The Art of Seeing with Mary Attwood

This is just a quick post to recommend Mary Attwood’s monthly one hour sessions on The Art of Seeing. I attended my first session in this series this week in which we looked closely at one sculpture by Antony Gormley. This was the sculpture – Feeling Material XIV (2005).

For the first 15 minutes we were invited to look slowly at the image of the sculpture, taking a mindfulness approach to observing the details. We did this in silence, with audio muted, and, if we wished, with video switched off. During this time of silence, Mary projected slides of the sculpture from different angles for us to observe. We were asked to engage imaginatively with the sculpture through reflection, writing and drawing or however we wished to respond, seeing round it and through it.

There were about 16 participants in the session who all had unique responses to this work, but it was also possible to detect common threads.

Mary then shared with us her knowledge of Gormley’s work including this writing by Gormley:

I particularly liked the first 15 minutes of silent observation in this session. Such a relief from constantly being required to speak and explain our thinking, although we were also invited to do this. So there was a very nice balance in this session which I found both stimulating and relaxing.

Art History 1600 – 1700

Last week I completed the fourth module of the National Gallery’s six week online course – Stories of Art: A Modular Introduction to Art History, 1600 -1700. The title of this module, hosted by Lucrezia Walker, was Baroque and the Dutch Golden Age. I really enjoyed this module, probably because of the amazing artists discussed – Bernini, Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, Rubens, Poussin, Velázquez, Rembrandt and Vermeer.

What I didn’t know before starting this module is that the word ‘baroque’ derives from the Portuguese ‘barroco’ word, which describes a large, irregularly shaped pearl. In relation to art, this was originally a derogatory term, suggesting excess, a flamboyant response to Renaissance classicism. Baroque was the leading style of this period.

As for previous modules, the course covered a wide range of artists, and showed hundreds of slides. There were 70 slides in Week 1 alone. For this post I will select one or two images from each week, to share a flavour of what the course was like.

Week 1: The power and the glory

The focus in Week 1 was on the power and glory of 17th century Rome and in particular the wonderful sculptures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, described by Lucrezia Walker, as the ‘big boy of Baroque’, an extraordinary tour de force. Bernini’s father was a sculptor, so Bernini began his learning at the age of eight, to ultimately become the Michelangelo of Baroque, a giant figure of many talents – sculptor, architect, painter, playwright, theatre designer and musician. He has been described as the ‘artistic dictator of Rome’. Bernini worked on St Peter’s Basilica for 40 years, and was so talented that he could make marble look like flesh, as you can see from this photo below of his sculpture of The Rape of Proserpina.

Not only did we get a great introduction to Bernini in the first half of Week 1, but we were also given a good look around the sites of Rome where his work features.

The second half of Week 1 was devoted to the art collection of King Charles 1, which was unprecedented in England. This collection was an indication of his power and glory. He collected work by Van Dyck, Titian, Rubens, Holbein, Bronzino and Mantegna.

Week 2: Caravaggio, the Catholic Reformation and the beginnings of Baroque

This week focussed on the first half of the 17th century in Rome, and in particular on the work of Caravaggio, in the first half of the session, and Artemisia Gentileschi in the second half. Both Caravaggio and Artemisia were hugely influential in the early 1600s, and then became less important, and were not rediscovered until the late 20th century (Caravaggio) and 21st century (Artemisia).

Caravaggio had a violent temperament, characterised by drinking, brawling, gambling and fighting. In 1606 he had to flee Rome after killing a man and spent the rest of his life travelling between Naples, Malta and Sicily. He was constantly in trouble, but he was hugely influential. His style was innovative and naturalistic, with dramatic contrast of light and dark. It formed a new kind of art for a new catholic church, and from about 1600 onwards, Caravaggio never wanted for patrons. Because Caravaggio produced a lot of work for churches, his work was widely viewed, more so than if he had painted solely for private collectors.

Artemisia was the most celebrated female painter of the 17th century. Her mother died when she was twelve and being the eldest child of a family of daughters she worked in her father’s studio, producing professional work by the age of 15. As a young woman, aged 17, Artemisia was raped by Agostino Tassi, an artist who visited her father’s studio. He was convicted of rape in 1612, but this event influenced not only Artemisia’s work, but also how her work was perceived. Nevertheless she became a successful court painter in Florence. Artemisia was strongly influenced by Caravaggio; her paintings were highly naturalistic.

Her painting, in 1610, of Susanna and the Elders (image above), which she painted at the age of 17, shows her distinctive style and was surely a premonition of what was to befall her within a year of painting it. But Artemisia has become a heroine of feminist art history. ‘I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do,’ she wrote to a Sicilian patron. ‘You will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman.’

Week 3: The embarrassment of riches: Painting in the Dutch Republic (not baroque)

I found this the most stimulating all the six weeks. In preparation (as homework) we were asked to watch Rembrandt vs Vermeer on Intelligence Squared – This is a highly entertaining programme which I can recommend. Tim Marlow chairs a debate between Simon Schama and Tracy Chevalier over who is better, Rembrandt or Vermeer? This reminded me of a wonderful trip to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2014, where I saw paintings by both Rembrandt and Vermeer.

At the beginning of this week’s session we were asked to vote on whether we preferred Rembrandt or Vermeer. The result of the poll was exactly 43% to each, with the remainder being ‘no preference’ responses. I voted for Rembrandt, which I probably wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t been to the Rijksmuseum, but as one participant said, it’s like comparing apples and pears.

Rembrandt was the 9th child of a wealthy miller and had a classical education. He was married twice (his wives feature in his paintings), lived to the age of 63, and was successful in his lifetime with a large studio. He produced a huge amount of work, including 80 self-portraits. He was a great painter of humanity.

Rembrandt, Portrait of Aechje Claesdr, 1634

Vermeer, a tavern owner and a dealer, as well as a painter, lived a shorter life, dying at the age of 42 . He was a much quieter artist than Rembrandt, painting simple images of glorious ordinariness. He produced relatively few paintings, working slowly and producing a couple of paintings a year. Vermeer painted scenes from everyday life, often a single figure in a room with light from the left. It is thought that he may have used a camera obscura, and he is known for lavish use of the expensive pigment lapis lazuli.

