Interview with Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis speaks at a public lecture via Zoom on March 25, 2020.

On March 25, 2020, the Buckley Program hosted a public lecture with Michael Lewis on the topic “Art History at Yale.” Michael J. Lewis teaches modern architecture and American art at Williams College, and he is the architecture critic for the Wall Street Journal. Professor Lewis is also the author of the Commentary article “Yale’s Art Department Commits Suicide”. The transcript of this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kevin Xiao: Professor Lewis, thank you for agreeing to do an interview with us. I wanted to start with your Wall Street Journal article from this past December with the title “The Decade in Architecture: Strutting Structures Soaring in Triumph.” I saw that you noted, from a Yale symposium in 2014, that architects had lost their appetite for imaginative speculation about the future. I wanted to ask you what you thought the main cause or driving motivation of this is. In the article, you noted that a focus almost exclusively on environmentally responsible design might be contributing to it. However, do you think there’s anything that architects and artists in this coming decade can do to work on improving the architecture and vision for the next few years?

Michael Lewis: Yeah. That’s a very good question.

Everybody thinks in his own field, that they do their job better or more admirably or more imaginatively; they can fix the world. I think there’s a bit of narcissism in that. Architecture moves along with society; of all the arts, architecture is the one that the client determines. You can go home and write a poem or a play or a symphony, but in architecture, nothing happens until the client shows up. Architecture is very responsive to society. And I think what this shows is a great lack of cultural confidence in our society. The architects who were those visionaries that the article talked about, those speculators, were thinking responsibly about their duty to all of society. They shared the belief that you had an obligation to your society to make it better. It is really atrophied, everywhere, and architecture is just a peculiar manifestation of that. I think that’s a big issue.

Mathis Bitton: I wanted to move directly to the reasons behind your position on the scrapping of Yale’s classic art history course. What do you see as the core thing that is being lost here?

ML: The core thing is this: the perfection of the course in a way that reflects all the tendencies and trends of our history today is something that will make for very adept graduate students for the job market. But it excludes the other 95% of the students in the class, who do not want to be art historians, but who want to know why art matters, and what it has to say to them. That is the problem. It is an abdication of the duty to society at large, in exchange for guarding the professional silo.

MB: Among the proposals floating around the Yale Art History department has been the idea that the course could come back in another form, which we would call “Introduction to Western Art,” and which would be taken in conjunction with other art history courses focused on other artistic traditions. It would also not be a requirement of the art history major. Were Yale to reintroduce it as an optional course along those lines, would that be a satisfactory substitute? 

Further, would you accept an “Introduction to Western Art” that specifically chooses to adopt a critical approach of the Western canon? I am thinking of a course that would examine the political and historical implications of artworks, e.g. evaluating Gaugin in relation to his relationship to, say, colonialism. 

ML: I don’t teach it at Yale. I’m an outsider. I can imagine that it is none of my business to have an opinion about it, but I do have an opinion about it. As it happens, I think it’s a big mistake. The problem with teaching the course from what you call a “critical” point of view is that you take away the one intrinsic thing that art education offers, which is the study of form. Form, color, fine texture, all those properties. You are turning the art into an instrument of politics, rather than making it something interesting in and of itself. You are looking at it as you would look at book illustrations, as something that merely tells a story about society, race, or class. And the thing is, students already know how to do that when they come in the door. That’s all they’ve been getting, as I suspect, since junior high school. They know how to do that. But what they don’t know how to do is to look at a work of art in its own terms. That is simply changing the purpose of the course. It is not redeeming it.

MB: Let me move to a more fundamental question, one that I do not expect you to answer in one paragraph. I think that most people would grant that the study of form itself is what matters. But it seems that authorial intent nevertheless remains at the core of artistic analysis. If we are willing to accept that, then the underlying politics of an artist represent a direct way to understand what his painting or sculpture actually entails. Would you go as far as to claim that — at least at the introductory level — authorial intent should be left out of the picture, or is your critique a mere matter of degree?

ML: This is a great discussion, and it would be nice to sit at a bar and bat it out. This is the big question. Look, authorial intent is a funny thing. For most of our history, we have no idea what we dig out of the ground from the ancient world. We don’t even know who the authors were, we just have the form itself. What I’m arguing for is a course that is fundamental. It teaches you the building blocks of looking at sculpture, painting, architecture, space, mass, volume. I teaches you how to look at those things, how to learn the key names and the key monuments that are influential. You come to measure importance, which is not subjective — the ability to generate copies is enough of a criterion. It’s quite easy to look through Western art for the last thousand years and say: these are the landmarks. These are the influential things that were replicated everywhere. You’ve got to have that at your fingertips before you can step back from it and start to see the political, social, and cultural agendas at play. Because if you get that first, the danger is that you will always reduce a work of art to its political meaning. But if you do what I’m proposing, if you start with the objects, you will learn to make finer and finer distinctions between them, rather than lumping them together in one giant dumpster.

