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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Spring 2004: Erôs and Insight > Interviews > Upton

Joel Upton on Erôs and Insight

We asked Professor of Fine Arts Joel Upton to talk about how he became involved in the Erôs and Insight course and to elaborate on the course’s concepts.

Let me see if I can sketch how I came to this place in the forest, as it were. In my own life and my own professional career, I have always been interested in what I call the art of art. And I must say that I was encouraged to become increasingly explicit in this search for the art of art when, many years ago, I went to a meeting with my daughter and her third-grade teacher, who said to us with real sadness that the textbooks for the year had not arrived. So she thought that she was going to have to actually teach something in the class. I’ve been trying, in some sense, to let the art of art be the “something” from that point on.

So my own life, not just my teaching life, has meant looking for the art of art. In class, despite all of my best efforts to be as professionally responsible and learned and all of those other things that we aspire to, in all of my efforts to give an effective, scholarly presentation of the iconography of a work of art or its historical context or its technical construction, there were always some wonderful students who would look up at me and either explicitly say it or say it with their eyes, “So what?”

I began to notice that the increasingly remote art-historical clichés of scientific textbooks left that gaping question of “So what?” The idea of the neutral observer or the anonymous beholder seemed impoverished to me for a long, long time, in that art, absent the experience of art made no sense at all. That isn’t to deny all of the important information, the elaborate, even scientific understanding of works of art. It didn’t deny that at all. But to remember, in the end, it is the experience, the direct encounter with a work of art that is its value to us. I’m always reminded of Václav Havel’s wonderful observation that “man as an observer is becoming alienated from himself as a being.” He said this in a wonderful speech in Philadelphia on the occasion of celebrating the Fourth of July at the home of our country. That observation by Václav Havel has challenged me to search for that being from which we are becoming alienating as mere observers, and at the same time to search for the role of the art of art in the reality of such a being. That’s been the general direction of my own teaching and thinking about these matters.

First-Year Seminar 13, which Arthur and I just finished teaching this year, called Erôs and Insight, emerged from just this search, which I share with Arthur, and that, as a matter of fact, we share with a large group of faculty involved in a Five-College seminar on contemplative practice and what we refer to as “new epistemology.” Arthur and I tried from the beginning in the First-Year Seminar to zero in on the irreducible center of this search for being, namely, the contradictory tension between erôs and insight. Erôs and insight comprise, in my thinking, the very first contradiction of our conscious being. That is, our sensible and intelligible capacities for knowing—both of them, not one or the other, not one superior to the other, but the two in dynamic relationship with each other.

The conceptual model that we imagined throughout the course, without telling it to the students until the very end, the conceptual model that was in the background, that we used in order to resubjectify knowing in relation to objectified knowledge, imagined a threshold of awareness comprising a very, very simple post-and-lintel system. We imagined lust and reason forming the bases of two columns rising up from the ground, but they were on the ground. And then rising out of those two bases were two columns that rose up to two capitals, one of which we imagined as erôs and the other as insight. And those two columns together supported the lintel block of a complex and dynamic love. This model not only obviously sublimates love, that is to say raises it up and honors it rather than suppress it, but retains the dynamic tension between erôs and insight. With this model alone we could offer the students an alternative to that common false choice between lust and abstinence that impoverishes so many people’s lives. In this model, erôs absent insight is lust. And insight absent eros is nothing more than instrumental reason. So we felt from the beginning that we were giving students an enlarged view of their own being that they could bring to their study. One of the most wonderful comments made by a student somewhere two-thirds of the way through the class had to do with her discovery that her encounter with love was her enduring involvement with learning. We thought that that pretty much hit home. That is what we were after from the beginning.

I give a course of my own, if you want to hear about it, that preceded the course that Arthur and I taught together. I must say that I’ve never had more fun teaching any course than the one that he and I just finished. And as a matter of fact, he and I taught a similar course, indeed called Erôs and Insight, but with a different set of exercises, readings—much more elaborate, I think—for upperclass students, juniors and seniors, the year before. Although there was some wonderful, remarkable, learned, intelligent work done, those upperclass students never released themselves to the material. It remained objective and distant and they remained analytical from the beginning. Whereas the freshmen that we taught gave themselves over to it from day one with all of the innocence and wonder that fresh students would have. Even though they had little or no conceptual understanding of what we were doing, they had a deep involvement in it, and I think in the end it was a far more satisfactory experience.

But for myself, a course that I teach, in which these themes come up again, is called Dutch and Flemish painting. I been teaching it here for 30 years and it’s taken many different forms. Currently, it openly and explicitly focuses on its subtitle, and that is called The “Art” of “Beholding.” And both the word “art” and “beholding” are in quotation marks since each is meant to be a question: What is the art of art, and what, exactly, is beholding? Those two that are always taken for granted must not be taken for granted. They are the question.

I begin this course with a quotation from an English sculptor, Eric Gill, who said once (and it’s a lovely thing to remind all people of), “The artist is not a special kind of person, but is, or ought to be, a special kind of artist.” It’s my conviction that if you get to the core of our being, a fully alert human being in the act of what Arthur and I have been calling “contemplative knowing,” sustaining contradiction, one acts as an artist. That’s what an artist does. Whether you’re a painter or a surgeon or just a good friend, you are an artist insofar as you can sustain the contradictions that human being entails.

If I could just for a second read the introduction to the syllabus for that course, it might give some interested person some idea of what this course is. I begin by telling the students, “Imagine that ‘art’ is not an object. Imagine instead that it is an elusive and yet poignant realization of an attitude of being that allows for a deliberate act of beholding. The central goal of this course is to identify, define and foster this art of beholding.” Then I go on to say to them, “By rediscovering a fundamental psychological impulse we all share but may have forgotten, we can challenge the potentially estranged voyeurism of merely looking at or even objectively analyzing works of art and exchange our habitual stance of neutral disembodied observation for a renewed engagement with an art that resonates through each of our senses as a fully embodied awareness of our being. For in the recognition of a paradoxical tension between self-conscious separation and dynamic involvement in the world we will find in ourselves precisely that profound reconciliatory longing—what I call erôs—that we apparently possess at least from birth and that vividly animates the art of the paintings constructed by those Dutch and Flemish artists living in the Netherlands from the 15th to the 17th century.” Then I go on to set a kind of trajectory to engage them in actually doing this, rather than just theorizing about it; in some sense to discover a theory by way of practice rather than the other way around. So I’ve said to them, “By contemplating one painting at a time, the artistic efforts of these painters to engage through disciplined insight their own dilemma of human being, we will come face to face with the sublime urgency embodied in their own work.”

“With perseverance,” and you need to tell that to the students, “we might even begin to sense that place art and beholding occupy in each one of us, so that we may become, with Eric Gill, that special kind of artist who seeks those intimations of reconciliation among the contradictory realities of being that will incarnate meaning in our lives.”

I know that that is a beginning that is rather bewildering to students who are looking, on one level at least, for entertainment in art courses. But I assure you that by the end of the course they are involved in painting, not because of the course, but because of the power of art. And that’s always my sort of secret weapon.

I’m in a privileged position to be able to teach material which requires no teaching whatsoever. The greatest task of a teacher in this business is to get out of the way. That’s always my challenge.

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