Vermeer, Woman pouring milk, c1658

Between 1640 and 1660, Amsterdam was the place to be, clean, ordered, with impressive land reclamation projects (God made the world, except for Holland, which the Dutch made!). There were more painters than butchers in Amsterdam and an explosion of different genres of painting, portraits, landscapes (townscapes, seascapes, urban landscapes, winter scenes) and still-life (lavish still-life and the vanitas still-life); ordinary people were buying art. This was the era of the rise of the dealer and the beginning of the art market. This was also a time when artists worked collaboratively on paintings. Some of the other painters introduced this week were Gerrit Berckheyde, Peter Saenredam (so different from Italian paintings of Catholic Church interiors ), Willem Kalf, Jan Janz Treck, Harmen Steenwyck, Adrien van Utrecht, Rachel Ruysch (whose paintings sold for more than those of Rembrandt‘s at the time), Willem van Aelst, Jacob van Walscappelle (still life), Aelbert Cuyp (landscape), Judith Leyster (portraits) and Pieter de Hooch.

Week 4: The art of Spain

Significant artists working in Spain in the 17th century included El Greco, Zurburan, Velázquez and Murillo.  For the first half of this week’s session we looked at the work of all these artists. The second half of the session focussed on Diego Velázquez, whose work was discussed in more depth by Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery.

El Greco’s work took me by surprise. It seems so modern, and his influence can be seen in both cubism and expressionism. El Greco was a one off. He doesn’t seem to fit in any art school. His style was highly individual to the extent that people wondered whether he had a problem with his eyesight. His work is other worldly. He often elongated or over exaggerated his subject and used unusual colour effects. El Greco was born in Crete, but he travelled to Venice and Rome, before finally moving to Toledo, which was the capital of Spain until 1560. He was influenced by Titian, but particularly by Tintoretto.

El Greco, View of Toledo, 1596-1600

Velázquez was born into an educated literary family (a Portuguese mother and Spanish father) in Seville. but ultimately moved to Madrid where he spent his entire career in the service of King Philip IV, who was a sophisticated admirer of art. Velázquez was a famous painter at court, knighted by the King, with the Order of Santiago, and twice sent to Italy, which played an important role in shaping his art, where he came under the influence of Titian’s work. Las Meninas is thought to be Velázquez’ masterpiece.

Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656

The painting doesn’t particularly appeal to me, but Dr Gabriele Finaldi, gave a very plausible explanation of why it has become such a revered work of art. It is a large group portrait which includes Velázquez himself with the cross of the Order of Santiago on his chest and the King’s daughter. The painting is a fascinating paradox of what is shown, and what isn’t; what is said and what isn’t; what is real and what is not; a story within a story; an image within an image. Las Meninas is a manifesto for painting. It shows that for Velázquez, painting is a speculative activity, not simply mechanical.

Velázquez is also known for The Rokeby Venus, which was famously attacked and badly damaged in 1914 by the suffragette Mary Richardson, although later restored.

Week 5: Rubens and Van Dyck (Flemish art)

This week the focus was almost entirely on Rubens and Van Dyck, Rubens’ pupil. The first half of the session provided an introduction to both painters by Lucrezia Walker, and the second by Dr Chantal Brotherton-Ratcliffe, who explored the work and skill of both artists in more depth, showing us how to recognise the difference between these two artists by their brush strokes.

Rubens was described as the most successful artist who ever lived. He was extraordinarily important as a painter and was knighted by both Charles I of England and Philip IV of  Spain. He was charming, and not only a painter, but also a polyglot, businessman and diplomat. Rubens had a very happy private life, marrying 16 year old Isabella Brandt at the age of 32, and after she died marrying another 16 year old, Hélène Fourment, at the age of 53. From Antwerp, Rubens visited Rome, where he saw the work of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio, who all influenced his work. As a painter Rubens was prolific. He had a studio of about 50 assistants and was therefore able to take on large commissions and deliver them quickly. On some paintings he collaborated with Jan Brueghel the Elder who painted the backgrounds. Rubens also painted landscapes but he was known more for his paintings of fulsome women.

Rubens, Le Chapeau de Paille, 1622-25

He was strongly influenced by the work of Titian, and like Titian used thick paint on a heavily-laden brush, which gave his work a 3-dimensional sculptural feel. He loved strong colour, particularly vermillion. Later in his career, like Titian, he began to experiment with ‘less is more’, a softer, non-specific way of painting and used thinner paint.

Van Dyck was Rubens’ best pupil, very precocious and almost like a post-grad student, to the extent that it was sometimes difficult to tell their work apart. He was born to prosperous parents in Antwerp and by the age of 15 was already an accomplished artist. His father was a silk merchant, so Van Dyck was excited by fabrics, which can be seen in his paintings. Van Dyck spent most of his life working in Spain and England, where he became the leading court painter and was knighted by King Charles I, but he also visited Italy. Like Rubens he was heavily influenced by the work of Titian, and owned 19 Titians by the time he died. Van Dyck was known for his portraits.

Van Dyck, Charles I in Three Positions, 1635 or 1636

Van Dyck died at the age of 41 by which time he was painting with thinner and thinner paint to the point where the ground paint showed through.

Week 6: Dreaming in Rome

In this final week the focus was on two important French artists working in Rome in the 17th century:  Claude Lorrain (commonly known as just Claude) and Nicolas Poussin. Both these artists influenced future generations of painters. The influence of Poussin can be seen in the work of Benjamin West, David, Ingres, Delacroix, Cezanne and Picasso. The influence of Claude on Constable and particularly Turner is easily seen, to the extent that Turner, in his will, requested that the National Gallery hang two of his paintings next to two of Claude’s.

In the 17th century Rome was being revivified. The city was in ruins, but was full of vestiges of a great lost past, which artists found charming and poetic.

At this time the Cardinals were amassing art collections and there were many Papal commissions. This drew Poussin from Normandy to Rome in 1624 at the age of 30, when Rome was entering its full baroque period under Bernini. Poussin’s early work depicted mythological scenes and historical narratives, but later in his career he began to paint landscapes.

Poussin, Landscape with a Calm, 1651

Claude also finally ended up in Rome in 1628, where he too worked on landscapes, going out to paint with his friend Poussin. Both artists constructed their landscapes to lead the eye back through the paintings.

Claude, A Sea Port, 1639

Next week will see the start of Module 5 in this art history course, and will explore the 18th century (1700-1800), looking at the art of Fragonard, Watteau, David, Hogarth, Gainsborough, Stubbs and others.

Nature in education and education in Nature

The past year has seen a surge of interest in what has been called ‘reconnecting with Nature’. It is a sign of our times that it has taken a pandemic of global proportions to bring about this surge of interest and greater recognition of the importance of Nature to our lives, health and well-being.

The one thing everyone in the UK has been allowed to do during lockdown has been to exercise once a day outdoors, and many people have spoken/written about how this has helped them to reconnect with Nature for the first time in many years. Last week I attended an online event which explored this need for re-connection.

