The Public Humanist

Intersecting Art and the Humanities

A partnership between the state cultural agency (MCC) and the state humanities organization (Mass Humanities) on a literary event is kind of a no-brainer, literature being one of the “bigees” in the humanities gang. Even so, when not thinking about it too clearly (a favorite pastime of mine), I’ll sometimes divide the humanities and the arts by some notion of where they take place. Humanities happen in lecture halls, academic offices, anthropological surveys, and art happens in studios, performance spaces, limestone Key West houses overrun with cats. But really, it’s a false division, and the borders between the two (if there are any) are pretty hard to identify.

Or maybe it’s better to put it this way: when the two intersect, it makes for fascinating experiences.

I’m not just talking about historical novels, or documentary films (but those, too). I’m thinking about art that does what the humanities do: “make(s) sense of the human experience in general and our individual experiences in particular” (to quote the website of my illustrious host).

Take the installation Deep Wounds by innovative new media artist Brian Knep.

(IMAGES: Stills from Brian Knep’s installation DEEP WOUNDS (2006), Photos by Kris Snibbe)

The 2006 interactive piece was installed at Harvard University’s Memorial Hall, a space that honors the Harvard graduates who died fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Imagine yourself walking past the names of the honored soldiers inscribed on building’s walls, toward sections of marble floor lit up with a luminous glow. As you walk across the floor, sections of the luminous film open up, revealing descriptions of Harvard graduates who fought and died for the Confederacy, but they’re described by relationships – father, brother, friend – rather than by name. (The work is no longer at Memorial Hall, but you can watch a short video on the installation on Knep’s website and read a review in Art New England.

As a work of art, the piece is wonderful--probing and provocative, visually stirring, technically innovative. But it’s no less an inquiry into a segment of history, into philosophies about war and what we choose to remember, into questions that would be perfectly suited for any number of humanities disciplines.

Similarly, Claire Beckett’s photographs of soldiers in basic training or in preparation for the ground realities of Iraq operate beautifully as pure portraits. Take this photograph:

(IMAGE: Claire Beckett, PVTS KENDRA DUFFY, ALLISON BRONNER & JESSICA-ANN LAYUG, 2006 (2006), c-print, 30 in x 40 in.)

So many intriguing suggestions here--the Iraqi garb incongruously set on the Western soldiers, bravery, vulnerability (maybe even a hint of boredom) in the face of the unknown. But the photo contains a full array of humanities, too--touching history, anthropology, politics, philosophy, social science. By nature, works like Beckett’s and Knep’s stir us with questions rather than answer them. They drive us right into the arms of the humanities!

I started this post talking about a literary reading, so I thought I’d end with a poem. It’s by Ben Berman, a Boston poet who has incorporated his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer into some of his work. I chose it because in its approach to “human experience in general and our individual experiences in particular,” it’s most definitely an attempt to make sense.

Moving On

Every six months or so, Edwin writes

me a letter, lets me know who’s passed

on and the latest cost of bread. This time

it’s Benson, his younger brother Lovewell

and sixty-thousand dollars. I am next

to nothing for money, he writes, and still

without work. But Brother, the Pentecostal

Church has arrived. They’re teaching us the right

way to pray. It’s biblical – the disconnects

and catalogues, destruction juxtaposed

next to the austere and casual.

Procrastination is the thief of time,

Edwin writes, and it has been high time

since you wrote back. Brother, are you still

alive? If so, send money for goats as well

as for beer – the bill of burial rites.

Too often these days, I think of my past

as a currency – rubbery chicken necks

and children named Godknows, boys who die next

to you on busses – I spend all my time

distancing myself, plundering my past

for sibylline truths and forget it’s still

alive. Edwin’s waiting for me to write

him back. He needs help paying for Lovewell’s

funeral. Back home, Edwin, all is well.

Here is twenty dollars. I’ll send more next

letter – it sounds so easy to write.

But time wastes us, William Matthews writes, and time

saves us and buys us. All we can do is steal

back from what squanders us, swirl the past

into the present, learn to trespass

even as we go light. Our rituals

grow rote, otherwise, prescribed and stale,

the mere expectations of what comes next.

It’s dawn. I’ve stolen away. It’s time

to let go and hold on, it’s time to write

back. Please, Edwin writes, we need help. Lovewell

and Benson have passed away. I am next…

Angels, thieves of time, prepare to wrestle.

Ben Berman 2006

There. That’s the intersection. Right there. Because what else is a work of art or humanities if not a bit of wrestling with the thieves of time?

The MCC is proud to partner with Mass Humanities to present a reading of literary fellows and finalists from our Artist Fellowship Program, on Wednesday, February 25, 7 PM, at the Forbes Library in Northampton, part of MCC’s statewide Commonwealth Reading Series.

Images: Two stills from Brian Knep’s DEEP WOUNDS, 2006, three-channel interactive video installation, 45 ft x11 ft, computers, video projectors, video cameras, custom software, photographs by Kris Snibbe; Claire Beckett, PVTS KENDRA DUFFY, ALLISON BRONNER & JESSICA-ANN LAYUG, 2006 (2006), c-print, 30 in x 40 in.

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