The Public Humanist

The Public Humanist contributor: Jack Cheng

Jack ChengJack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in the Humanities in Boston and has taught art history in the program since its inception. He has worked on archaeological digs in Turkey, Syria, and Sudan. Jack's writing has been published by leading peer-reviewed academic journals as well as the Boston Globe Magazine, Brain, Child Magazine, Archaeology Magazine, WBUR.org and PBS.org. He is on twitter @jakcheng and Google +.

“Hamilton” and My Kids

"Hamilton" in production, photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Sometimes it takes an immigrant’s perspective to recognize what is truly great about the American experiment.

Read More...

Antigone in Boston

I was a Creon until I realized that it put me against Antigone. Now I’m not so sure. Last week, listening to public radio, I heard about the protests against the burial of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. I nodded in agreement as various voices denounced the alleged Boston Marathon bomber and felt disgust at the thought that his corpse would pollute our state.

Read More...

On the Clemente Course and Breathing Room

“What are the top ten actions that Congress, state governments, universities, foundations, educators, individual benefactors, and others should take now to maintain national excellence in humanities and social scientific scholarship and education, and to achieve long-term national goals for our intellectual and economic well-being; for a stronger, more vibrant civil society; and for the success of cultural diplomacy in the 21st century?”

Read More...

Start Them Young: The Importance of Quality Art for Children

The death of author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, as well as Hayley Wood’s perceptive essay on illustrations in children’s books, reminded me of a visit to the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge. My son was about 3 at the time and it was one of those parenting moments that makes you swell up with pride. As we were browsing, he said, “That book looks like it’s by Sendak.”Did you see why I was overcome with pride?

Read More...

Teaching My Children History

I have been studying and researching and writing about history for half of my life. For the seven years I have been a father, I’ve been thinking about what is appropriate to teach my children about history; what seminal events might constitute a beginning canon of historical knowledge. In our household, there are three topics that come up again and again from school, popular culture and the news.

Read More...

Teaching Art I Love

A lot of professors hate teaching survey courses. In art history, the typical survey would be something I took as an undergrad: from the Parthenon to Picasso. At Harvard, where I did graduate work, the class was traditionally scheduled at 12 pm and earned the nickname “Darkness at Noon.” While I was there, the art history department got rid of Darkness at Noon (this is disturbing to Harvard alumni). The reason for revamping the survey? No one wanted to teach it.

Read More...

Faces of War Experience, Portraits of America?

It’s all about context. An amazing portrait is now on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., as one of 49 finalists for the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. The painting depicts Rick Yarosh from the waist up. Yarosh wears a gray Army T-shirt. His expression is hard to read, like the Mona Lisa’s; like Leonardo’s painting, the subject has calm eyes and what looks like the hint of a smile.

Read More...

Writing Music

Another post for the Public Humanist! This time explaining why I am not a public humanist: Recently, I worked on a project to develop a website for a PBS series called Keeping Score, a production of the San Francisco Symphony that presents classical music in the spirit of Leonard Bernstein’s well-known lectures. SF Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is a great raconteur and presents the historical context along with advice on what to listen for the compositions in the series.

Read More...

The Soul of a Nation

As reported in the New York Times, on Monday February 23, 2009, less than six years after it was looted in the initial invasion of Baghdad, the Iraq Museum reopened for visitors. The opening of the museum (also known as the Baghdad Museum), however, was limited to politicians like Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and journalists — the general public has not been allowed in. According to the Times, the Prime Minister pushed for the opening against the advice of his Ministry of Culture. There are two prevailing opinions of this milestone. On the one hand, the opening of the museum would appear to mark the progress made in Iraq since the invasion. On the other hand, the fact that the opening was basically a well-constructed photo op reinforces the idea that any progress in Iraq has basically been cosmetic. I have no further knowledge of the conditions of the museum beyond the photographs and the video available on the New York Times website. I have to take the word of the curators who say

Read More...

“I could do that”

In art history survey classes, when I get up to Jackson Pollock, I invariably have a student who says, “I could do that.” And my response is always the same: “Go ahead. If you can make a credible Jackson Pollock, you’ll get an automatic A in my class.” Only one student has ever taken me up on the offer. Last week, I went to see the Tara Donovan exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Boston (open through January 4, 2009) and my first thought was: “I could do that.”

Read More...

Announcing the Iraq Heritage Project

My previous post for the Public Humanist was a review of an exhibition of Assyrian art at the Museum of Fine Arts through January 2009. Today, there's another story to be told about Mesopotamian art. The First Lady of the United States, Laura Bush, announced the launch of an Iraq Cultural Heritage Project last week. The project, funded with nearly $13 million from the US Embassy in Baghdad, will focus on three goals.

Read More...

Art Ascendant in the MFA’s Assyrian Art Exhibition

Sometimes I'm embarrassed about being a humanist. I study ancient art, and it's always more impressive to introduce myself as an archaeologist than as an art historian. In my mind, "history" trumps "art" in my conception of "art history." Not that they are mutually exclusive, but I tend to gravitate towards learning about people in the past and other parts of the world, rather than notions of aesthetics and masterpieces.

Read More...

The Value of Beauty in Public Spaces

Whenever I teach an art history survey (as I have for a decade in at least five Boston area institutions), I begin by asking my students for definitions of art. Invariably, someone will note that art can be defined as anything found in a museum gallery. Fair enough.This explains the joke Marcel Duchamp was making when he submitted a urinal as a work of sculpture by the artist “R. Mutt.” (Incidentally, why is there not a rock band called “R. Mutt”?

Read More...

Humanities and the Pleasure Principle

Sometimes Ifeel like a hedonist. No doubt mywife — cosigner of our mortgage, mother to my two young children, and thewoman who gave me my most prized possession (a push mower) — is curious to know when these times are. Well, they happen when talking about the Humanities. For a number of years I have been working in the Clemente Course, a program to bring a free college level humanities course to an under privileged neighborhood in Boston, and every year each of the five teachers gives a spiel about their part of the class and how important the humanities are to each student’s development.

Read More...