The event was organised by  Invisible Dust  – “What will our view of nature bring to the future?” in which a panel of speakers explored the following questions:

  • What changes in how we see the natural world could lead to a brighter future?
  • Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from nature, might we see ourselves as a part of it – changing how we see non-human animals and our relationship to the natural world?
  • Can we move forward positively from the COVID-19 pandemic and act to reduce future risks?
  • What can we learn from the indigenous communities that have lived in harmony with nature rather than tried to conquer it?

The panel was made up of a diverse and very interesting group of people, who were all deeply committed to exploring these questions:

Danielle Celermajer, author of Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future

Milka Chepkorir, advocate for indigenous land rights from the Sengwer community.

Usman Haque, artist-architect and creative director at Umbrellium.

Iain McGilchrist, psychiatrist and author of The Master and his Emissary

Hosted by: Jessica Sweidan, founder of Synchronicity Earth and Patron of Nature for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature

The discussion started from the premise that we are now experiencing an ecological crisis in which our relationship with Nature is broken, and this is the root of some of our greatest problems. We are removed from the consequences of our actions and numb to the loss of our connection with Nature, but the paradox is that we, as human beings, have never been more connected, to each other, to other cultures, and to other ways of living.

Whilst panel members were coming from different perspectives, they all agreed that the heart of the problem is that we now think of Nature as something separate from ourselves, an exotic ‘Other’, something we use, something we are different from and superior to. We fail to recognise and acknowledge that there is no line between human beings and Nature. As McGilchrist said, We are Nature and Nature is us; we come out of Nature and we go back into Nature. Nature is not out there around us, but in us; it is something that is always being born. Milka Chepkorir, coming from the indigenous Sengwer community of Kenya, recognised this as a symbiotic relationship, saying that for her people there is no separation between Nature and people, and that we should know that if we harm Nature, then it will harm us. Indigenous people have not lost their connection with Nature, but are having to fight to maintain it. In a rather sad indictment of our education system, Milka said that in order to get her voice heard about this she had to get a recognised academic qualification for which she had to study what she and her people already knew! At one point she said that indigenous people don’t understand why the rest of the world don’t get it. Why don’t non-indigenous communities understand that Nature is in us and we are in Nature? The question of trust was raised in answer to this. How we can become more accepting of other cultures?

All agreed that we have to change the way we think to address the problem of disconnection from Nature. Usman Haque is just starting to work on The Eden Project in London, which aims to ‘rewild’ London; this would also involve ‘rewilding’ people! What an amazing idea! By this he meant that they would try and transform people’s relationships to each other and to non-human systems, and find ways to enable people to make a visible first step, such as growing things to eat, or bee keeping. These small individual steps would hopefully then grow into larger more collective actions.

There was a lot more in this discussion than I have mentioned here, and it is well worth watching the video of the whole event, not least because it is so enjoyable and uplifting to watch.

Of course, changing the ways people think is no easy matter, as Usman Haque mentioned, and it was recognised that education would play a key role in this.

It’s interesting that a brief look at the UK National Curriculum for schools doesn’t mention Nature in the science curriculum, but rather the environment. For example, in Year 1 Pupils should use the local environment throughout the year to explore and answer questions about plants growing in their habitat. McGilchrist does not like the word environment, which he believes reinforces the idea that we humans are somehow separate from the world, and the statement above does seem to emphasise the use of Nature. Pupils throughout school do of course study ecosystems and the interdependence of organisms, but I wonder if there is enough emphasis on our place as humans within Nature rather than separate from it, and I wonder whether a simple change of language, i.e. exchanging the word environment, for the word Nature might kick-start a change in awareness. The language we use is so powerful in influencing the way we attend to the world.

There are of course many projects which are being developed in the hope of helping people to reconnect with Nature. In my local area, there is the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (part of the Eden Project North), which aims to work with local schools to develop a unique educational tool to help unite and inspire the next generation in terms of our natural history and the immense environmental challenges we face as a society. But projects such as these will need to go beyond thinking of Nature as something ‘Other’ if we are to overcome the current ecological crisis. Studying Morecambe Bay or any other aspect of Nature from a distance, or from within a walled classroom, will not foster an understanding of Nature being in us and we being in Nature. Hopefully the Morecambe Bay Curriculum project, and others like it, will involve a lot of hands-on time in Nature. One of the richest educational experiences I have ever had was a week long field trip to Seahouses (North-East England) for my ‘A’ level Biology course.

Source of photo:

This involved days of peering into rock pools, and studying every imaginable aspect of the seashore. It was magical. This experience was more than 50 years ago, but it greatly influenced my relationship with Nature, and I still have the book in which I pressed the seaweeds I collected for identification purposes at that time.

The Invisible Dust event panel members were optimistic that people haven’t lost the ability to love and feel connected with Nature. Let’s hope so.

Teaching to Transgress – bell hooks

This book by bell hooks will be discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network next week on Tuesday 16th March, 7.00 to 8.00 pm, GMT. This is an open group. Anyone can join any of the monthly discussions. For further details see –

You will notice, if you are not familiar with bell hooks’ work, that her name is written in lower case. There are two reasons for this. First Bell Hooks was her great grandmother’s name and she wanted to distinguish herself from her great grandmother who she greatly admired. Second is that she considers the substance of her books more important than who she is. By writing her name in lower case she wanted to shift attention from her identity to her ideas. bell hooks’ birth name was Gloria Jean Watkins.

Teaching to Transgress is made up of 15 chapters in which bell hooks shares her insights, strategies, and critical reflections on pedagogical practice. In the book bell hooks writes from a personal perspective as a black, female activist and intellectual feminist, about how teachers can help students to overcome the constraints of race, gender and class to achieve the gift of freedom. “I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions – a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is movement which makes education the practice of freedom.” (p.12)

bell hooks’ writing is informal, fluent and easily accessible. She writes in a variety of styles, from the academic to the conversational. The book includes two chapters written as conversations. Chapter 4 is an imagined conversation with Paulo Freire, who has greatly influenced her thinking and work, in which she asks herself questions about Freire and answers them herself. Chapter 10, Building a Teaching Community – A Dialogue, is an interview between bell hooks and her long-term friend Ron Scapp, a philosopher.

A good summary of the book has been written by Allen Cheng – And the entire book can be found as a PDF online, although the first couple of chapters are marked up with highlighted text –

Teaching to Transgress was first published in 1994, but this first paragraph from Chapter 1 on Engaged Pedagogy seems as relevant now as it ever was.

