Scholarly Study Of Art: Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler, the great critic and scholar of poetry, gave a talk called the Jefferson Lecture, “… the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.” It is worth taking a look…

In a rare case of justified applause, the government chose wisely in Vendler.

Vendler’s lecture is an attempt to explain the necessity for scholarship in the appreciation of the arts. Vendler is not someone who puts you off with vaunting ego; she is simply saying a necessary part of the arts is scholarly study. Such study in other words is not outside, nor incidental to the arts.

… such studies establish in human beings a sense of cultural patrimony. We in the United States are the heirs of several cultural patrimonies: a world patrimony (of which we are becoming increasingly conscious); a Western patrimony (from which we derive our institutions, civic and aesthetic); and a specifically American patrimony (which, though great and influential, has, bafflingly, yet to be established securely in our schools). In Europe, although the specifically national patrimony was likely to be urged as preeminent–Italian pupils studied Dante, French pupils studied Racine–most nations felt obliged to give their students an idea of the Western inheritance extending beyond native production.

It’s not fashionable to be nationalistic – if you are American, Vendler is shrewdly saying. Other countries grok pride in culture; Americans seem suspicious of culture, at least as far as I can tell. They aren’t sure what to make of it. If you are being sold something, which is what the pop culture is always doing, then Americans trust the accompanying cultural aura – it’s part of the familiar merchandise stream.

She affirms again, in this next quote, the role of the scholar:

If we are prepared to recognize the centrality of artists and their interpreters to every past culture, we might begin to reflect on what our own American culture has produced that will be held dear centuries from now. Which are the paintings, the buildings, the novels, the musical compositions, the poems, through which we will be remembered? What set of representations of life will float above the American soil, rendering each part of it as memorable as Marin’s Maine or Langston Hughes’s Harlem, as Cather’s Nebraska or Lincoln’s Gettysburg? How will the outlines and the expressings and the syllables of American being glow above our vast geography? How will our citizens be made aware of their cultural inheritance; how will they become proud of their patrimony?

This is all beautifully said, and true, but I think she might agree that if all scholarly works about the arts disappeared, a terrible thought really, but if such were the case, new scholars would be spawned by the compelling nature of art itself. Art is the singular song, scholarship the chorus.

She ends her lecture with a a beautiful quote from Wordsworth:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

Vendler attributes half that celestial light to the scholarly search for meanings in art. I’d suggest it is more fully the art which provides the illumination for the scholar.