The Stanford Daily recently sat down with Professor of Art and Art History Alexander Nemerov, renowned art scholar, to discuss his thoughts on art criticism and his experience teaching at Stanford.
TSD: Do you have a particular philosophy that you’ve drawn from art [as a whole], or is it a different philosophy with every piece you look at?
Alexander Nemerov (AN): That’s a great question — I mean, there are so many artists and works that I like. My course is a lot about painting, so I guess I’m really enamored of painting as a medium. I think ever since I was a little kid there’s been something really magical about paintings for me. But I also like Hollywood film, and I’ve found many breathtaking moments in that for me too.
Which raised the sort of interesting follow-up point, which is that, how do you take a personal insight, like something that matters to oneself, and translate it for students, let’s say, or how might they do the same thing for the people in their lives? And of course, there’s no easy way to do that, if it’s indeed at all possible.
So one answer I always have is, I’m not so much as it were telling my students to like what I like, but I am activating for them, so I hope, the capacity that they like something and that they might become aware that what they like and how they like it has a tremendous import, and that a life without those kind of direct connections and passions to works of art is a life less well lived.
TSD: Is that the role of criticism as well as teaching?
AN: I hope so. I wish it were more so. I think a lot of criticism and historical accounting is more about making an argument about something. Of course that can be a form of powerful criticism unto itself, but a lot of it is disenchanting. I’m more interested in how not just artwork, but the writing and speaking about artwork, can be a form of enchantment.
TSD: Who taught you to learn to love art in that way?
AN: Well, my father was a poet, and my aunt was a photographer. And I think although I couldn’t have ever really realized this when I was your age, I think as I now am in my middle age I’ve really come to value their fearless, unapologetic belief in the special power of art — whether it’s poetry, photography, painting — to reveal things about the world. And so it’s really not so much a direct teaching thing, because sometimes people imagine that I must have grown up in a household where we had nightly poetry readings and painting lessons and so on but actually I just sat around watching sitcoms and going to sports, going to baseball games and hockey games, you know, hanging out with my friends. So in that sense it wasn’t a kind of direct formal education, it was more an atmosphere, almost unspoken and implicit, of just what matters in the world.
TSD: You’re often inspired by poetry in your own writing. I wondered if you could talk about that, the inspirational role of poetry in your work.
AN: Well, again, my father was a poet. I was an English and art history major and to me the interconnections between poetry and painting have always seemed pretty important and even obvious and therefore worth stating, but I don’t actually usually read poetry in class, though ironically I did today, and I really enjoy doing it. I think one wants words to matter and one wants the voice to matter and the tonality of the voice, the intonation, things like that. Poetry is, as you know, this special, more ceremonial way of using language where things are crushed down to their essences or somehow resolved into some kind of crystalline vividness that those same words don’t have when we go to Tresidder and order lunch. I guess that’s a big reason why poetry is important to me, because I wish that language were always held in the veneration that a poet holds it in. And I try not to be disappointed by the world at large, but I’m really grateful that there’s an opportunity given to me to teach and to write that honors that more intensified use of language.
TSD: You teach a class here on the history of Western art from the Renaissance to the present [which you also taught at Yale]. Is it different at all teaching it here than it was at Yale?
AN: My class here is much smaller. It’s probably a third or a fourth the size. So that’s a big difference.
I really like, though, the Stanford students. I feel that this group that I’m teaching now is actually my best audience I’ve ever had for this class, which I’ve taught about eight times now, at Yale and at Stanford. You can draw whatever inferences you’d like about the differences in enrollments. I’m sure you’re well versed about the differences between Yale and Stanford and I for one am a little played out on trying to describe the different atmospheres of Yale and Stanford, but I just try to approach things positively here and really enjoy teaching and be grateful for the opportunity to do so.
TSD: It is kind of an obligatory question, isn’t it, the question of how the techie-fuzzy divide supposedly affects life on campus.
AN: Yeah, it’s such a terrible distinction here that, like many clichés, has this staying power which substitutes for real thought. Or for real subtlety or nuance. Especially when I meet so many brilliant scientists of different kinds here among the undergraduates who are incredibly observant and sensitive about works of art. So I lament the cliché more than anything, because it’s a cliché people live by externally, but I think there are many, many people here who internally don’t live by that at all.
In that sense I feel like my classes are potentially as valuable if not more valuable to people in the sciences because it’s a place where those of them that are observant and sensitive in the ways I’ve described can really find a place to develop that particular passion.
TSD: You’d especially want to reach out to the students who already have that observant capability?
AN: Among the scientists? Yeah, I think so. I’m not a converter, so if people are not interested, that’s great — I mean it’s a free country. But it seems to me a failure of nerve and of courage if you are interested and you don’t take advantage of that because of a prevailing atmosphere about what is or is not important or relevant.
TSD: So there’s a limit to how much the opportunities Stanford offers will affect how much students take advantage of them — it’s the role of the student to try and find opportunities to think about art?
AN: Well, there are a million opportunities, and I think Stanford does a great job of encouraging more and more students, no matter what their intellectual orientation, to take art or literature classes or whatever, but at a certain point, it’s up to the student to make their own choice.
This piece is part of a continuing series of faculty spotlight pieces.
Contact Abigail Schott-Rosenfield at aschott ‘at’ stanford.edu.