To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.

Throughout my years as student and professor, I have been most inspired by those teachers who have had the courage to transgress those boundaries that would confine each pupil to a rote, assembly-line approach to learning. Such teachers approach students with the will and desire to respond to our unique beings, even if the situation does not allow the full emergence of a relationship based on mutual recognition. Yet the possibility of such recognition is always present. (p.13)


bell hooks (1994). Teaching to Transgress. Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge

Philosophers on Education: Amélie Rorty

This collection of chapters by different authors, each on a philosopher of education, was the selected text for the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s  discussion this month.

The book includes 33 chapters, clearly far too long for a one hour discussion on zoom, so the organisers, in consultation with the group, selected seven chapters (1-4 and 25-27) for this meeting, with a view to revisiting the book at some future date. Even seven chapters seemed a lot to me since they covered Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Dewey, Marx and the first chapter on The Ruling History of Education.

The discussion usually starts with a brief introduction by either a member of the group, or an invited speaker, who has some expertise in the topic. This week this task fell to Owen Gower, Director at UK Council for Graduate Education, since the book was his choice for discussion. The books for discussion each month are voted for on Twitter by members of the group. By his own admission, Owen had his work cut out for him in pulling the seven different chapters together for discussion, but he did an impressive job. This is how he did it.

First he said he recognised three themes running through all the chapters.

  1. Educational methods
  2. Cultural influences
  3. Education and human nature

Then he broke this down a bit further for us.

Educational Methods could be identified in

Chapter 2. Socratic Education by Paul Woodruff. Through his questions Socrates shamed people into critical and consist thinking. Socrates advocated teacherless education.

Chapter 4. Aristotelian Education by C.D.C. Reeve.  Provoke powerful emotional responses to motivate learning. The need to educate the whole person.

Chapter 26. Moral Education in and after Marx by Richard. W. Miller. Tap into the loyalties needed for successful socialist revolution.

Chapter 27. Deweyan Pragmatism and American Education by Alan Ryan. All education starts with a problem. Owen wanted us to discuss whether this statement is true, but as I have noted in previous meetings, the group rarely sticks to the questions raised by the presenter!

Cultural Influences in

Chapter 3. Plato’s Counsel on Education by Zhang LoShan, a pseudonym for Amélie Rorty. (An explanation for this pseudonym is included in the notes at the end of the chapter). You can’t have a good education in a bad society. A good society is central to education. Our opinions are not independent of society. It takes a whole village to raise a child.

Chapter 25. The Past in the Present. Plato as Educator of Nineteenth-Century Britain by M. F. Burnyeat. Social norms stifle education. Education should make us critical autonomous thinkers.

Chapter 27. Deweyan Pragmatism and American Education by Alan Ryan. Education should connect the individual to society and culture.

Education and Human Nature in

Chapter 4. Aristotelian Education by C.D.C. Reeve.  Education for happiness.

Chapter 27. Deweyan Pragmatism and American Education by Alan Ryan. Human knowledge is a form of engaging with the world.

Any errors in the above notes are mine. These discussions in the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s zoom calls are difficult to keep up with, so I appreciated Owen Gower’s effort to structure this session for us. It must have been much more difficult than focussing attention on one author and book. It certainly hadn’t occurred to me that the chapters could be pulled together in this way, but I am always interested to note how the participants in these discussions, myself included, focus attention on different aspects of the text.

For me what is becoming increasingly apparent from these discussions is that (as is written at the end of Chapter 2 on Socratic Education, p.27), “Philosophy …. seems to lead nowhere but to more philosophy ”, but it is very interesting to be prompted to read all these different authors and learn more about different philosophers.

Next month the book chosen for discussion is bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. My copy should be arriving in the post today.

Art History 1500 -1600

Last week I completed Module 3 of the National Gallery’s ‘Stories of Art Online: A Modular Introduction to Art History’ course. I completed Module 2, Renaissance Art 1400-1500,  before Christmas 2020.

Whilst I know I could never be an art historian (too many facts to remember!), it has been wonderful to attend this course, listen to the extremely knowledgeable presenters (in this case, Dr Richard Stemp) and be introduced to amazing work and art history, that previously I knew very little about, during this long trying period of Covid lockdown, compounded by one of the coldest winters I can remember in recent years. Plenty of other people must feel the same, since we were told in Week 1 that more than 900 people from around the world had signed up for this course. I was so pleased to hear this, as it must be a way for the National Gallery to help keep their financial heads above water, during this time which is so difficult for anything to do with the arts.

Each week we are sent a handout about the week’s content, which includes not only the outline of content for the week, but also reference to additional resources. I particularly enjoy it when we are sent links to videos that further explain the paintings/art works that we will be introduced to. Many galleries, including the National Gallery, have freely accessible videos on their websites which are well worth watching and very enjoyable to watch. A video can zoom right in to details of a painting that you probably wouldn’t be able to see in the gallery itself, particularly if the painting is very large.

Dr Richard Stemp, who like Jo Walton, presenter for Module 2, was impressively knowledgeable about this era of art history, told us in his handout that the aim of this module was:

“.. to explore the ways in which the complex political interactions and religious developments of the 16th century influence paintings in the National Gallery. Artworks will be explored in relation to patronage – the people or organisations who paid for the paintings – and their function – whether they were intended for a public audience, religious or secular, to instruct or commemorate, to delight the eye or intrigue the mind of a private viewer.’

The course was structured over 6 weeks as follows:

  • Week 1: Religion
  • Week 2: Politics and portraiture
  • Week 3: Mythology
  • Week 4: Rivalry and collaboration
  • Week 5: Women as artists and patrons
  • Week 6: Questions of style

Each lecturer brings his/her own style, but Jo Walton and Richard Stemp were equally enthusiastically passionate about their interest in art history of the period being presented. For this module there were also some invited speakers. In Week 1, Leslie Primo explored the iconography of the black king, Balthasar, in imagery of the Adoration of the Maji. I loved this presentation and might write a different post about it and save it for posting at Christmas time. In Week 2 the course was joined by Dr Caroline Campbell, who reflected on the legacy and learnings from the 2006 National Gallery exhibition “Bellini and the East’. In Week 3 the invited guest was Michael Ohajuru, who discussed how the black female image was whitewashed from Renaissance art and in the art of the following centuries. Another different feature of this module was that each weekly handout included a glossary of terms, which was extremely useful to an art history novice like me!

And now to each of the weeks in turn. Since we were shown hundreds of slides during this module, I am going to attempt to select just one from each week, something that stood out for me and made the week memorable.

