Between Art and Artifice

The author utilizes this Latin grammar, as well as previous DOML volumes, to guide his translation project.

The author utilizes this Latin grammar, as well as previous Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library volumes, to guide his translation project.

By Eric Nemarich, second-year graduate student in History and Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library intern

The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library is not a physical set of stacks. It is, rather, a publication series, an “ideal library” of affordable, portable, elegantly bound, and scrupulously edited volumes of medieval texts accompanied by English translations on facing pages. So far the Library has tackled texts in Latin, Greek, and Old English, and I have heard rumblings that more vernaculars are on the horizon. The Library aims to make the bountiful and bizarre universe of medieval literature available to a varied readership, and to this end its translations are rethought and refined virtually ad infinitum. This is where I come in, appearing in the invisible interstices of the editing process—fixing a misplaced modifier here, adding a comma there, at times offering my thoughts on a troublesome passage. Over the past three weeks, I’ve cultivated a love-hate relationship with “Track Changes.”

Over the past several weeks, I have spent dozens of hours becoming closely acquainted with a rhetorical treatise penned by an anonymous fourteenth-century Englishman. As I’ve absorbed and digested chapter after chapter (sixteen in all) of medieval rhetorical theory, one single, troublesome adverb has transfixed my mind: inartificialiter. As used in the treatise, it can be approximated in English as “unskillfully” or “inelegantly.” But I have proposed to translate it with a different word, one that does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary and receives a reproachful red squiggle in Microsoft Word: “inartfully.”

The word has a checkered and revealing past. In contemporary English, “artful” has come to be synonymous with “clever” or even “conniving,” while “inartful” has forked into subtly differentiated meanings: in legal writing, it has carried the suitably blunt sense of “poorly written”; but in the sphere of politics—ever on the mind of a Georgetown resident—it has served as a convenient euphemism for tactless statements made in earnest. This is generally unsurprising. Rhetoric and its attendant vocabulary, including words such as “inartful” (and for that matter inartificialiter), have been closely aligned with law and politics for millenia.

What strikes me as remarkable is the seismic cultural shift that rhetoric has experienced in the intervening centuries: once enthusiastically cultivated by ancient, medieval, and Renaissance scholars, it has lately taken on a distinctly pejorative cast, as a reference to words spoken or written with no real meaning. We have erected a barrier between art and artifice, between literature and “mere rhetoric.” Words like “inartfully” bear eloquent witness to this change. I stand by my proposal—which remains, after all, just a proposal—because a translation can and often should play upon multiple and even contradictory meanings, inviting readers to delve into the strange, ever-shifting histories of words. The languages we speak today and the languages of the distant past are bound by entangled threads that form intricate tapestries. For medieval rhetoricians, language afforded the opportunity to beautify reality. I think our translations operate in much the same way, bringing the grace of modern language to ancient texts and setting their complex beauty in ever higher relief.

The Human in “Humanities”

By Hannah Firestone ’16, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives Oral History Intern

Located on the second floor of the Library, the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) of Dumbarton Oaks is home to unique historical photographs, drawings, and field notebooks documenting undertakings such as surveys of important Byzantine sites like Hagia Sophia or the Cathedral of Eufrasius, as well as photographic corpora for a variety of subjects, such as Moche ceramic vessels and their iconography. This material is accompanied by digital collections, including ICFA’s Oral History Initiative, which I will be working with most closely during my internship this summer.

Robert Van Nice, Jr. his wife, and ICFA Manager Shalimar White examine an architectural drawing of the Hagia Sophia  on the occasion of Van Nice, Jr.’s ICFA oral history interview.

Robert Van Nice, Jr. his wife, and ICFA Manager Shalimar White examine an architectural drawing of the Hagia Sophia on the occasion of Van Nice, Jr.’s ICFA oral history interview.

In this initiative, scholars or former staff members (or their surviving family members) who have contributed to ICFA’s archival collections are interviewed by ICFA staff about their work, with the goal of contextualizing the materials that they have donated to the department or the collections they have processed. ICFA’s Oral History Initiative is a close cousin of the Dumbarton Oaks Archives (DOA) Oral History Project, a project that focuses on people who have been involved with Dumbarton Oaks throughout its history. The two oral history collections complement each other well: they share many interviewees, but the interviews in each present different sides of their experiences with Dumbarton Oaks.

