By Mary Lou Beatty
A new chairman has arrived at the Endowment for the Humanities. He is Bruce Cole, an art historian from Indiana University. In this issue of Humanities, we talk with him about his views on history and art and what lies ahead for the Endowment.
“I see works of art as primary documents of a civilization,” he says. “The written document tells you one thing, but a painting or a sculpture or a building tells you something else.”
Sorting out the message can be difficult at times, Cole acknowledges. “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.”
Cole has conveyed his ideas in fourteen books and in the classroom for three decades. He sees a symbiotic relationship between the two activities. “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.”
The turn of the year brings not just a new chairman, but the debut of some new films. There is a retrospective on the Miss America contest and how it acts as a mirror of American society, along with two biographies of remarkable Americans. The first is about a man who appeared an unlikely warrior: Ulysses S. Grant. “A military life had no charms for me,” he wrote later in life. From his cadet years at West Point, he would go on to become the win-ning general of the Civil War and the eighteenth president of the United States. Despite the corruption that tainted Grant’s presidential years, the film’s executive producer, Elizabeth Deane, regards him in a positive light: “This is not the failed president that many people think he was. This is a man who held the country together at a time when it could easily have come apart, and who stood up for the rights of African Americans during those terrible, violent years.” She is referring not to the Civil War, but to the period of Reconstruction that followed.
Another film biography tells the story of a man whose first novel etched itself on the American consciousness in 1952. The book spoke for those in the margins. “I am an invisible man,” the narrator declares. “ . . . I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
The author of Invisible Man was Ralph Ellison, who became the first black writer to win the National Book Award. The film traces his journey from college days spent studying classical music to an impromptu meeting in New York with poet Langston Hughes and writer Richard Wright, which led him to take up writing. We see Ellison enduring the estrangement of the sixties and seventies when he was called an Uncle Tom for his views on racial brotherliness; we watch him withdraw from the scene to continue the slow-going work on a second book. Eventually, the pieces of manuscript became Juneteenth, published after his death.
Last, we look at another kind of cultural record that reveals the inner workings of a society. We travel back fourteen centuries to a time when tradition in much of the world was oral, not written. In the Middle East, long before Islam, poets were the conveyors of Arab culture. Marriages, deaths, and victories were commemorated in poems, and tribal disputes were often negotiated through poets’ metaphors. The poet still plays a role in present-day Arab culture, although the venue may be newspapers, radio, or television. “You want to know anything about the Arabic people -- about their history, tradition, genealogy, battles, love affairs -- you turn to poetry,” says Arabic scholar Bassam Frangieh.