Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Getting medieval

New York City is currently enjoying a series of events celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the International Center of Medieval Art (ICMA), housed at The Cloisters. A two-day symposium, packed with new ideas and approaches, has just concluded at The Metropolitan Museum. The related exhibition, “Set In Stone: The Face in Medieval Sculpture,” continues until February 19, 2007. If you are coming to New York this time of year, be sure not to catch it. (At the same time, the Frick Collection nearby is hosting a small show of Cimabue, a rarely-seen Italian medieval artist.)

This institutional anniversary coincides with the beginning of my graduate work at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University. There I concentrated on medieval art, writing my doctoral dissertation on a Belgian illuminated manuscript of the eleventh century. Since that time “medievalist” has been my habitual academic moniker-—even though my allegiance has sometimes wavered. Like many others I have experienced brownout from time to time. A generation ago I turned away from the whole field of art history to become one of the founders, or so I thought, of gay studies. I prefer this term to “gender studies” and the horrendous “queer theory.” This discord gives some idea of why my contributions, it is fair to say, have not received full recognition. I am confident that in time this neglect will be corrected. (See my related site, homolexis.blogspot.com).

Be that as it may, what did the choice of medieval art as my field entail? Before turning to that let me clear away some purported obstacles. Since the era of vilification that culminated in the 18th-century Enlightenment, the Middle Ages have been viewed—-and still are in some quarters-—as coextensive with the “Dark Ages.” In this denigrating perspective the era had the unique distinction of being a time of unrelieved tyranny, barbarism, and horror. In this din of iniquity, no culture of any sort, including art, could emerge. For that one must await the glorious dawn of the Renaissance. Viewed in comparative terms, the first claim is flatly ridiculous. As the historian Niall Ferguson and others have rightly observed, the twentieth century, the time of Hitler and Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, has surpassed all previous centuries in terms of the horror that has been inflicted on countless millions of human beings. Nor does the purported consequence hold up, for the allegation that the era had “no culture” is easily refuted by visiting the cathedrals and the various museums of medieval art, and by reading the troubadours. Arthurian legends, Dante, and Chaucer.

Another allegation has not been, for me, so easily set aside. It was the Middle Ages, with considerable help from the Bible, that institutionalized homophobia. In this country we only got rid of the sodomy laws at the beginning of the present century, thanks to the Lawrence decision of the Supreme Court. I am aware, of course, of the efforts of John Boswell to deny that the medieval centuries (or most of them) were antihomosexual. However, as I have shown in a critique written with two colleagues, now available on the Internet, Boswell was mistaken.

In retrospect I think that the stops and starts of my commitment to the Middle Ages reflect my awareness of this gross flaw in its make-up. Perhaps that is as it should be, for one should not seek to ignore this kind of inhumanity. To be sure, heretics and Jews suffered grievously under medieval Christian persecution, but the attitude to homosexuality is the aspect that has stuck most in my craw. The Roman Catholic Church has made up with the Jews, or at least made an attempt. In the Christian world heretics are no longer persecuted. But, according to the present pope (who probably knows more about the matter than he is letting on) same-sex behavior is “intrinsically disordered.”

Let me turn now to some reasons for the attraction to the Middle Ages.

The first is curiosity. The Middle Ages has been compared to a remote country that it might be stimulating to visit. We go to it because it’s there. Unlike most others I had a particularly large blind spot. My parents raised me as an atheist, leaving me with an abiding interest in learning what religion is all about. (No, I don’t think I got into the field to spite my parents.)

If the Middle Ages appeal because they are exotic, paradoxically they also attract because they are, in very significant ways, the start of “us.” The Middle Ages represent the beginning of the West. To be sure, one can start even earlier, with Greece and Rome, but there is a sense in which the Middle Ages, with its parliaments, common law, rhymed verse, and musical polyphony is unique. Even if we begin earlier, we can’t just hit the fast forward button when we reach late antiquity, zooming on to the glorious Renaissance. The latter era, by the way, is no longer so glorious, as some historians have banned the term, preferring “early modern period.” Since I am among other things I am an amateur Sinologist, I have no wish to praise Western civilization exclusively. I am not a Westocentrist (a neologism I learned only yesterday). But we cannot deny who we are.

One of the appeals of studying medieval art is that one can’t just limit oneself to the art. Meaningful art history in this era involves study of theology and philosophy, of political theory and poetry (without getting into sigillography, paleography, and other arcane disciplines). This need to adopt a broad, comparative approach is something that other fields of art history are just catching on to. Medieval art has always had it.

Then there is that ineffable factor I call “romance,” for want of a better term. We see this appeal in popular tournaments and reenactments in various places. More ambitiously, some trudge along the Pilgrimage Road all the way to Compostela in Spain to reenact that aspect of medieval life. There is also an armchair dimension, as reading offers many pleasures. The troubadour lyrics stand at the origin of modern lyric poetry, while the Arthurian romances, almost unbelievably copious in their variety, deal with archetypal themes of quest, love, loyalty, and betrayal. Among the Germanic texts, the Nibelungenlied is intensely gripping from beginning to end.

Finally, there is the affinity with modern art. This connection was forged during the nineteenth-century Gothic revival, when theorists and artists began to turn away from the naturalism of the Renaissance tradition, in favor of flatness, pure color, and geometrical design. Even when not directly influenced by medieval sources, as with Paul Gauguin and the German Expressionists, this affinity is present. To be sure, postmodernism shows less connection with medieval art, but the achievements of Van Gogh, Picasso, and Matisse will always have a place in our hearts. It is hard to appreciate this art, while at the same time rejecting parallel work from medieval times. It is true that some, like the modernist Robert Rosenblum, have contrived to do so, but that is because (I think) they have not given medieval art a proper chance. I did and do—-despite my more than occasional infidelity.