Academia’s preference for moral preening on display in a photo gallery inside a warped campus building.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — During the first six weeks of the summer break, I teach a course in general linguistics, an annual routine ordinarily performed in one of the older campus buildings. This year the routine was broken by an unusual classroom assignment. I was given a room in the university’s relatively new (mid-1990s) Arts and Sciences building.
I am not sure how the building got that name, except that the arts and sciences dean has a capacious office there. Apart from general classroom and seminar space, the building is home to the political science department, the communication department, and something called the Center for Applied Ethics, a prominent campus entity of generous funding and nebulous purpose.
The design of the building is erratic, as if a bitter dispute among the architects was never quite settled — or perhaps was resolved in a series of encounter sessions engineered by a therapist to please everyone.
In the front, a semicircular balcony on the second of two floors juts out over an off-center glass entrance, supported by a lone arch to the side. To the left of the entrance is a row of stubby Egyptian columns supporting an arcade. To the right are columns of similar design but without an arcade; the columns are fatter and set into the side of the building like buttresses. The aesthetic effect is oddly disagreeable — a weird flouting of symmetry, petulant and narcissistic.
The glass front doors open into a lobby of irregular floor plan stretching at shifting angles to the back of the building, where a wide, off-center protrusion of plate glass reaches up two stories, framed in aluminum rectangles and peaked triangles. From the lobby, a curved stairway with a railing of taut cable sweeps up to a mezzanine connected to the second floor.
The symbolism of it all is uncertain — bold thrusts, maybe, and expansive horizons? Or perhaps a frozen flash of self-revelation: the winds of change blowing through empty heads? It’s hard to tell. In any event, a large printed sign taped to an office window in the front is at least suggestive: “Books Not Bombs.” A breakthrough in global relations? Send al Qaeda the collected works of Dickens?
ON THE GROUND FLOOR are two hallways at oblique angles from the lobby. After the first week of class in June, my habit was to enter the building from the side, walk down the west hallway, then through the lobby and up the east hallway to my classroom at the other side of the building. Both hallways are decorated with rows of very large (each almost a yard square), neatly framed black-and-white photographs by the portrait photographer Michael Collopy. On the last day of class, late in July, while my students were taking a final exam, I strolled up and down the hallways, examining the gallery, which also spills out on the walls of the lobby.
The forty-odd portraits are of public eminences, the keynote of the display being a perceived humanitarianism. One of the portraits in the lobby is of Jimmy Carter, apparently a favored figure on our campus — a few months before, I had noticed a large painting of Carter in the conference room of Campus Ministry. The caption under the lobby portrait alludes to Carter’s Habitat for Humanity, to which he devotes a full week of his life each year amid his busy projects in service to world peace.
Of course, others may appreciate Carter because his abysmal presidency was, arguably, a necessary condition for the Reagan revolution. But history does not seem to be one of the consuming passions in the Arts and Sciences building. A lengthy caption under a portrait of the Russian statesman-humanitarian Mikhail Gorbachev might leave an idle undergraduate with the impression that Gorbachev almost single-handedly ended the Cold War. There are, perhaps needless to say, no portraits of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher or even John Paul II, the subject of one of Collopy’s coffee-table books.
The captions are embossed on plaques beneath each portrait, with pull-quotes of various quality — mostly of an inadvertent asininity. My favorite is the remark under the portrait of the poet-humanitarian Maya Angelou: “The fact that people become heroes and sheroes can be credited to their ability to identify and empathize with the other.”
Maya Lin, humanitarian designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, tells us that peace will finally come to this earth when people are nice. Other comments of assorted vapidity are served up beneath portraits of Steven Spielberg (some leaden remarks about humanitarian messages in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan), Rigoberta Menchu, Alice Walker, Walter Cronkite, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Robert Redford, Robert Kennedy, Jr., Queen Noor Al-Hussein, George Mitchell, Desmond Tutu, Marian Edelman, Cesar Chavez, Linus Pauling … get the drift?
BUT WAIT. THERE IS ALSO a portrait — no, three different portraits, one in full color — of Mother Teresa. And of Ida Jackson, “the first certified African-American teacher in California.” The Jackson portrait captures the face of an elderly woman with eyes of sparkling depth and a weathered expression of long-suffering kindness.
In fact, all these photographic portraits seem to speak some truth about their subjects. The Gorbachev portrait reveals a face of perky calculation, the Carter a face of shifty insecurity, the Pauling a face of mild derangement, the Cronkite and Cousteau and Redford faces of invincible smugness, and so forth.
Some relief, then, comes with portraits of Lech Walesa, Harry Wu, Wei Jingsheng (a Chinese dissident who has spent most of his adult life in Communist prison camps), Mairead Corrigan Maguire (an organizer against “sectarian violence” in Northern Ireland), and even Billy Graham (but, as I said, no John Paul II). In these latter portraits, Collopy frames images of settled moral clarity and passionate detachment.
The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott once characterized our present era as a time when technique trumps reason. Strolling back to my classroom to collect the final exams, I thought about Oakeshott and about those technically stunning photographic portraits decorating the walls of a lopsided building in an academic culture that can no longer tell the difference between moral witness and moral preening.
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