Humanities

Why "Game of Thrones" shouldn't be used in an effort to recruit future medievalists (essay)

In May, Olivia B. Waxman reported for Time magazine on a fall 2017 class to be taught at Harvard University. The class is called The Real Game of Thrones: From Modern Myths to Medieval Models and will be collaboratively taught by Sean Gilsdorf, a medieval historian, and Racha Kirakosian, a specialist in German studies and religion. Waxman’s short article is part of a veritable media avalanche readying us for the beginning of season seven of the successful HBO series July 16. After all, GoT airs in more than 170 countries, has won more Emmys than any other prime-time series and is simply “the world’s most popular show” ever.

With their field suffering from the significant downward drift in student interest for humanities disciplines in the last decade, some medievalists have been eager to embrace the exceptional popularity of GoT. This summer’s International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds in Great Britain, for example, featured a replica of the famous Iron Throne from the series. More seriously, in a 2015 report on a meeting about the career chances of young medievalists, Lisa Fagin Davis, the executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, summarized her colleagues’ (albeit anecdotal) claims that shows like GoT may well have increased undergraduate demand for medieval studies courses. Confident in the appeal of her area of specialty as well as her colleagues’ qualities as classroom teachers, she stated, “We all know that once we get them in the door, they will want to be medievalists.”

The instructors of the fall 2017 Harvard seminar, who are similarly outspoken about their class as a “recruitment tool” for medieval studies and the humanities, tell us what they intend to do once they have lured the undergraduates “in the door”: to demonstrate how the TV show “echoes and adapts, as well as distorts the history and culture of the ‘medieval world’ of Eurasia from c. 400 to 1500 CE.”

I have two objections to this approach: first of all, I don’t think that our most noble goal as educators should be the survival of our own discipline. Such an attitude may have been acceptable during the pioneer days of installing the humanities at the newly reformed universities of the late 19th century. And even then, the likes of Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche accused humanities scholars of “being of use only to themselves” while scholars of law, theology and medicine remained connected with the general public by producing judges, lawyers, priests and medical doctors. Today, we understand too much about the constructed nature of historical periods and academic disciplines not to realize that the Middle Ages may be, as Nancy Partner once aptly put it, an “amoebic construct justified by nothing firmer than the uneven thinning out and eventual demise of Roman provincial government in Western Europe for a beginning, and, at the other end, the self-congratulating pronouncements of a few Italian intellectuals” who maintained they “definitely wrote better Latin than anyone who had lived since Cicero.”

My second objection against turning GoT into a “gateway drug” for making future medievalists is that neither the TV show nor George R. R. Martin’s narrative is really situated in “the ‘medieval world’ of Eurasia from c. 400 to 1500 CE.” True, Martin has claimed that the fictional societies he created are “strongly grounded in history” and meant to serve as a corrective against what he calls the “Disneyland Middle Ages” abounding with “princes, princesses and knights in shining armor.” However, unlike the similarly gritty anti-Disney series The Last Kingdom (BBC, 2015) or Vikings (History, 2013), which fictionalize identifiable historical persons, eras, events and regions, GoT is completely devoid of such authenticating anchors. Instead, it offers a world that is self-contained, with its own geography, languages, cultures and distinct nonhistorical temporality -- a place entirely “neo,” so to speak. Rather than creating traditional kinds of historical authenticity and authority, it engages in a myriad of cultural references that have a vaguely medieval feel (by the way, I think it’s a premodern feel, because the show also echoes the Wars of the Roses and imperial Rome).

GoT, thus, presents a simulacrum of the medieval -- neither an original nor the copy of an original. The most prominent precursor for this “neo” world is, of course, the one created by J. R. R. Tolkien, whose characters, plots and themes, infused as they originally were by Tolkien’s own academic study of the Middle Ages, now independently and contingently populate thousands of computer games and other neomedievalist cultural productions.

If I am right about GoT’s neomedievalist core, applying the traditional methods of literary studies, folklore or history may not be particularly effective at helping students make sense of it. The Harvard instructors, for example, seem to place particular emphasis on demonstrating to their students the epistemological superiority of original medieval texts and artifacts. As one of them explains, “When I read medieval verse epics with my students, they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s like in Game of Thrones.’ No, if anything at all, it’s the other way around. Isn’t it partly our job [as professors] to use that interest and go deeper?”

Going deeper here means, in a troublingly originalist sense, that including GoT in a college classroom should serve to identify a contemporary production’s distinct sources and analogues in medieval history, literature, religion and legend. The goal of the serious medievalist seems to be to move swiftly from the reel to the real Middle Ages, to abandon the shadowy postmodern representations of medieval culture to focus on medieval culture’s own self-understandings. The latter, although of course also highly subjective, seem to offer more truth value by virtue of being “old” (and within the instructor’s area of expertise).

Please don’t get me wrong: I do not advocate against medievalists’ involvement in reading and critiquing GoT. Quite the opposite. And I do not advocate against reading GoT against the backdrop of medieval sources and analogues. However, that can only be the beginning. After all, none of the main causes advanced to account for GoT’s popularity (attractive world building, thriller-fiction pacing, complex characters, sexposition, bait-and-switch plot, escapist fantasy, intricate power play, clever play with archetypes, diverse female characters, guilt-free barbarism and violence, Sopranos-like family drama) is exclusively related to medieval culture.

