When I was young and easy under the apple boughs, there was a fad for “rap Shakespeare” and the like. The idea being: the Bard’s brand of English is so inaccessible to modern audiences, it needs to be “updated,” so that students can at least get acquainted with the plots and characters. At the time I dismissed it as mindless dumbing-down (in reality, it was probably an early form of “teaching to the test” — you can truthfully say, for certain funding-related values of truth, that your students have “read” Hamlet if they can recognize Polonius and Ophelia, yo).
These days, I’m almost ready to sign off on rap Shakespeare. The point of education is still to give students an acquaintance with the best that has been thought and said, but because this is 180 degrees from the point of the Ed Biz, our modern youth lives in an endless, contextless now. They’re told to be the change they want to see in the world, but since yesterday’s gospel is today’s thoughtcrime, it’s best to go through the SJW motions while doing your best to not do, say, or think anything at all. They don’t, in their heart of hearts, believe that change is possible. Everything is the same and nothing can ever be different, no, not ever, world without end amen. We have always been at war with Eastasia.
That’s the value of the much-maligned discipline of art history. Confront a student with this:
and you’ve shown them a world that might as well be Mars. What could those paintings possibly mean?
I’m not talking deep philosophy here. Start with the basics. What’s actually in the picture? Describe it to me. Start with the last one: “Well, there’s this half-naked guy, and he’s in… bed? And there’s, like, a skull on a table. And he’s writing something in a book. There’s a candle, and is that a knife?”
Ok, good. Go on…. Need a hint? The painting is called St. Jerome Writing, and it’s by Caravaggio, painted around 1605. Doesn’t help? Well, who’s St. Jerome? What did he write? Hie thee to Wikipedia….
See what I mean? This isn’t deep analysis, with technical notes on the composition. This is the equivalent of rap Shakespeare. It’s such a striking image that it can’t help but pull you up short. What could he possibly be doing, there with a book and a skull at zero-dark-thirty? What kind of man would keep a skull by his bed? Did they really DO that back then? If not, it’s a… whaddyacallit… symbol?
Just by establishing the basics — the few actual things that are actually in the picture — you open doors to an entirely new world. There was once a world, kids, where everything in this picture made perfect sense. Things were different once, and they can be again. In that world lived a man called Caravaggio, and he was one of the great artistic masters of the late Renaissance. What’s the Renaissance? Glad you asked…