KX: That makes a lot of sense, Professor Lewis. I just wanted to jump on your point that there is some kind of objectivity in teaching art at universities because students do have only eight short semesters, as you said, to take an elective about art, and not every student will become an art history major. However, do you think that students who are more and more often exploring critical theory and viewpoints throughout history would be better served by having a course that does incorporate these different perspectives and doesn’t solely rely on what you might call objectively good or objectively historical pieces of artwork? I know this is incorporating a relativistic viewpoint that would shift as culture and politics shifts. But I’m wondering if you think there should be an epitome of an art history course or if an art history course should really be tailored to the students who are taking it. 

ML: It should definitely not be taken to the students who are taking it; it should definitely not. I’m probably going to seem like an old crank about this. But every year, every course is a moving target. The professor ideally is reading new things and coming to new conclusions. Basically, the fundamentals, whatever that might be the trajectory that goes from Michelangelo through Picasso, that should not be subjected to a popularity contest every year. Students should know that first and they can decide in their senior year that the whole thing is a crock and needs to be taken apart. But you need to have a common language with which to debate other people to sharpen your conclusions and the common language is the basic cultural literacy, the sequence I’m describing,

KX: Shifting away from the more political viewpoints, I gathered from what you said that there should be an epitome of an art course—like an objective lineup of the best artists that you would feature in your art course. Could you name a couple classics that you would have every Yale or Williams student learn about in their introductory art history course?

ML: Well, are you talking about the second semester that goes through the Renaissance to the present.

KX: Yes.

ML: That’s the great art of creativity that runs from Jato and Donatello, through Michelangelo and Raphael, in through Caravaggio and Bernini, and in the north, Rembrandt that carries through the heroic acceleration of development in the late 19th century. You go from the Impressionists through Picasso, through Jackson Pollock and in architecture, you’re racing through Frank Lloyd Wright. These are big names, and even someone who doesn’t play the piano should know Mozart, Beethoven, and somebody who’s not a great reader should know that there is Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens and Dostoyevsky. 

MB: Would you also extend the same kind of argumentation to other disciplines and their relation to the Western canon? Because it seems that Yale’s decision is but a part of a larger movement that criticizes the very idea of a “canon.” But a lot of disciplines do not have such a thing as an extractable “form,” per se. Take philosophy. Granted, you have a series of movements that are important for the history of philosophy. But since contemporary philosophers tend to care less and less about the history of philosophy, and more about abstract arguments in and of themselves, it seems that we need not have a canonical presentation of the discipline to conserve its essence. Would you still defend this attachment to the Western canon in other disciplines? 

ML: Interesting question. I guess I’m speaking about all the humanities—literature, art, music, drama. When I teach artists, I distinguish between early work and late work, with somebody like Frank Lloyd Wright, the work changes radically. Sure, you’ll have a richer understanding of anybody in your own life with their own personal circumstances. That’s just the way it is. But the great thing about philosophy, I suppose, is that you can put the idea on its own terms. 

There’s one thing I want to say that I am going to be repeating in this session that I think is very important. And that is that the humanist tradition is really at the heart of the Western survey. The great thing about it is, if you say look at Michelangelo’s David, he represents a certain belief in the dignity of the human form. If you understand that and understand the idealism and don’t immediately assign a political meaning, if you accept the humanism of that you can then understand its great affinity to the humanism of Shakespeare. You know, the great part in Hamlet—what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, etc. The paradigm of animals, beauty of the world, all that—that’s a humanist vision. You’re getting this tradition that runs through art, drama, and that helps you understand what Thomas Jefferson writes: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” That’s part and parcel of one big tradition that is bigger than any academic discipline. If you don’t encounter that humanist tradition in these different fields, the West looks to be just a fractured archipelago of different political factions yelling at each other. But if you look at it from a different point of view, that there is a vital tradition at the root of it, you’re more aware of your place in the world today and its ideals. That’s the problem with cutting out Hamlet and cutting out Michelangelo; you fracture what the university used to do, which should give you a coherent view of your tradition in the world. 

KX: Okay. Well, thank you, Professor Lewis for your time and for sitting down with us for the Beacon.