Message from the Dean – September 23, 2019

First some good news:

Assistant Chair of Art Michael Litzau recently completed a month-long artist residency at Sapporo Tenjinyama Art Studio in Sapporo, Japan. He gave an artist talk and took part in a group exhibition with his series of small graphite drawings called “The many views of the Sapporo Dome.” Japan has an amazing historical tradition of pilgrimages and the documentation of pilgrimage destinations. “My artwork during this residency continued in this tradition by documenting the mundane and dramatic moments during Nippon Ham Fighters baseball games in June,” Litzau said. “Ultimately the work is about the power of places and the importance we place on them by our treks to them.”

Now a story:

According to Wikipedia, “A pilgrimage is a journey, often into an unknown or foreign place, where a person goes in search of new or expanded meaning about the self, others, nature, or a higher good, through the experience. It can lead to a personal transformation, after which the pilgrim returns to their daily life.”

A survey of my life’s journey includes many pilgrimages into the hallowed cathedrals, museums and crypts where art history is enshrined. Highlights of these sojourns include standing before da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre, Van Gogh’s Starry Night at the MOMA, and Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’Accademia. For 30 years, I trekked with students to the Art Institute of Chicago, basking in the glory of Botticelli, Monet, Seurat, Picasso and Pollock. During each of these biennial trips, I paused to stare into the eyes of Van Gogh’s, Self Portrait, 1887, to admire the feathery clouds of brushwork in Mark Rothko’s, Purple, White and Red, and to stand in solitude beside the slender, scarred figure of Alberto Giacometti’s, Walking Man II. Every visit expanded my understanding of thought processes, cultural differences and ways others derive meaning from life. The arts represent a sure path toward empathy.

Last Thursday, Sandy and I accompanied students and faculty from the Department of Art as they visited the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum, Dallas Contemporary, Nasher Sculpture Center, Crow Collection of Asian Art and the Dallas Museum of Art. Engaging with the works hanging in these museums delivered the experience hinted at in the Wikipedia definition of “pilgrimage”, transforming the lives of the participants in subtle, or perhaps profound ways. On this journey I encountered first-hand several pieces that were integral to my art history lectures over the decades. These included Martin Puryear’s, Ladder for Booker T. Washington, and Caravaggio’s, The Cardsharps. I also arrived face-to-face with Giacometti’s, Bust of Diego, a likeness existing halfway between nothingness and being.

Profoundly influenced by European philosophy in the aftermath of World War II, Alberto Giacometti thumbed and squeezed clay and plaster onto thin armatures, creating works that epitomized existentialist humanity – alienated, solitary, and lost in the world’s immensity. Jean-Paul Sartre said of Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures, “At first glance, we seem to be up against the fleshless martyrs of Buchenwald. But a moment later we have a quite different conception: these fine and slender natures rise up to heaven. We seem to have come across a group of Ascensions.”

Giacometti’s work represents the moment when existentialist despair gives way to the realization that true freedom exists in taking total responsibility for our own actions and reactions. It is not enough to send thoughts and prayers, or to rely on forgiveness. Giacometti’s works continue a tradition of humanism founded in Greek tragedy, an art form that transcended pessimism and Nihilism. Like Greek spectators, post-war Europeans looked into the abyss of human suffering and affirmed it. In acknowledging the essential pain intrinsic to human nature and still choosing to live on, they passionately and joyously declared the meaning of their own existence.

My friend, Pam Stout posted this on Facebook last week, “Whatever you are not changing, you are choosing.” Giacometti would have agreed. It is essential to be accountable for our choices. If there are aspects of our personal or professional lives that are imperfect, we possess the agency to improve our circumstances. Whether the conditions of our lives resemble a comedy, history or tragedy, responsibility for change resides within us. Blame is solely a way to discharge discomfort. There is no place for recrimination on a pilgrimage of positive, personal transformation. Gandhi said it like this, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. We need not wait to see what others do.”