Week 1: Religion/Faith

This week focussed on the influence of the Reformation on 16th century art. Focus paintings included:

Words to remember for this period are iconoclasm (the destruction of images for political and religious reasons), and indulgences, a Catholic practice in which an indulgence could be bought as a payment for sin to reduce the time spent in purgatory, or put another way, to buy your way into heaven. This was thought to be exploitative by the Protestant Reformation.  The Catholic Reformation (also known as the Counter Reformation), was a response to the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Reformation reasserted a belief in the importance of images for worship, albeit with a change in form and content.  The Roman Catholic Church said it needed art to teach and communicate, and spending money on art demonstrated your faith. So Jan Gossaert’s amazing painting of The Adoration of the Kings survived this period of iconoclasm.

To appreciate the detail in this painting, visit it on the National Gallery’s website where you can zoom in, and from where this screenshot was taken.

Week 2: Politics and Portraiture

Art is often highly political. If you know who paid for art, you know a lot about the political landscape. One of the main ways that rulers of this period expressed their power was through portraiture. It was used to memorialise the deceased and make the absent present, representing the subject accurately in terms of appearance and their role in society. The focus paintings for this week were:

All the paintings are in the National Gallery, and the videos in the links provided are a wonderful introduction to each painting. Each painting has a story to tell; it’s difficult to choose which one to include in this post. I have decided on Christina of Denmark, even though ‘The Ambassadors’ is full of symbolism (watch the video for more information) and includes an example of ‘anamorphosis’ (a technique in which the artist presents a distorted view of an object which can only be seen if the viewer looks at the painting from a particular angle – in this case the skull in the foreground of the painting). But Christina is not only beautiful, her story is also wonderful. She was considered as a possible bride for Henry VIII, after he had divorced Catherine of Aragon and beheaded Anne Boleyn. Hans Holbein was dispatched to Brussels to meet Christina and paint her portrait for Henry to consider, given there was no photography in those days. But as you can see from her portrait she was very self-possessed and is supposed to have said “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.” In other words, there was no way she was going to marry Henry VIII.

This is a screenshot of part of the painting. The painting is a full-length portrait.

Week 3: Mythology

The Renaissance was a period when artists and thinkers returned to the myths of ancient Greece and Rome for their creative inspiration. Focus paintings for this week were:

Significant in this period is the work of Titian, in particular the series of six large paintings (poesie) he created for King Philip II of Spain, which were the focus of a National Gallery Exhibition that had to close early because of the Covid 19 pandemic. In an article about the exhibition in The Art Newspaper, Ben Luke writes:

Much is made of the erotic charge in the abundance of female flesh of the poesie, often seen to be at odds with Philip’s piousness. But as a young prince and king, his sexual appetites were well documented. Yet [Matthias] Wivel argues that the power of Titian’s series is not just sensual but sensory: they “appeal not only to our sense of sight and obviously our sense of touch but also smell and sound. He’s sort of a synaesthetic painter at this point. And the Europa [The Rape of Europa]  is a great example of it: you can feel the dampness of the air.”

There is a good BBC introduction to this exhibition – Titian Behind Closed Doors. I don’t know how long this programme will be available for. There is also an interesting short film on the National Gallery’s YouTube channel about how new frames were made for the Titian paintings.

Lucas Cranach’s work also focusses on classical narratives and mythological subjects. Here are two examples of his work.

On completing this week of the course I realised that paintings that focus on mythological imagery are not my thing, however obviously skilled and great the artist.

Week 4: Rivalry and Collaboration

This was an interesting week, which explored the collaboration between Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo (see Matthias Wivel’s Introduction to the 2017 National Gallery Exhibition – Michelangelo and Sebastiano). It also explored the rivalry between them, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael.

Sebastiano was from Venice, along with Titian, but Titian was younger and, at this time, not yet established as a great artist. In Rome, where Sebastiano travelled to, Michelangelo’s position as the greatest artist was being challenged by the younger Raphael, not only because of Raphael’s charm and skill (Michelangelo was seemingly a bit of a grouch!), but also because Raphael was thought to ‘steal’ Michelangelo’s ideas and techniques, or put more politely, to be a sponge, absorbing the ideas and transforming them into his own. There is even a story that Raphael managed to get access to Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine ceiling and ‘stole’ some of the unusual figurative postures used by Michelangelo, to incorporate in his own work, which he made public before work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling was completed.

Focus paintings for this week were:

At this time most works were collaborations of one form or another. The Raising of Lazarus is an example of the collaboration between Sebastiano del Piombo and Michelangelo. Sebastiano’s strength was as a skilled oil painter and colourist. At this point Sebastiano was more skilled than Titian and Raphael. Michelangelo at this time could draw like nobody else and so realised that by collaborating with Sebastiano they could be a match for Raphael.

The Raising of Lazarus (Sebastiano del Piombo)

In this painting the drawings for the figure of Lazarus and some of the other main male figures (but not Christ) were provided by Michelangelo.

Week 5: Women as Artists and Patrons

I also enjoyed this week. It’s not hard to recognise that for women to become artists, or even patrons of the arts, would have been a real achievement in the 16th century. At the time, the role for women in society was domesticity – they should stay at home, or go into the church. If they went out at all, they should keep their eyes on the ground, or look admiringly at their husbands (shades of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and  The Testaments). But some women did manage to break through this oppression. They were either women who had been sent into convents to become nuns (fathers couldn’t afford dowries for all their daughters!), or they were daughters of artists. Women could become patrons if they were wealthy widows and had no sons in majority, or were nuns in convents.

There were a lot of lovely focus paintings for this week:

It was quite moving to think of how these amazing women managed to create enduring art in a time when women were not talked about, were frowned upon for painting self-portraits as it was considered vain, couldn’t become apprenticed to a male master artist, because it would mean going to live with him,  and couldn’t, in normal circumstances travel. But Sofonisba Anguissola did. She was one of five daughters whose father ensured that four of them could paint. She travelled to Rome on her own and met Michelangelo. Later she became an official course painter to Philip II of Spain. Here is a painting of hers of her sisters playing chess.

Week 6: A Question of Style

In this final week I learned three new terms in relation to the question of style.

1. Contrapposto – ‘an asymmetrical arrangement of the human figure in which the line of the arms and shoulders contrasts with, while balancing, those of the hips and legs’.

