April 9, 2003: Perspective
101, the second time around
By Joe Marshall 69
Illustration by Marc Rosenthal 71
Joe Marshall, a former editor at Sports Illustrated, lives in Princeton.
I have a recurring nightmare. I am at Princeton, I have an exam the next day, and I havent done any reading or attended a single precept. A bolt of panic wakes me. Now, 34 years after I graduated, I am living that dream. I am back at Princeton, a paper is due, the midterm looms. Im completely unprepared. But, hey, fear is not a factor.
I am one of the 754 auditors who are sitting in on a course or two at Princeton this spring. I go to lectures and, if I want, I do the reading. I am not permitted to attend precepts, not expected to write papers, not welcome at the midterm, not allowed to take the final. This is the way school ought to be.
My course is Art 101, the very same course I took as a junior in 1968. What are you trying to do, pass it? asks a friend. Actually, I want a refresher. Since leaving Princeton, I often have found myself standing blankly in front of a painting in some European museum. I recognize the work. I recognize the name of the artist. I know the piece has significance because I remember seeing it in Art 101. But what is that significance? I havent a clue. This, I presume, is what a former teacher was trying to tell me when she would say, When are you going to stop memorizing and start learning?
Getting into the course the second time required more resolve than it did the first. Auditing works on a first-come, first-served basis, and space is limited. Registration for this terms courses was held in Richardson Auditorium on a snowy December morning. Sign-up was to begin at 8 a.m.; anxious auditors were kicking snow off their boots in Richardsons lobby before seven. By 7:45, the place looked like Yankee Stadium when playoff tickets go on sale.
I showed up early enough to grab one of the 10 spots allotted for Introduction to the History of Art. As an undergraduate, Art 101 was the only art course I took. I did it to please my mother. One spring break, my mother informed me that several of my high school friends, with the help of their parents, had arranged a Europe-on-$5-a day summer vacation. My mother had nixed me from the trip because I hadnt taken an art history course. I never got to do Europe on $5 a day, but since then Ive accompanied my wife on several Europe-on-$500-a-day trips.
I began my auditing career last spring with a course in my major, English, but was out of town a lot and made it to just eight of the 24 lectures. I mentioned my absences to a former classmate, whose only comment was, Old habits die hard. Guilty as charged. I look back at my four years at the best damn place of all and know I had the best damn time of all, but not in the classroom. Youth, as Oscar Wilde famously said, is wasted on the young. In the fall of my junior year, saddled with some boring lecturers and some obscenely early (which is to say, before noon) classes, I cut 49 of the 72 lectures I was expected to attend.
That spring, though, Art 101 caught my fancy. My professor was the late John Rupert (Jack) Martin, a specialist in 17th-century art; at the time, he may have been the most popular lecturer on campus. Martin taught at Princeton for 40 years. Painstaking in his preparations, Martin was renowned for timing his presentation so exactly that the last slide would be dimming as the bell rang. He was a performer, and I made it to every one of his lectures.
When I got to my first lecture this February, though, I discovered that the course I took in 1968, the one I thought I would be repeating when I trudged through the snow to sign up in December, is an anachronism. In my day, Introduction to the History of Art meant the history of art in Western Europe. Now the study of art history, like The Gap, has gone global. This spring three lectures are devoted to art in China, two to art in the Islamic world, one to art in Japan, and one to art in Africa.
Jack Martin is an anachronism, too. No one in todays art department dares tackle the whole of art history. Such a vast playing field demands specialists. Professor William A. P. Childs 64, whose name appears in the course catalog as the lecturer, tells us at the opening session, I am a mere administrator. He is to give three lectures, but his main job has been to rope 14 of his colleagues, specialists all, into giving the other 21.
So after Childs, an archaeologist, gets us through Day 1, Robert Bagley, an authority on early Chinese art and archaeology, appears at the second lecture to talk about art in ancient Egypt. The third lecture introduces us to Thomas Leisten, an expert in the field of Islamic art and architectural history, who gives us an overview of art during the three millennia before Christ in the part of the world that today includes Iraq. Leisten is fascinating, but 40 minutes into the 50-minute class he makes what sounds like a concluding remark. The students wait in silence. Leisten, sensing confusion, says, Thats it. Two weeks later, Jelena Trkulja sets a new speed record, reaching the finish line of her lecture on art in the Byzantine Empire in just 35 minutes. Somewhere Jack Martin is rolling over in his grave.
Later, Bagley returns with a lecture entitled Ancient China: Three Tombs. Reading that on the prospectus I am reminded of why I chose sleep over so many lectures as an undergraduate. Bagley, though, captivates me. I can even imagine visiting these tombs if my wife discovers something she would like to shop for in the Hubei province of China. I confess, though, that Chinese tombs werent on my radar screen when I signed up for the course, nor was the subject matter of Lecture 11: Iconography and Function of Gardens in the Islamic World. I realize that in the study of art history today, even a puddinghead like me would do well to specialize. Scouring the course catalog for probable offerings next fall, I come across Art 210: Italian Renaissance Painting and Sculpture, a course which considers the work of, among others, Donatello, Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Sign me up.
Still, Im looking forward to the rest of Art 101, especially to the second half of the course, which is devoted to art from the Renaissance on and covers those paintings Ive been puzzling over these past 34 years. What lies ahead for the students isnt as appealing: two papers, a midterm and the final exam, which will take place in the lovely month of May. Ill probably play golf that day.