Noted early twentieth century cultural signifier Eau de Nil wends it way from Flaubert in Egypt to Hitchcock to a fresh moment in the sun thanks to a cool president’s new portrait:
The term first entered our chromatic lexicon in the late nineteenth century, just as Egyptomania was hitting its peak. While in the British Isles talk of “the East” referred primarily to India, France had a particularly strong affinity for Egypt—due in part to Napoleon’s brief 1798 attempts at colonization and the influence of the savants. “If you were French,” Wall writes, “the east was Egypt, a place at the very limit of the European imagination … Egypt was the orient, a country of the mind, a grand theatre of sensuality, despotism, slavery, polygamy, cruelty, mystery and terror.” This Egypt of the mind had little reality outside the poetry of Keats and Shelley; the paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Emile Bernard, and André Duterte (whose painting of the ruined temple at Thebes may have been the basis for “Oxymandias”); and the oddly popular theories of the occultist Helena Blavatsky and her follower, the “wickedest man in the world,” Aleister Crowley. For the French, Egypt as a concept was far more exciting than Egypt as an actual place. (Though not to Flaubert; to him, Egypt was where he bedded nubile young women after watching them dance the popular striptease, “the bee.”)
Image: the great portrait by Kehinde Wiley
A reminder that there are all shades of green, some of them not Eco at all. Via, this little meditation on, faced with school budget cutbacks that always, ALWAYS, get aimed at the art curriculum first, how we should teach art instead of history.
This general scenario matches up with other stories I’ve seen. But why should art be on the chopping block before history class? I believe we romanticize history, making it seem practically and ideally more important than it is. People defend history in the gauzy language of citizenship, with appeals that rarely rise above aphorism. “Those who don’t history are bound to repeat it”. This doesn’t hold up in a practical sense though. There’s a reason the phrase isn’t “those who have history as a significant part of their high school curriculum are bound to repeat it”. Being taught history doesn’t make you better voters unless you remember that history. I’m not going to go down the litany of things that huge percentage of Americans incorrectly believe about history, instead I’ll just give one prominent example. How many hundreds of millions of dollars to we spend each year teaching kids about the Civil War, and still 42% of people don’t know we fought it over slavery?
Sign me up. I would even say (but never write) that we would better off teaching (more) people about art. An example? a survey about the work of JL David will render the history of French Revolution unforgettable. And once you have The Death of Marat or The Tennis Court Oath in your head, along with the stories behind them, you’re only going to want to find out more. Moving through history on the basis of art movements is a more durable sort of engagement. Why the salons of the 1870’s happened or Goya’s dark paintings just doesn’t go away. That knowledge moves and grows into something else. Something we need.
And this is to say nothing of the benefits of people learning printmaking or drawing. It would be like mass producing the keys to critical thinking and problem solving. Then we can finally get back to that Shangra-La where no one locks their doors.