2. Mannerism – ‘Where High Renaissance art emphasizes proportion, balance, and ideal beauty. Mannerism exaggerates such qualities, often resulting in compositions that are asymmetrical or unnaturally elegant. The style is notable for its intellectual sophistication as well as its artificial (as opposed to naturalistic) qualities. This artistic style privileges compositional tension and instability rather than the balance and clarity of earlier Renaissance painting.’

3. Sprezzatura – studied carelessness so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it

Focus paintings for this week were:

Bronzino’s ‘The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence” is an example of ‘mannerism’. You can see it in the dramatic convoluted postures. The content is also convoluted.

Mannerism is all about exaggeration. It takes art out of the everyday. It is not naturalistic. Once you become aware of it, you can see that a number of recognised artists have used this style, including Michelangelo.

I am now looking forward to Module 4, which will start on February 24th. The tutor for this module will be Lucrezia Walker, who will introduce us to the work of Caravaggio, Velázquez and Vermeer.

The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man

This final thinking essay in Hannah Arendt’s book, Between Past and Future, was added to the second edition in 1963. The essay asks us to think about how science and technology transform the human condition. Arendt starts the chapter by asking the question…

“Has man’s conquest of space increased or diminished his stature?”

Inspired by the humanist’s concern with man, she addresses this question to laymen rather than scientists.

The assumption is that if man can conquer space then this must increase his stature, but Arendt’s concern is that science emancipates itself from our humanistic concerns and is at war with common sense (p.260). For Arendt, science makes us distrust our senses and replaces a common sense objective world view with a subjective world view, and because science undermines our senses we begin to see the world ever more subjectively; we treat objects as things that are disposable and changeable by man, and see the world as humanly made. Whilst this view increases the stature of man, it also diminishes his stature because we become objects in the world and study ourselves. This is especially the case when we begin to see ourselves from the Archimedean point (p.272).

So the answer to Arendt’s question about man’s stature is not a scientific activity, but requires a humanist approach. This she discussed in her essay on The Crisis in Culture (p.221/2), where she quoted Cicero as having said, “I prefer before heaven to go astray with Plato rather than hold true views with his opponents.” She explains this as follows:

“What Cicero in fact says is that for the true humanist neither the verities of the scientist nor the truth of the philosophy nor the beauty of the artist can be absolutes; the humanist, because he is not a specialist, exerts a faculty of judgment and taste which is beyond which each specialty imposes on us.” (p.222)

Does the conquest of space make it more difficult or potentially impossible for humans to remain free to make judgements of taste, so that they can choose friendship over a determinative truth?  Is it true that we live in a world that only scientists understand? She writes:

“…. notions such as life, or man, or science, or knowledge are pre-scientific by definition, and the question is whether or not the actual development of science which has led to the conquest of terrestrial space and to the invasion of the space of the universe has changed these notions to such an extent that they no longer make sense. For the point of the matter is, of course, that modern science – no matter what its origins and original goals – has changed and reconstructed the world we live in so radically that it could be argued that the layman and the humanist, still trusting their common sense and communicating in everyday language, are out of touch with reality; ….” (p.262/3)

Arendt believes that the scientist has left behind not only the layman, but also a part of himself and his own power of human understanding. We can create machines which do things that we can’t do and which we can’t fully understand; that are beyond our human understanding and that defy “description in every conceivable way of human language…” (p.265). This challenges our earthliness. Arendt thinks that we won’t be able to keep up with this mechanical world of scientists and technicians (the latter she calls ‘plumbers’) who share the conviction that the human world is not the real world, that the earth is simply something to be understood rather than our home, and that there’s a truer world, which for scientists is a question of knowledge, and for plumbers a quest of a will to power, a quest to change the world.

We increasingly live in a world in which all objects are humanly created. We rarely touch something that is not man-made and even if it is natural, it’s only natural in that we’ve made the choice to let it be. When we now encounter the world we don’t encounter the object we only encounter ourselves.

“The astronaut, shot into outer space and imprisoned in his instrument-ridden capsule where each actual physical encounter with his surroundings would spell immediate death, night well be taken as the symbolic incarnation of Heisenberg’s man – the man who will be the less likely ever to meet anything but himself and man-made things the more ardently he wishes to eliminate all anthropocentric considerations from his encounter with the non-human world around him.” (p.272)

This life in a man-made world on the one hand gives us grandeur and dignity, but on the other hand we lose our capacity to make humanist, as opposed to scientific, judgements. Do we want to live in a world where everything we see and touch is a human creation, including ourselves, or do we believe that there are certain parts of the human world, that as thinking human beings, we should agree to leave untouched? We are increasingly living in a world removed from nature, such that our earthliness, our freedom, and our spontaneity have become increasingly less meaningful and our stature in the world is increasingly diminished.


To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz .

  • Arendt, H. (1961). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

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Truth and Politics: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: Truth and Politics

In this chapter/essay Arendt explores questions around truth, facts and lies and their relation to politics, politicians and truth-tellers. Her thinking is as relevant today as it was when she originally published the essay in the New Yorker in 1967. I will quote her footnote, on the first page of the chapter in full, as it explains where she is coming from in this writing.

“This essay was caused by the so-called controversy after the publication of “Eichmann in Jerusalem” [for which Arendt received a lot of flak – see]. Its aim is to clarify two different, though interconnected, issues of which I had not been aware before and whose importance seemed to transcend the occasion. The first concerns the question of whether it is always legitimate to tell the truth – did I believe without qualification in “Fiat veritas, et pereat mundus?” The second arose through the amazing amount of lies used in the “controversy” – lies about what I had written, on the one hand, and about the facts I had reported, on the other. The following reflections try to come to grips with both issues. They may also serve as an example of what happens to a highly topical subject when it is drawn into that gap between past and future which is perhaps the proper habitat of all reflections.” (p.223)

It’s extraordinary to think that this was written in pre-internet and pre social media days!

Arendt recognises that there are different kinds of truths. In this essay she focusses on factual truth (so not logical, historical, political, philosophical, mathematical, rational or other kinds of truths), and the distinction between facts and lies. How do we experience factual truth as unique individuals and how do we share these experiences with the world? What do we do when someone attacks our world, our perception of reality? How do we form opinions and strengthen our own opinions, to then take them into the public realm?

In the modern era factual truth is under attack; lying is eroding the common fabric of society, but truth and politics have always been on bad terms with each other. Since the beginning of political theory, truthfulness has never been regarded as a political virtue, and lying has always been regarded as a necessary, justifiable and reliable tool in the political realm.

Why do we value lying in the political realm and what does this mean for the nature of political truth?

