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A Conversation with Bruce Cole

HUMANITIES, January/February 2002 | Volume 23, Number 1

In December, Bruce Cole was sworn in as the Eighth Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He speaks with Editor Mary Lou Beatty about his academic career and his views on the humanities.

Q: You’re beginning a new chapter after twenty-eight years of teaching and writing about the history of art. What drew you to the field?

Bruce Cole: The history of art is attractive for a couple of reasons: One is that you deal with works of art on an aesthetic level, you talk about them in terms of their form. You also talk about them in terms of how that form creates their content. Then you get to explore various topics, including whether content arises from the societal matrix in which objects were made.

Q: What does art history tell us that other kinds of history cannot?

Cole: I see works of art as primary documents of a civilization. The written document tells you one thing, but a painting or a sculpture or a building tells you something else. They are both primary documents, but they tell you things in different ways.

Q: When did you first become interested in art history?

Cole: I was in my freshman year in college. I had no experience at all with art -- or very little, I should say. My experience consisted mainly of my Aunt Gertrude walking me around the Cleveland Museum of Art. I remember pretty much the moment that it happened, being in class and opening up this book -- I think I still have it -- and seeing this painting. It was The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul. That sparked me to take some courses in Italian Renaissance history, where I studied with Marvin Becker, who is one of the most inspiring teachers I ever had, which in turn led me to Florentine history and the history of Florentine art.

Q: What was your particular fascination with the Renaissance?

Cole: The Renaissance is one of the most important eras in the history of not only Western civilization but world civilization. It is where the modern world was born, although this is a debated interpretation. So many aspects of our world come from the Renaissance. Pretty much up to the twentieth century, artists worked within the boundaries first staked out by the Renaissance.

Q: Are there more great artists from that period than others?

Cole: They were thick on the ground in Renaissance Italy. The Renaissance, up until about 1500, believed that great artists could be made. So in the Renaissance what you had were workshops presided over by a master who trained apprentices. The apprentices became very conversant with their materials. They knew how to draw extremely well. They knew how to narrate in paint or bronze.

Q: But geniuses did come out of there.

Cole: Exactly. You have Giotto and Donatello and Titian, who were all trained in that system. But around 1500 the idea of the genius began to arise, mainly with Michelangelo, but also with Titian and a few others. Again, that was the sort of nascent idea that we have now of the great artist being born a great artist and developing his or her talents, which culminates in somebody like Jackson Pollock, which is definitely not a Renaissance idea.

Q: I guess all art reflects the norms of its society. Does the changing society have artists fall out of favor?

Cole: Oh, yes. One of the best examples is an artist named Francesco Francia, who was an important painter in the Renaissance. He was given a biography in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. The high point of his reputation was probably in the nineteenth century, when he was very much admired by the Victorians. Today nobody knows anything about him.

Q: Will he come back again?

Cole: Who knows? The other good case is Raphael, who was certainly considered one of the summits of art for many years, up to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Raphael is a figure who isn’t as appreciated today as he once was. His art is an art of calm and equipoise and harmony and beauty, and those qualities are often undervalued today. I think that revivalists often revive artists whose aims are similar to theirs.

Q: So art history itself has changed over the years.

Cole: It has definitely changed. It is much more interested in relating art to society than it was, say, fifty years ago.

Q: Are there new criteria then for judging it?

Cole: There are a number of levels. You can look at art in terms of its universal language, which is form. All artists deal with the same sort of formal properties: composition and line and color and the like. Artists from very diverse art-producing cultures deal with this. Art can be appreciated on that level alone.

Q: The form itself.

Cole: Yes. If you’re looking at a Japanese print or a baroque painting, that language of form is, I think, identical. What’s done with it is different.

The other way art can be appreciated, of course, is to understand how art arises from the culture that produces it and reflects it in a way that is different from reading a primary document or some other kind of primary source.That, I think, enriches the first part of it.

Let’s go back to the Renaissance for a second. In the middle of the seventeenth century, artists would work on commission. Therefore some of the fundamental aspects of what they were going to do were dictated by these commissions.