In the case of both collections, I am fascinated by how much interviewees remember about projects that they were engaged in decades ago. Take Semavi Eyice, a Professor of Byzantine Art and Art History at Istanbul University and a two-time Visiting Scholar at Dumbarton Oaks. Eyice was interviewed in late 2011, when he was in his late 80s, yet he recalled not only the first and last names of various individuals, but also their middle initials. He also described the clothing styles worn by people that he encountered during World War II and on field expeditions in Turkey in the 1950s. Details like these make vivid the distant memories of the speakers as humans, rather than just as characters mentioned in the archived notebooks and correspondence.

In this way, the different collections of ICFA complete one another. The architectural drawings of Hagia Sophia created by Robert Van Nice, Sr. over a period of 50 years illuminate the history of the building’s construction, while his notes provide insight into his methodology as an architect. In turn, the oral history with his son, Robert Van Nice, Jr.  can further color in what we know about Van Nice, Sr. and his work: how he used the nickname “Sophie” when speaking of Hagia Sophia at home, or how he was frequently frustrated by the birds living in the ancient building because they would steal his tools or soil his drawings. Because of the existence of these multiple media and perspectives, ICFA can deepen a researcher’s understanding of the elder Van Nice: his son’s recollections and perceptions deepen our knowledge of him as a committed architect.

Getting to learn about the significance of the materials in our collections to the people who created them or who were close to their creators, as well as the challenges that arose in the process of their creation, makes it easier for me to understand their significance and to appreciate the work that went into them. These oral histories highlight the human aspect of humanities scholarship that has been supported by Dumbarton Oaks over the past seventy-five years.

About me: I am a rising senior studying Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard. I have a particular interest in reproductive health and justice, which I did not think would overlap at all with my work at Dumbarton Oaks, but this talk of “digital surrogate” and “born digital” has me second guessing that assumption.

Into the Gardens

Friday, January 16th

By Lorena, Harvard ’18

do garden

The camera whirrs as the last photograph of my second roll of film is taken and I wind the dial down to “0.” Ozdemir has just graciously taken the last photo on my disposable camera as I am standing by the side of a pool. Although I had instructed him to “make sure the pool is in the photo—and me too!” I’m more concerned about getting a good shot of the pool. It’s probably in the high thirties or low forties, but I swirl around the lawn in a floral sundress. Actual flowers are conspicuously absent from the lawn, but even without anything in bloom I can tell what a majestic place this is. The very structure of the paths, walls, occasional sculptures, and trees fits together in a composition of shape and line.

Our guide and course leader, James Carder, talks about the art installation in Lover’s Lane Pool, where a series of strange tubes rise from the frozen water’s surface. At the top of the cloudy transparent tubes are black pipes, which look like the intersection pieces of PVC pipe. Inside the tubes you can make out wires descending from the black pipes. James explains that the artist and musician Hugh Livingston has installed a temporary “sound sculpture” here. The pipes are like organ pipes and will emit a recording of remixed natural sounds, creating a strange music to fill the hills and terraces of the gardens.

The gardens! After five days of wondering whether the weather will permit us to visit the gardens, we are here and it is sunny and, to me, balmy (although the rest of the group is wearing winter jackets). James leads us around the gardens, detailing the history and development behind the beauty. When he mentions Mélisande’s Allée, an allée extending down from Lover’s Lane Pool, I am convinced I must return. In the spring, the allée is overtaken by swarms of flowers as they sequentially come into season, changing the color and smell of the path as spring gives way to summer. Another patch of bright color we are missing on this sunny January day is the yellow swell of forsythia that, in spring, covers the side of the valley and spreads into the woods across the Dumbarton Oaks property line. For now, the blue azure of the sky and the mossy celadon of the lawns will do.

When Words Fall Short

Thursday, January 15th

By Aaisha, Harvard ’16

Like many other people, I too used to strongly associate Washington, DC, with government offices, bureaucrats, and diplomacy. I had heard about the wonderful museums sprawled across the city, but had considered them to be a small part of a city synonymous with power politics. How wrong was I!

Having been interested in these topics separately, I applied for the Wintersession course at Dumbarton Oaks, “Culture and Power: Art, Philanthropy, and Diplomacy in America,” to learn more about the intersection of these topics. Dumbarton Oaks, known as a “home of the Humanities,” seemed the perfect institute to explore these new ideas.

In the past four days, I have not only come to realize that cultural diplomacy through art and philanthropy was a popular idea in the Gilded Age, I have also learned that DO is not just an ordinary research institution. Famous for its landscaped gardens, Dumbarton Oaks also comes to life because of its wonderful staff and their passion for their scholarship. It’s contagious, and one cannot help but wonder if studying art and culture is one’s true calling.