Clearly, an impactful cultural phenomenon like GoT deserves to be read as a self-standing cultural artifact, not as a derivative of its potential medieval models or a pretext for sustaining an academic discipline. So far, too often, medievalists have shown a narrowly parasitic relationship with medievalist and neomedievalist cultural productions. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1983), Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale (2001), J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (1997-2007) or Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) were a) used mainly to show the continued relevance of medieval studies and b) subjected to the same binary academic reception: What’s authentic and nonauthentic; what distorts history, and what doesn’t?

Instead of such an uninspiring approach, we should rather ask, why do our societies continually seek to connect with their premodern roots, consciously or unconsciously? What imagined aspects of premodern culture continually attract reinvention, recreation, re-enactment and re-present-ation, and why? And how does the centuries-long reception of premodern texts drive the work of contemporary artists, writers and scholars? I predict that answering these more complex questions will better demonstrate the value the humanities add to a college education.

Richard Utz is professor and chair in the School of Literature, Media and Communication at Georgia Tech and Johann von Spix Visiting Professor at the University of Bamberg, Germany.

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Questioning assumptions about the value of art history (essay)

“If you are going to study 16th-century French art, more power to you. I support the arts … but you are not going to get a job," declared Sam Clovis, Donald Trump’s campaign co-chair in an interview last May. Clovis was outlining the would-be president’s education policy, and art history served as a prime example of the kind of major that student loans, he argued, should not underwrite.

Since that interview, Trump has been elected the 45th president of the United States and, ironically -- or perhaps not -- his administration has been embroiled in more than its share of image-based controversies. For weeks following the inauguration, Trump and Press Secretary Sean Spicer attempted to explain why photographs of the National Mall appeared to reflect lower attendance at the event than the president perceived, or hoped, to be the case.

On Jan. 28, a day after Trump issued an executive order prohibiting refugees from Syria and individuals from six other countries from entering the United States, his daughter Ivanka posted a photo on Instagram of herself and husband Jared Kushner dressed to the nines for a black-tie event -- a gesture that earned her comparisons to Marie Antoinette. More recently, an image of Kellyanne Conway kneeling on a couch in the Oval Office quickly overshadowed the photo opportunity she was ostensibly documenting: the president’s meet and greet with leaders from the nation’s historically black colleges and universities.

In the face of the many aspects of the Trump administration that warrant attention, Clovis’s distant and passing remark about art history may seem inconsequential. But exploring the assumptions behind it actually offers a lot of insight into the administration’s stream of visual foibles and the way a liberal arts education prepares one to live and work in a world suffused by images.

This isn’t the first time art history has taken a hit in debates about the value of a liberal arts education. In 2014, President Obama famously told a room full of GE employees in Wisconsin, “I promise you folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

Both Clovis’s and Obama’s comments betray the belief that art history is an elitist and insular enterprise. It enables you to appreciate the finer things in life -- expensive objects you might see at a museum, but could never afford to own, or things you might discuss “at a cocktail party” (the backhanded compliment of all backhanded compliments to an art historian). In his response to art history professor Ann Collins Johns’s criticism of his remarks in Wisconsin, Obama said the art history class he took in high school “has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.”

Art can, of course, alert you to the beauties of the world. I recently photographed some bright flowers seen, with difficultly, through a frosted window of an old church because they reminded me of pastels by the turn-of-the-20th-century French artist Odilon Redon. Without that point of reference, I might not have seen the flowers as a mark of the thriving community the old building still seems to foster, or I might have overlooked the site altogether.

But art history has also documented and been witness to and participant in some of the world’s greatest injustices. An introductory art history course would be remiss if it didn’t address 19th-century Spanish artist Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 in Madrid, which depicts French soldiers executing Spanish freedom fighters in the wake of the popular revolt against Joseph Napoleon, whose brother had recently installed him as king of Spain. In my introductory class, we also talk about 18th-century French artist Antoine Watteau and the ways his elegant and lighthearted paintings portrayed -- but also abetted -- the aristocratic indulgences that would ultimately bring about the Revolution.

More recently, contemporary artist Kara Walker’s installations of black paper silhouettes have become a staple of classes in African-American art, American art and contemporary art. Applied directly to the museum or gallery wall, her antebellum characters engage in graphic sexual and violent acts, sending up genteel white culture -- from the Southern plantation to the modern museum -- and the ways in which it has sustained, enabled and promulgated racist ideas.

Art history is not, as Clovis’s and Obama’s remarks imply, a litany of obscure facts about artists’ lives, a catalog of auction records or the categorization of styles. It is about representation. It asks who or what is depicted, how, where and why -- questions central to the most pressing political and social issues in the United States today. Racial profiling, transgender rights and immigration, to name a few, are all about equal rights and the ways in which they are enforced or thwarted on the basis of visual cues and popular perceptions. To study art history is to learn the ways in which images -- from 16th-century French paintings to contemporary memes -- wield power, shape identity and construct who we are as well as what we think about other people.

Of course, undergraduates (and their parents) as well as graduate students are right to think about their career prospects, and should be encouraged to do so. But one of the many things art history and, indeed, the liberal arts teach us is that professional success and personal growth are not as mutually exclusive as Clovis’s comments suggest. They are both premised upon recognizing and appreciating how things might look to someone else. In that sense, based on the photographs that have swirled around the current administration, art history may have its place in our world, after all.

Nika Elder is a visiting assistant professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of Florida.

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