Let the pieces come from whatever time period. Time matters little; let the human experience be the focus. Set a painting of the crucifixion next to a photo of a cancer patient, next to a something more abstract.

This idea clued me into one reason I found my experience as an English major to be somewhat (though not totally!) sterile and emotionless. Classes in the humanities are generally organized according to time and place (America vs. Britain, Victorian vs. Modern). But the questions of the human experience—How do I deal with loss? How do I let go and enjoy life? How do I be a good human?—aren't concerned too much with time or place. These questions concern (do I dare disturb the universe? Do I dare eat a peach?) the heart.

Admittedly, studying art by time and place can be interesting in helping us piece together facts, trace philosophical ideas, and learn about the hearts of authors through time. Also (obvious?), just because we study art according to time and place doesn't mean there's no heart in it.

That said, organizing art according to themes, principles, and virtues seems a more fitting way to reflect the heart of the humanities. Art in the academy ought to hold this quote from Aristotle as a primary refrain:

We are not studying in order to know what virtue is, but to become good,  for otherwise there would be no profit in it. 
- Aristotle

Addendum: Perhaps a few well-placed questions about the heart in lectures, tests, and museums would suffice. We humans need more guidance and mentoring on matters of the heart than we may sometimes realize. I recently bought The Norton Book of Friendship—which contains selections from great literary works and is edited by Eudora Welty (author) and Ronald Sharp (scholar)—because I'm interested in the question of how I can be a better friend, and because I think great literature may yield some answers.


brittney said...

I'm reading de Botton right now (Status Anxiety). This is such a great idea. And in semi-related news, we spent an entire month in my "Book of Mormon as Sacred Literature" class studying how to deal with loss - using stories from the Book of Mormon, obviously.

Makayla said...

I think it would be really cool to arrange an upper division course that way. Let courses like 291, 292, and 293 take care of discussing periods and movements and literary history (for the most part) and have more advanced courses be more situated within some of the questions you've listed here. I like that a lot, actually.

Desarae Lee said...

I may have to respectfully disagree with your (de Botton's?) assertion that museums and galleries should be organized according to themes. While this may be a preferred method in some kind of specialty museum, I find that a significant portion of a piece's meaning comes from its historical and geographical context.

There is also the argument to be made against compartmentalizing an art piece with a specific interpretation. Who gets to say what any one piece is about? If you try to sort them into categories, even seemingly broad categories, who can say what you're missing because you're looking from such a narrow viewpoint?

That being said, I love the idea of organizing classes this way, although in practice it may become somewhat vague and confusing.