Having spent most of our time at DO or museums around Washington, DC, for the past 3 days, we started the day with a two-hour tour of the neighboring Georgetown area. Our course leaders had carefully designed the walk to incorporate several quick stops at important cultural centers, which included Tudor Palace, the Phillips Collection, DuPont Circle, Dumbarton House, and Evermay, among others. After returning to DO, the extremely knowledgeable Dr. James Carder, house collection manager at DO, led a tour of the DO Archives and talked about the famous Dumbarton Oaks Conversations (yes, the ones that led to the formation of the United Nations!). At lunch, we were joined by Mr. Ryan Hobert of the UN Foundation, who enlightened us about the relevance of energy and sustainability to philanthropy and diplomacy.

IMG_1429What seemed like an incredibly enriching day continued to get better. After lunch, our group of sixteen made its way to the National Gallery of Art, where Mr. Dodge Thompson, chief of exhibitions of the National Gallery, led us on a mind-blowing tour of the gallery. A walk through the mesmerizing galleries of the museum and a behind-the-scenes peek of the upcoming exhibition that was being set up were topped by a visit to the design workshop of the National Gallery. If words could describe the workshop, I’d write a book. But the whole experience was one to be cherished in person and preserved in memory.

Works in Progress

Thursday, January 15th

By Jessica, Harvard ’16

A guard slides a panel to the side, guiding us with a subtle nod through the open space into a closed, empty gallery. On the blue walls of the vacant rooms hang countless brown paper–wrapped parcels. Crowned with white bows, the packages, varying in size and shape, seem like so many presents lined up on Christmas morning, simply waiting to be unwrapped. But, alas, white papers affixed to each parcel warn us against fulfilling our desire to discover what canvases lie beneath the wrapping: “Do not remove cover without permission of director,” each proclaims.

The space in which our class stands is a work in progress, an exhibition not yet ready for the eyes of the public in a cordoned-off wing of the National Gallery of Art. It will be but the day’s first glimpse of the largely unknown early life of an exhibition, a period fraught with diplomatic and cultural consideration.

Dodge Thompson, chief of exhibitions at the National Gallery and our guide for the afternoon, leads us from the clean, stately gallery into a vibrant garden of design. Past exhibition posters line the molding, Corinthian columns lounge against the walls, and perfectly scaled replicas litter every surface. We have wandered into the creative playroom of the NGA, the laboratory of Mark Leithauser, chief of design.

It is here we begin to consider the richly complex process of composing an exhibition. From a single black-and-white photograph of a Rodin sculpture is born a gallery transformed into a sculpture garden, a scene from history brought to life. Mr. Thompson and his team take works of art and fashion a new reality in the space of a gallery, orchestrating confrontations with different cultures and inspiring authentic aesthetic experiences.

Later, in another wing of the museum, Mr. Thompson expands upon this theme of the museum as a space for constructing interactions with cultures distant from our own. The table we sit at is covered in stacks of books: past exhibition catalogues featuring the artwork of the Aztecs, Cambodians, Chinese, and many other cultures. These were not simply collections of artistic objects, though, Mr. Thompson explains. Each exhibition represented a dialogue with another country or culture, inspired more often than not by the political developments of the day.

The exhibition with the record for the most visitors per day at the NGA, he notes, followed the conclusion of the Second World War. Featuring masterpieces taken from Germany, Austria, and Japan, the exhibition was a start to the process of repairing the perception of these countries, not as enemies but as cultural nations not unlike our own.

Within the galleries of the NGA, the seeming disparity between diplomacy and the fine arts collapses. Works of art transcend classification as mere mimetic representations of the world and come instead to represent the cultures, countries, and times from which they came.

On the Aesthetic

Wedneday, January 14th

By Michelle, Harvard ’18

During a morning discussion about the philological vocabulary of giving, we stumbled upon the idea of the aesthetic. It’s a word we don’t hear too often in our daily lives, but one that describes the experience of connecting to a piece of art. Questions naturally arose about factors affecting this interaction. For example, how does the instinct to take photographs of artworks change how we internalize them? What role does a piece of art’s physical presence play in the aesthetic experience? While these questions are quite debatable, today’s visits to Dumbarton Oaks’s object storage and the Kreeger Museum made it clear that there is something to be said for being able to interact directly with art.