Truth telling is a dangerous position and truth-tellers, such as Socrates, who died for telling factual truths, stand alone outside the public and political realm, and the realm of human affairs (p.255). Arendt distinguishes between philosophers, who pursue truth by engaging in dialogue, and politicians, who use rhetoric and the art of persuasion. She tries to unpick and understand the differences between truth, fact and opinion.

“Philosophical truth, when it enters the market place, [the market place of ideas] changes its nature and becomes opinion, because [of] a shifting not merely from one kind of reasoning to another, but from one way of human existence to another …”

….“Factual truth, on the contrary, is always related to other people: it concerns events and circumstance in which many are involved; it is established by witnesses and depends upon testimony; it exists only to the extent that it is spoken about, even it if occurs in the domain of privacy. It is political by nature …” (p.233)

Factual truth is fragile because the world of human affairs is always changing. Facts are the outcome of us living together. When power and politics chip away at facts with lies, this destroys the world that we share. Arendt is concerned that factual truth is not going to survive the onslaught of power in the modern era. 

Factual truth is always a question of plurality and is political by nature. To share our experiences of the world we need a common language, a common understanding of the facts. The world is something we make together. Plurality is important in the formation of political opinion.

“Facts and opinions, though they must be kept apart, are not antagonistic to each other; they belong to the same realm. Facts inform opinions, and opinions, inspired by different interests and passions, can differ widely and still be legitimate as long as they respect factual truth. Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute.” (p.234)

The more people we talk to, the stronger our reasoning becomes. We have to enter into the public realm, make public use of our private opinions, and encounter other opinions that are not our own, but expressing one’s political opinion has become a dangerous business. We are met with increasing hostility and less dialogue.

Arendt then moves on to ask the question, How do we form political opinions?

“Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them….. The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion.” (p.237)

Forming political opinions is an intellectual thinking exercise about the relationship between truth and politics. We don’t blindly adopt viewpoints and it’s not just a question of empathy. We have to maintain and protect the integrity of our thinking and our internal thought partner. The quality of our opinions depends on the degree of their impartiality. We have to be able to discern for ourselves, different arguments and opinions.

“In matters of opinion, but not in matters of truth, our thinking is truly discursive, running, as it were, from place to place, from one part of the world to another, through all kinds of conflicting views, until it finally ascends from these particularities to some impartial generality.” (p.238)

The opposite of factual truth in modernity is the lie, the deliberate falsehood. The modern lie is not just about hiding the truth or deceiving others, but is about mass manipulation of fact and the remaking of the world. Consistent lying pulls the ground out from under our feet and provides no other ground on which to stand (p.253). We lose the capacity for thought; our ability to judge is under attack. Truth is always powerless when it comes to clash with power, but although power can destroy truth, it can never actually replace truth. You cannot eradicate truth. Truths reassert themselves.

“Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”  (p.259)

In the modern era there is the possibility that politics can eradicate truth, but truth is an existential pre-condition for human life. Human life is not possible without truth. Mass manipulation of facts destroys truth and reality wobbles.

“The experience of a trembling wobbling motion of everything we rely on for our sense of direction and reality is among the most common and most vivid experiences of men under totalitarian rule.” (p.253)

How can we prevent this and preserve a non-political realm; preserve an outside of politics affirmation of truth telling, an affirmation of spaces in which truth will be told?  There are four possibilities:

  • The solitude of the philosopher
  • The impartiality of the historian or the judge
  • The isolation of the scientist
  • The independence of the fact-finder, witness, reporter

What holds up the world is not politics, but the humanities. We need storytellers and artists to teach us how to reconcile with reality. Truth has lost the war with opinion, but the war is still raging with factual truth. It is now easy to deny fact, and when facts are unreliable we lose faith in the world. You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts. Facts need agreement and consent. Factual truth comes into existence when men get together.

In the last section of this chapter, Arendt writes:

“To look upon politics from the perspective of truth, as I have done here, means to take one’s stand outside the political realm. This standpoint is the standpoint of the truthteller, who forfeits his position – and, with it, the validity of what he has to say – if he tries to interfere directly in human affairs and to speak the language of persuasion or of violence.” (p.255)

I am aware that I have used a lot of quotes from Arendt’s book in writing about this chapter. For me her words are powerful and so relevant to the political situation which we experience today, that they are best quoted in full.


To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz  and Samantha Hill.

  • Arendt, H. (1961). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

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The Crisis in Culture: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: The Crisis in Culture. Its Social and Its Political Significance

Hannah Arendt starts this chapter (Chapter 6) with the comment that the new phenomenon of mass culture, which is a culture of mass society, is of growing concern among intellectuals, to the extent that she sees a crisis in culture. She discusses this problem of a crisis in culture in terms of its social and political significance, in what I have come to realise is her usual thought-provoking way, challenging the reader to think in the gap between past and future.

For Arendt, culture helps to create the world. This humanly created world is made up of durable, lasting, non-consumable things that occupy our attention and make our world meaningful and lasting; things such as monuments, paintings, poems. The threat to this enduring and lasting world comes from the rise of consumerism and mass society, where people have excess time for leisure and entertainment, and the means to purchase this. The more society consumes cultural goods, the more it transforms culture into entertainment. The crisis in culture in terms of its social significance began when society started to monopolise culture, and people wanted to use culture for their own purposes and to increase their social status (p.198). The most effective way to do this is to loot the history of culture, and to make things accessible to the masses not just by reproducing them, as in printing many copies of a book, which Arendt is not opposed to, but by changing them, as in making films of a book, or translating a book, such that the original, lasting, durable book is in danger of being lost. Arendt writes that we risk losing these lasting cultural objects which give a sense of durability and continuity in our world by changing them and turning them into entertainment (reduced to kitsch in reproduction, p.204); we lose the sense of taking care of our world. This threat to the enduring and lasting world, which is how Arendt explains culture, is for her, the social significance of the crisis of culture.