If a Renaissance artist was commissioned to do an altarpiece, the location for that would already be determined, the contract would specify the subject matter and the size and the materials to be used. Already that is a reflection of what this particular artist’s patron wanted. Then, when the work was actu-ally done, it would be closely tied -- let’s say in this case an altarpiece -- to the Mass and an elucidation of what was happening in the Mass. It also would probably reflect something about the patron and his world.

But more than that, if you look at the history of the Renaissance, or the history of any particular period, you can see that certain things change over time and reflect the changing views of both the patron and the artist.

Look at portraits and how they evolved. First of all, you don’t really have any portraits after the Roman Empire until the beginning of the Renaissance. The Renaissance produced portraits in great numbers and I think that says something about the Renaissance view of the individual. Around 1500 you even start to get self-portraits and portraits of artists. That says something about the role of the artist. Artists moved from becoming anonymous craftsmen to having a distinct persona. They became valued in society, and therefore they were permissible subjects for portraits themselves.

So, yes. The changing ideas and values in culture are reflected in what artists do: the subject matter, the treatment of that subject matter. That’s why a baroque painting looks very different from something done in the twentieth century.

Q: What kind of things do you collect yourself?

Cole: The things I collect most avidly are nineteenth-century bronzes after classical prototypes -- very specialized. Most of these were bought by travelers to Italy or by people who wanted to have a small-scale reproduction of some famous classical sculpture.

Q: Who are the sculptors?

Cole: They are mostly anonymous. A lot of them are French and Italian. I have just a couple of signed pieces. They are not something that people really collect very much.

I wanted to say something more about the Renaissance. I always thought I’d like to write a book called The Other Renaissance. Our idea of the Renais-sance as taking place in Florence, Venice, and Rome was really constructed by Giorgio Vasari, who wrote this enormously influential book, The Lives of the Most Famous Painters, Sculptors and Architects, first in 1550 and then, in an enlarged edition, in 1568. Vasari was Tuscan and he was the greatest public relations person for Florence. He gave us our notion of the Renaissance as centered in Florence and Rome, with a nod to Venice. That’s why when you go to Italy today and you go to Florence, you can’t get anywhere near the David, or you are crushed by tourists in the Sistine Chapel. But if you go anywhere else, like Modena or Ferrara or Parma, which were all important centers of the Renaissance, you find almost no one. Our ideas about the Renaissance are very much conditioned - including mine -- by Vasari. I think the whole idea of the Renaissance probably needs to be rethought a little, and that these other centers should probably be seen as being more worthy of study.

Q: In your book, The Informed Eye, you make some interesting selections. When you address contemporary art, whose work do you like?

Cole: Now what do you mean by “contemporary”? Let’s say art from 1950 to the present day.

David Smith would definitely be one of my choices. I think he’s a sculptor of great importance. I think Rothko was a superb painter. I like William Bailey. He’s one of the revivalists of the figurative painting. I’m a big fan of Henry Moore.

Why did I pick those things in The Informed Eye? I think principally because I really like them.

Q: I can’t believe that you’re saying in effect, “I know what I like.”

Cole: It’s very difficult to know why you like something. There are lots of things that come into play when you make these decisions. Certain works are much more compelling than others, and they draw you towards them and make you want to know more about them. The art historian and critic Kenneth Clark had a wonderful analysis of this. You first are drawn to them in some way. It’s very difficult to describe this, because this is not a process of verbal communication. They don’t speak to you in words.

That is one of the problems about being an art historian: trying to find verbal equivalents to describe and then understand something that is completely nonverbal. When artists create these things, they don’t do it verbally. They don’t think a painting through in sentences. There is some kind of attraction, but it’s very difficult to put that in words.

I guess it must be the combination of all their formal elements and the subject. Then I think what happens is that you want to know more about it in terms of its component parts. This is true for any work of art, from any culture. So you want to analyze it formally, you want to know something about its subject, you want to know something about its artist. You want to take it apart and try to understand it on another level. But then I think, you return -- enriched -- to the compelling attraction of that work.

Now, here is the tension of some art history. It is possible to look at a work, let’s say a Rembrandt self-portrait, and see it in two not necessarily incompatible ways. One is to see it as a timeless work, especially with Rembrandt, because his work expresses all these universals, and it is as contemporary as anything can possibly be. The other way is to look at it historically, to see Rembrandt as a personality, Rembrandt embedded in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. The greater the work of art is, the more timeless it is.

Q: You are both a professor of art history and a professor of comparative literature. How do these two disciplines mesh?

Cole: Very well. Last fall I team-taught a course with Julia Bondanella. We alternated lectures. I talked about art and its formal properties and its relation to Renaissance society and Julia talked about Renaissance culture—literature, poetry, and the like. We laid these side by side and then made interconnections. We talked about Giotto and Dante, who are contemporaries. We talked about the rationality of early Renaissance art and the culture of the Florentine merchants and bankers.

Q: I know that you bring the work of the art scholar to the classroom. What does the classroom do for you?

Cole: This is a great question. I’ve thought about this and I remember a plaque that was on a friend’s wall. It says, “Teaching is to research like sin is to confession: without one, you don’t have the other.”

Q: Is that true?

Cole: That’s absolutely true. There’s a kind of symbiotic relationship between teaching and research. Many of my ideas that are later incorporated in my writings arise from my teaching. Teaching forces you to condense and articulate what you’re thinking and what your basic ideas are about what you’re teaching.

Q: Has anyone ever just turned your ideas topsy-turvy?

Cole: You mean a student? Not topsy-turvy, but certainly I love it when students challenge me.

Often the students, graduate and undergraduate, do give you a new perspective.

Really good researchers are always questioning their own ideas and analyzing them. And I also think a component of good research is just pure enthusiasm and the love of your subject and the desire to communicate it as widely as possible. That’s why I think often good researchers make good teachers.

Q: You were co-president and a founder of the Association for Art History? What were your goals in forming this group?

Cole: Our goals were to offer another professional association for art historians and graduate students and critics and people who work in museums. The organization continues, under different leadership. I think that art history starts with objects and it goes off to all sorts of interesting and diverse places, but it is fundamentally an object-based discipline. We were anxious to encourage that.

Q: Let’s move to your new world here at the Endowment. NEH is not really new to you. You had a fellowship in 1971 to work on “The Origins and Development of Early Florentine Painting.” You’ve been a panelist in the merit review system. You served for seven years on the National Council, which advises the chairman. What have those experiences taught you about the Endowment?

Cole: That the Endowment is an essential and important part of American society and that it is a superbly functioning organization, staffed by a highly dedicated professional group of people. That’s one of the reasons I was anxious to get back to the Endowment. It has a very fine open and democratic peer review system that helps us to fund the most excellent proposals.

Q: What do you see as the balance between research, say, and public programming?

Cole: I think of the Endowment as doing many things, from supporting works like the Sumerian dictionary to trying to improve the humanities in the K-12 programs. The Endowment does all these things, and I don’t see that there’s any kind of formula for a balance between them. I think that the Endowment should support the best projects that will have the largest impact in whatever way is appropriate.

In my own work, I’ve done books that were aimed specifically at a scholarly audience, like my first book or my second. But then I realized very early on that I also wanted to communicate with a much larger audience.

So I would say many of my books have been aimed at what I would call the general reader.

Q: As with The Informed Eye. But I was surprised that you were discussing Dorothea Lange or David Smith. You were branching out into unexpected areas.

Cole: I’m very enthusiastic about a lot of those artists and that led me to co-author The Art of the Western World and write The Informed Eye. I guess the older I get, the more I am interested in trying to disseminate that knowledge to more and more people.

That’s another thing, of course, that the Endowment does well. It supports -- and should support -- highly scholarly projects aimed at other scholars, but it should also support the broad dissemination of the humanities.

Q: Do you see an expanded role for the humanities in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of last September?

Cole: The horrific events of September 11 have underscored the importance of the humanities in understanding our own nation and the world. Defending our homeland requires not only successful military campaigns; it also depends on citizens understanding their history, their institutions, and their ideals. The humanities show us what it means to be an American, and why America’s ideals are worth fighting for. NEH’s goal of preserving and promoting the best of the humanities is vital.

Q: What are your expectations for your tenure here? What do you hope to achieve?

Cole: The Endowment is not me. I see it as a collaboration among all of us. Each part of NEH supports important work. My years as a professor have demonstrated to me how crucial NEH fellowships and seminars and editions are. As someone who has been involved in the design of school cur-riculum, I can see the good work NEH has done on all education levels, including K-12.

As we talked about earlier, I have spent a considerable time involved with NEH. I learned a lot. I know the role films and museum exhibitions and other programs for the public can play in spreading the humanities. I’ve sat in on National Council recommendations about preserving the knowledge in the fragile books and newspapers that record our early history. I’ve learned the long-range view of providing infrastructure -- sometimes buildings, sometimes long-range teaching programs -- that will help these projects endure.

All of these activities have my strongest support and encouragement. I also want to work closely with the state humanities councils, who are so excellent at providing humanities programs on the local level. Our partnership with the councils is something I want to strengthen.

Q: A final question. I understand you have an interesting pastime. You ride a motorcycle. Where did this fascination develop?

Cole: When I was a teenager, I had motorcycles. Then, at a certain age, I gave them up. As I got older, well, I never lost interest and would always wistfully look at motorcycles when they drove by. I always thought I’d like to have one again. Recently, I decided if I didn’t get one, then I never would. So unbeknownst to my wife, I went to a motorcycle dealer and bought a small used one, which my neighbor drove home for me. Then I got on it and I realized that it’s like riding a bicycle, you know? After a couple of months, I decided I needed a larger and faster one, so I bought a Suzuki 750.

Q: Do you ride to class?

Cole: I have ridden to class -- not often. I like to get out on the open highway. Riding a motorcycle is great. I am so intent on keeping the rubber side down that I have virtually no thought processes, except that. So when I come back from a ride, it’s very refreshing. It’s like it has washed your brain. It gives you a whole other perspective.

Q: Are you going to bring the motorcycle to Washington?

Cole: No. Well, maybe eventually.

About the Author

Bruce Cole, a scholar of Renaissance art, is the Eighth Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He comes to the Endowment from Indiana University in Bloomington, where he has been a professor of art history and of comparative literature.

Cole has written fourteen books, many of them about the Renaissance. They include The Renaissance Artist at Work; Sienese Painting in the Age of the Renaissance; Italian Art, 1250-1550: The Relation of Art to Life and Society; and Art of the Western World: From Ancient Greece to Post-Modernism. His most recent book is The Informed Eye: Understanding Masterpieces of Western Art. Cole, 63, was born in Ohio and attended Case Western Reserve University. He earned his master’s degree from Oberlin College and his doctorate in 1969 from Bryn Mawr College. For two years he was the William E. Suida Fellow at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence. He has held fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies, Kress Foundation, American Philosophical Society, Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and National Endowment for the Humanities.

His relationship with the Endowment goes back to 1971 when he was awarded a fellowship to do research on “The Origins and Development of Early Florentine Painting.” He has served as a panelist in NEH’s peer review system, and in 1992 was named by President George H.W. Bush to the National Council on the Humanities, the Endowment’s twenty-six member advisory board. He served for seven years.

At Indiana, Cole has been professor of Fine Arts and Comparative Literature and chairman of the Department of the History of Art at the Hope School of Fine Arts. He is a corresponding member of the Accademia Senese degli Intronati, the oldest learned society in Europe, and a member of the Honorary Board of Directors of the American Friends of Florentine Museums. He is a founder and former co-president of the Association for Art History.

He and his wife Doreen live in the District of Columbia and have two grown children.