When we ventured downstairs to object storage, we were lucky enough to have Juan Antonio Murro and John Hansonshow us some of their favorite Pre-Columbian and Byzantine pieces. Juan Antoniodescribed how Robert Bliss had an incredible eye for distinguishing between artifacts and objets d’art within his Pre-Columbian collection. And it was true—while a human skull could have been classified as an artifact, yes, it was intricately decorated with blue tiles. An Inca tunic was definitely a piece of clothing, but also completely covered in square tocapu patterns. Likewise, John talked about dust from the Hagia Sophia that was once stored in cigarette tins and let us examine a beautiful mosaic within a worm-eaten wooden frame with magnifying glasses. Being able to view and even handle these objects up close allowed for a much more personal connection to the artworks than I believe I would have had from hearing stories about the pieces or viewing them online.

In the afternoon, we continued this adventure into the aesthetic experience with our second field trip, this time to the Kreeger Museum. After hearing a bit of background information about Mr. and Mrs. Kreeger (who met at a swimming pool), we were led through what used to be their home. While the dining room remains decorated with the same Monet paintings that adorned the walls during their lifetime, the living room now displays a combination of early and later Picasso paintings, which made me appreciate the flexibility the Kreeger Museum has in making small adjustments to its space. And as I painted in high school, it was really special to get up close and personal enough with the paintings to see every brushstroke. Coincidentally, I forgot my camera during this visit, so my attention was completely focused on the art.

Would I have had the same aesthetic experience if I were exploring Picasso’s and Monet’s works online, or if I were trying to photographically document my visit to the Kreeger? I can’t say. But engaging with Dumbarton Oaks’ Pre-Columbian and Byzantine objects and viewing the Kreegers’ collection definitely lent a lot of insight into the extent that the aesthetic experience is improved by interacting on a personal level with art. And in turn, this speaks for the importance of having cultural centers and homes for the humanities where people can go to have these experiences. I’m so happy to be enjoying behind-the-scenes tours of such places in DC this week, and looking forward to visiting the Dumbarton Oaks Archives and National Gallery of Art tomorrow!

Philosophy and Philanthropy

Wednesday, January 14th

By Rachael, Harvard ’16

rachael smith imgMy third day as a participant in the Dumbarton Oaks Wintersession course on culture and power was full of lovely surprises. Our visit to the Kreeger Museum was a real treat, featuring a room filled with colorful Monet seascapes; dark, brooding early Picassos; and, my favorite, Mondrian’s Dying Sunflower. Before this visit, I had only ever associated Mondrian with the color-block style for which he is famous. Our visit to the Kreeger was an outstanding success. The museum introduced me to one of my new favorite paintings, and at the same time broadened my conception of this well-known artist.

My favorite part of the day, however, was our lively morning discussion with Professor Jan Ziolkowski. Our discussion centered on a comparison between the cultural philanthropists of the Gilded Age and today’s so-called “venture philanthropists,” whose approach to philanthropy is modeled on the economic strategies of venture capitalists. In particular, we considered the idea that by primarily focusing on questions of economics, one collapses other important aspects of philanthropy, such as morality and aesthetics. We noted that today’s donors have a tendency invest in a philanthropic project that will show immediate “practical results.” Such donors are more inclined to invest in projects with readily quantifiable results (such as number of lives saved by administering X vaccine), as this will assure them of the efficacy of their investment. However the “results,” that is, the value, of investing in a project in the arts, such as founding a library, is perhaps not so easily quantified. Does this make an investment in the arts any less worthy? “No!” screamed the hearts of the humanities students filling the room!

This discussion really got me thinking about the problems that the humanities face in the twenty-first century. It seems to me the issue is a double-edged sword. If we live in a world where people take value to be strictly economic value, then we begin to lose the possibility of appreciating a purely aesthetic object. We thought of families taking selfies in front of monuments before they’ve even looked at them, and teenagers recording a concert with their iPhones to post on Facebook rather than enjoying the experience itself. For such a teen, the concertgoing experience is no longer one of aesthetics, but one that is translated into social capital. All of us in the roundtable discussion feared that the non-commodified aesthetic experience is growing scarce.

All of this talk reminded me of the ideas put forth by Martin Heidegger in A Question Concerning Technology. In this essay, Heidegger argues that as the world becomes increasingly mechanized by technology, humans in turn will increasingly conceive of the world as mechanizable. According to Heidegger, eventually the only thing that that matters to the technological society is maximizing efficiency, reliability, and economy. In such a society, man loses the things that most make him man, such as his ability to appreciate aesthetics. From our discussion today, I can’t help but worry that we are facing the situation of which Heidegger warned: in the commodification of the aesthetic experience humans are losing their humanity. It is a thought that truly frightens me, one that I try to put away one sunflower painting at a time.