On the first floor of the Harvard Art Museums in the Social Realism gallery is David Alfaro Siqueiros’ El Fin del Mundo. Red and orange flames creep from behind a large stone edifice, with a small and solitary human figure in the foreground, arms cast upward in a gesture of terror or helplessness. Siqueiros, a compatriot of Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and José Orozco, was interested in creating what, in the context of this year’s Mellon School, we might call a public creative practice. El Fin del Mundo is one of Siqueiros’ responses to the 1930s Spanish Civil War, and represents what the gallery text called “art as an effective propaganda weapon.” The crumbling edifice in the image happens to be Taq-i Kisra, the ruin of a 1500-year old Sasanian Empire palace in what is now Iraq. Siqueiros, it seems, was invoking the histories of empire, conquest, and violence at the Persian site to ask his viewers to reflect on the unfolding realities of empire, conquest, and violence in Franco’s fascist uprising. The end of the world, indeed.
This gesture of looking back for moral or affective counsel from our lived and cultural histories was at the core of the new work that Stephen Greenblatt discussed with us on Friday afternoon. Greenblatt’s book, Tyrant, tries to understand the subject of tyranny by examining what Shakespeare told us about it in his plays. The book proposes that the nature of tyranny in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England is not so different from tyranny today; and, not to put too fine a point on it, that yesterday’s tyrants are not unlike ours today either. Of course, Shakespeare drew frequently from the histories at his disposal to craft his plays, so perhaps it is more accurate to say that tyrants and tyranny have ever been the same. Greenblatt, among a few other things, would like us to learn from this.
As he discussed his work, and to elucidate the process of publishing a trade book for a room of academics whose works are not usually so widely accessible, Greenblatt read a chapter that had been cut by his editors. The chapter, a bit of erudite fan-fiction, imagined a letter that Shakespeare might write as he wrestled with the uncertainties of the world that he lived in. Greenblatt’s imagined Shakespeare describes the paradox of being a man of means who pines for a better world while, naturally, doing everything within his power to protect those closest to him. Rather like I imagine the small man facing an inferno in Siqueiros’ painting, Greenblatt’s fictional Shakespeare asks, “what, exactly, am I supposed to do?” In many ways, remembering the way that Martin Puchner framed the urgency of our conversation and our work in his introductory talk at the beginning of our session, I feel as though we are each in this same position: facing crumbling edifices, wondering what’s to be done.
This subject came up over dinner with some of my colleagues on Friday evening. Our table of twelve, tucked into the corner of a South Boston tavern, dug into our lingering questions after our first week at the Mellon School. I think we recognized, in our talk, that our abundance of questions meant that we are circling something important, and equally that our questions aren’t easy to answer. I also think that these questions are how we begin to address crumbling institutions, academic and otherwise. This is, it seems, the task at hand. And so, why aren’t the humanities public? What role do institutions have in granting or restricting access? Who are our publics? How do academics negotiate the added labour of producing scholarship for a public? And, perhaps most fundamentally: what, exactly, is at stake?
Post and photos by Cassandra Silver