“The point is that a consumer’s society cannot possibly know how to take care of a world and the things which belong exclusively to the space of worldly appearances, because its central attitude toward all objects, the attitude of consumption, spells ruin to everything it touches.” (p.208)

“This earthly home becomes a world in the proper sense of the word only when the totality of fabricated things is so organized that it can resist the consuming life process of the people dwelling in it, and this outlast them. Only where such survival is assured do we speak of culture, and only where we are confronted with things which exist independently of all utilitarian and functional references, and whose quality remains always the same do we speak of works of art.” (p.206)

Moving on to a discussion of the political significance of the crisis of culture, Arendt writes:

“Generally speaking, culture indicates that the public realm, which is rendered politically secure by men of action, offers its space of display to those things whose essence it is to appear and to be beautiful. In other words, culture indicates that art and politics, their conflicts and tensions notwithstanding, are interrelated and even mutually dependent. …….. The common element connecting art and politics is that they both are phenomena of the public world.” (p.215)

The political significance of the crisis of culture, comes, for Arendt from a loss of judgement. Culture, and to be cultivated, involves judgement. In all political judgement there is the need for agreement, a common sense of what is beautiful. To have a political culture we have to see the world in a common way, and have a common sense. “Judging is one, if not the most, important activity in which this sharing-the-world-with-others comes to pass.” (p.218). We have to produce this through acts of judgement that woo (Kant) and persuade us that the judgements are meaningful and important.  Political judgements are aesthetic not just logical; they are judgements of taste, not rooted in absolute truth. They humanise culture. For political judgement we must put ourselves in the space of many perspectives to create a public political common sense.

The loss of judgement equates to the loss of ability to make common sense (i.e. sense that is commonly held between people) judgements and, as such, is a threat to the lasting, durable, common nature of our society. Political culture means that we make a judgement to embrace a common truth, not because it’s true, but because it is who we are, and it unites us as a people (see Chapter 7 Truth and Politics). Politics for Arendt is not about truth, but about opinions and judgements. The crisis in political culture is when we put truth above friendship, above commonality, above respect. Politics requires fidelity to friendship over truth. Today we often see that both sides in a political argument claim they are speaking the truth, when actually they are arguing over judgements about opinion.  Opinions are not truth. Certain opinions over time can become common sense in a political society. They are not true in a logical sense, but become common truths in our world. Arendt calls these prejudices, which can sometimes be taken as a political truth.

“Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken in it, as well as how it is to look henceforth, what kind of things are to appear in it.” (p. 219/20)

Hannah Arendt’s concern is with worldliness; to give the world lasting durability. She places value on worldliness because there is a certain humanity to a world that is immortal. Part of what it means to be human is to belong to a world in which you can act in public in ways that matter. The crisis in culture matters. Culture is those goods that all of us come to recognise as worth preserving. The rise of mass society and multi-cultural society makes this process harder, politically and socially, and may well no longer be possible.

As with all the chapters in this book, this has been a fascinating chapter to engage with and think about. The irony ….  that I am reading a translation of Hannah Arendt’s book, that I watched the film Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta last weekend, and that I have found the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College video discussion on this chapter very thought provoking …. is not lost on me! I have relied on resources other than Arendt’s original work to engage with her ideas, the very action that she claims is leading to a crisis in culture.


To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz .

  • Arendt, H. (1961). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

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The Crisis in Education: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: The Crisis in Education

The focus of this essay/thinking exercise, Chapter 5 in Hannah Arendt’s book, Between Past and Future, is the crisis of education in America. This she says has become an important factor in politics (incomparably more important than in other countries), because of the difficulty of ‘melting together’ diverse ethnic groups, which can only be accomplished through schooling, so that English, and what it means to be an American, can be learned by all groups. In America education is seen as a political activity to make a better world, but Arendt thinks this is dangerous and that education should be kept separate from politics.

“Education can play no part in politics, because in politics we always have to deal with those who are already educated. Whoever wants to educate adults really wants to act as their guardian and prevent them from political activity [i.e. wants to brainwash them – see Chapter 3, What is Authority?]. Since one cannot educate adults, the word “education” has an evil sound in politics; there is a pretence of education, when the real purpose is coercion without the use of force.”(p.173/4)

Arendt starts this chapter by writing:

“… no great imagination is required to detect the dangers of a constantly progressing decline of elementary standards throughout the entire school system.” (p.170)

She connects the crisis of education to the crisis of authority, which she has written about in Chapter 3 under the title ‘What is Authority?’ and also to the loss of tradition, which she writes about in Chapter 1, ‘Tradition and the Modern Age’.

“The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition.” (p.191)

“That means, however, that not just teachers and educators, but all of us, in so far as we live in one world together with our children and with young people, must take toward them an attitude radically different from the one we take toward one another. We must decisively divorce the realm of education from the others, most of all from the realm of public, political life, in order to apply to it alone a concept of authority and an attitude toward the past which are appropriate to it but have no general validity and must not claim a general validity in the world of grown-ups.” (p.191/2)

In addition to authority and tradition, Arendt also thinks equality is an important issue in American education. She points out that the UK system of education as meritocracy leads to an oligarchy. This she says contradicts the principle of equality, but, she writes, equality can only be achieved at the cost of teachers’ authority and the progress of gifted students (p.177).

According to Arendt there have been three basic assumptions, all connected to the loss of authority, that have led to the crisis.

  1. That there exists a child’s world in which children are autonomous. Arendt says that children cannot be autonomous, either from the adult world, or from their own group.
  2. Teaching is emancipated from the material to be taught. “A teacher, so it was thought, is a man who can simply teach anything; his training is in teaching, not in the mastery of any particular subject.” (p.179).
  3. You can know and understand only what you have done yourself, and as such, doing is substituted for learning, and the inculcation of skills is considered more important than the normal prerequisites of a standard curriculum.

All of this raises two questions for Arendt.

  • What is the essence of education?
  • What is the true reason for the abandonment of common sense in education? i.e. that we know what we are teaching.

Arendt writes that education is about the world and education is about life.

“Thus the child, the subject of education, has for the educator a double aspect: he is new in the world that is strange to him and he is in the process of becoming, he is a new human being and he is a becoming human being. This double aspect is by no means self-evident and it does not apply to the animal forms of life; it corresponds to a double relationship, the relationship to the world on the one hand and to life on the other.” (p.182)

Educators cannot be non-authoritarian. They must protect the life of the child and protect the humanly built world. Their qualification is to know the world and to take responsibility for it, such that they allow young people to grow into the world and renew and change it, but also such that they protect the world. Education should in some sense be conservative (in the sense of conservation); it should cherish and protect “the child against the world, and the world against the child, the new against the old, and the old against the new.” (p.188)

The essence of education is natality, the fact that human beings are born into the world (p.171). Each new generation grows into an old world, that already exists, and it is the role of teachers to prepare children for the world of the adult, when they will be responsible for changing the world. But children are not just undersized adults. The focus should be on teaching about the world as it is,  in all its plurality, rather than what we want it to be. Children should not be indoctrinated. Education should be both conservative (conserving the world as it is) and revolutionary (allowing for change and the new).

“Education is the point at which we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young would be inevitable.

And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” (p.193)


To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz .

  • Arendt, H. (1961). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

Source of image: