Theaster Gates’s “But to Be a Poor Race”

The artist sits beside his work “Reliquary,” a stone frame topped with fox pelts. (Credit: Laure Joliet)

“To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.” – W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

At Regen Projects in Los Angeles, a powerful art show is taking place. Along stark white walls are data rendered into painted charts, poetry embossed in golden letters, and fire hose flattened into a tapestry. Markers of the post-Emancipation and the Civil Rights movement, they make up Chicago artist Theaster Gates’s “But to Be a Poor Race,” an art show that delves into the history of poverty and racism in the United States. Through his show Gates explores the not only the hardships but “the underlying richness of a culture borne out of a lack of resources in the aftermath of slavery” as well. “Reliquary,” a fox pelt-adorned stone frame, attests to his dual purpose, recalling the post-Emancipation class signifiers noted in the surrounding paintings, which incidentally had been gathered into data by W.E.B. DuBois. The abstraction of the charts and graphs of data and the concreteness of objects like the fur pelts and the fire hose is a striking juxtaposition, reflecting the artist’s interest in archiving history.

When Kanye uses seven samples in a song, or John Legend chooses to use a Bill Withers remake, theyre being archivists. They may not call themselves that, and people might not hear Bill Withers when they hear John Legend, but there comes the possibility of understanding Bill Withers, and that history starts to unfold. Im interested in how one simply needs to implement history. Perform it. Amplify it. Freak it. … This show is … some sincere quiet time to contemplate the symbolic things that are on my mind. Maybe the thesis will conclude that to be a poor race is to be a better race, or more interesting one.

Theaster Gates’s claim–and his show–is one that indeed invites contemplation. Those of us in Core may recognize the title of the show as a quotation from W.E.B. DuBois’ The Soul of Black Folk, a work now 114 years old. Gates, then, has drawn upon a history of struggle to highlight the depth of the culture that emerged as a result. The importance of archiving history and culture through material objects and numerical data is further emphasized in his renovations of buildings in Chicago as community centers and archives. There, as in the gallery, the artist points to the importance of remembering the past and comparing with the present.

Read T Magazine’s article on the subject here. “Theaster Gates: But to Be a Poor Race” is on view at Regen Projects in Los Angeles from January 14 to February 25.

Weekly Round-Up, 1-20-17

Welcome back to BU, Core scholars! We hope your break was restful and fun. Here’s this week’s installment of links to start things off!

  • What better way to bond than over obscure details from the Bible? Yaelle Frohlich and Yair Shahak do just that, earning them spots in the finals of the International Adult Bible Contest in Jerusalem, which sounds a lot like the identification questions on Core finals.

The happy couple conceals a fierce rivalry behind loving smiles. Probably. (via The Jewish Star)


  • In honor of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, her home county of Hampshire, England, will host a year of events dedicated to the British author.
  • Confucian schools for young children continue to grow in popularity amongst the middle class of China.
  • Led by Italian conductor Paolo Olmi, a symphony orchestra sponsored by the Italian embassy in Tehran and the Iranian embassy in Rome performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in Tehran’s Vahdat Hall this Thursday, January 19th. This was the first time since 1979 that a Western orchestra has played in Iran.
  • “La Medea” transforms Euripides’s tragedy of Medea into a Latin-disco variety show opens tonight, January 20, and runs until the 22nd. It will be filmed in front of a live audience at Bric Arts Media in Brooklyn, New York.

Dancing queen. (via the Brooklyn Paper)

Take it easy, Corelings. Here’s to a great spring semester!

From The TLS: How Should the Humanities Make The News?

Rightly, Mary Beard in a recent article for the TLS takes for granted the question about whether the humanities should make it in the news at all. In a sense, it would be derogating from one of the signal purposes of the humanities if they were to be made the subject of more headlines. For if as Tennyson wrote, ‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers,’ then in the welter of information we are routinely bombarded with it is likely that not only wisdom but knowledge too would linger. Are there honorable ways in which we can proffer the humanities without their coming to be degraded in this way? In other words, how does the Core Curriculum accomplish this?

Illustration for The Times Literary Supplement

Illustration for The Times Literary Supplement

I remember a few years back I was giving a lecture at a northern university (with a particularly active press office) on the Philogelos or Roman joke book. They had hyped the lecture in a big way, as new insights (which in some important ways it was). On the train up, journalists kept ringing my mobile. Their first question was: where had I found this text? The right answer was obviously I dug it up from the sands of Egypt. When I said that I found it on the library, they instantly lost interest even though I was doing something with the text that no one (I think) had done before.

What counts as new and newsworthy is the question.

And that is exactly what my own august university struggles with. They have just issued on the website a top 24 of Cambridge research stories this year. On my reckoning, 19 of those are pure science; and, of the rest, the majority are fascinating discovery or rediscovery stories (whether archaeology or a lost musical manuscript). Hang on I think, what are the rest of us doing? Does it really need to be under the radar, compared with (say) the mating call of mice? Youd think from looking at this roster that none of the work that some of us do rethinking Greek tragedy, or the demography of the medieval city, or the impact of T. S. Eliot counted for a hill of beans.

ya, or for a waste land. Didn’t get it? Exactly. I think Mary would agree that (say) any university harboring one of the top Eliot scholars in the world should try to stir some excitement when he or she publishes an authoritative two volume edition of his poetry. The humanities ask that we pause to ponder, and this does not preclude our thinking seriously about what is probably the “mating call” of the media: ‘innovation.’ It, like all things human and therefore of humanism and the humanities, must not monopolize our respect, but lose some when coming into competition with other things just as deserving of our honor, such as remembrance, sympathy, and a great reminder of all of the above, T.S. Eliot (though his erotic poetry isn’t much good).

Read her full post at The Times Literary Supplement

Weekly Round-Up, 1-13-17

Hello, scholars! Can you believe the last full week of winter break is drawing to a close? Fine, fine, we won’t mention it, excited as we are for the next batch of Core classes to start. Without further ado, here is an action-packed group of links to spice up your week!

  • William Wordsworth’s “The Prelude,” addressed to fellow Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge, was recently published in a fully illustrated edition with an introduction and notes by Harvard professor James Engell and Wordsworth scholar Michael D. Raymond. Moreover, it was included in WBUR’s the ARTery’s “5 Poetry Books with a Boston Connection You Should Read.” How’s that for city pride?
  • Just for fun: Walt Whitman’s guide to “Manly Health and Training,” a roughly 47,000-word journalistic series found 150 years after its publication by a graduate student two summers back. Among other things, Whitman promotes a mostly carnivorous diet as well and decries inactivity. (For the record, the author of this blog post is 0/2 so far.)

The pinnacle of masculine fitness, Walt Whitman himself. (via Getty Images)

All right, show’s over. Everybody go home (or return to campus…?). Come back next week for the first installment of spring semester!

Weekly Round-Up, 1-6-17

Greetings, earthlings–we mean Corelings. This week we’re ushering in the new year with a star-studded link round-up.

  • Today (1/6) is the Epiphany, by the way–the day that commemorates the visit of the three Magi to the child Jesus. As Core scholars may recall, the three kings, or wise men as they are sometimes called, followed a star that led them to the manger in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

Rembrandt, Adoration of the Magi, 1632.

  • Despite 2016 being “a year of dark matter disappointments” (among other things), scientists are hopeful that 2017 will prove fruitful in proving the existence of dark matter…or perhaps not, according to theoretical physicist and Harvard professor Lisa Randall.
  • Speaking of dark matter, astronomer and dark matter pioneer Vera Rubin passed away Christmas night at the age of 88. Read about her contributions to the field of science here.
  • Off switches? Cosmic vanishing acts? These are just a couple ways of describing two recently discovered pulsars. Astronomers observed that one of the pulsars was “on” only part of the time, and when it was “off,” its rotational slow-down rate is significantly slower. The reasons for this phenomena are still unknown.
  • Just for fun: What does William Blake have to do with space travel? We’ll let this caption explain: “In his 1793 engraving [I Want! I Want!], the poet and artist finds a novel solution to getting to the moon: a really big ladder.” This engraving and other works by over sixty artists are on view in exhibition Towards Night in the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, England. Closes January 22nd.

Next CC111 lab? William Blake, I Want! I Want!, 1793. (Photo via The Fitzwilliam Museum)

There you have it, folks! We hope you continue to enjoy break, whether you’re in Boston or a far-off galaxy (believe us, scholars come from all over)!

Weekly Round-Up, 12-30-16

Goodness, what a year. We’re lucky all of our Core authors are long since deceased; otherwise, we’d be in a mess of trouble. But no matter. We’ve got a end-of-the-year wrap-up to usher in the long-awaited new year. (That’s a lotta hyphens…)

A close-up of Orion’s belt. By Davide De Martin via Digitized Sky Survey, ESA/ESO/NASA FITS Liberator. (Public Domain)

Marx by John Jabez Edwin Mayall. International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Public Domain)

That’s that! We’ll see you again next week. (PS – if you’re wondering why this post is slightly later than usual, blame the new Star Wars flick Rogue One. Brownie points to anyone who can relate the movie to the Battle of Thermopylae according to Herodotus’s Histories.)

Weekly Round-Up, 12-23-16

Hello hello, Corelings! What, did you think the Weekly Round-Up would be on hiatus during this hibernation period we call Winter Break? Of course not. Knowledge never rests.

Aeneas and Charon by Wenceslas Hollar, 17th century.

First edition cover of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (Fair Use)

There you have it! Core hopes you have a lovely holiday(s) and a refreshing break!

From The Guardian: The non-western books that every student should read

It is easy in the Core Curriculum to feel content with having acquainted oneself with the tradition that is of primary concern, namely, thewestern. It is also understandable, but we should at least be aware of other kinds of classics that usually earn only a cursory treatment in this corner within the western corner. And in doing so, we should beware of the dangers that attend a view of the world and the cultures inhabiting it too provincially–something of which these days we desperately need much less. An article for The Guardian has sought various authors to share those books that despite their not belonging in the western tradition deserve a placeon each of our reading lists. One is R K Narayan’s magnus opus, Malgudi Omnibus:

"From Frantz Fanon to Li Ruzhen, international authors deserve more attention from universities. Photograph: Christopher Thomond." Image for The Guardian.

“From Frantz Fanon to Li Ruzhen, international authors deserve more attention from universities. Photograph: Christopher Thomond.” Image for The Guardian.

Every literature student should have space on her shelf for the complete works of R K Narayan. Or at least for a Malgudi omnibus, the fictional town in which he set many of his novels, including Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. Although Narayan has had Western champions, including Graham Greene and John Updike, his work is perhaps failing to find a younger readership. I teach on the creative writing MA and MFA courses at the University of Surrey, and will be playing my own small part in trying to keep his legacy alive on campus. What we can learn from Narayan ranges from his mastery of setting (Malgudi teems with life), his gently devastating comic technique, to his ability to tackle large issues (such as Indias sterilisation programme) with a light but keenly incisive touch.

It was discomfiting to realize how many of the books listed I have not read or of which I have not even heard.A reading list that will never be exhausted before I myself am exhausted thus grows larger, and yours might also after

Reading his full post at The Guardian

From the Guardian: Welcome to the Age of Anger

It seems that any article seeking to explain the recent capsizing of our politics will obligingly run through the explanations we have come to know by broken heart: it was rigged. Actually that is one explanation we unfortunately haven’t heard, since the one who would have made it most vociferously did not lose the election. But there is another explanation of this kindthat is not so conspiratorial, which posits that the Trump presidency represents a reaction to a global trend whose worst effects have only recently struck the United States. In this sense, it was inevitable that world leaders who pursue iniquitous policies will disturb the unfavored dregs that do not quietly settle below. But the disquieted may also react irrationally, of which, again, the United States is only the latest example. Pankaj Mishra at The Guardian explains

The insurgencies of our time, including Brexit and the rise of the European far right, have many local causes but it is not an accident that demagoguery appears to be rising around the world. Savage violence has erupted in recent years across a broad swath of territory: wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand, terrorism and counter-terrorism, economic and cyberwar. The conflicts, not confined to fixed battlefields, feel endemic and uncontrollable. Hate-mongering against immigrants and minorities has gone mainstream; figures foaming at the mouth with loathing and malice are ubiquitous on old and new media alike.

There is much dispute about the causes of this global disorder. Many observers have characterised it as a backlash against an out-of-touch establishment, explaining Trumps victory in the words of Thomas Piketty as primarily due to the explosion in economic and geographic inequality in the United States. Liberals tend to blame the racial resentments of poor white Americans, which were apparently aggravated during Barack Obamas tenure. But many rich men and women and even a small number of African-Americans and Latinos also voted for a compulsive groper and white supremacist.

We are in turn at risk of regarding the causes of our political turmoil too parochially or reflexively. It is easy to denounce supporters of Donald Trump as racists or a bigots, and automatically gainsay rather than engage with anything that is said by them. This would be suffering from the same dogmatism that one is supposedly above.

Read his full post at The Guardian

Weekly Round-Up, 12-16-16

Good morning, Corelings! We hope this installment of weekly links keeps you toasty warm today, because the temperature outside is criminal.

  • BUCFA is presenting Chekhov’s last full-length play, The Cherry Orchard, Dec. 14 through 18, at the Lane-Comley Studio 210. On the fence about going? There will be a real, live dog in the production.
  • Women Playing Hamlet, a play by University of Wyoming playwright-in-residence William Missouri Downs, closed last Saturday. Featuring an all-female cast, the comedy explores an actress’s attempt to discover who she is as she prepares to take up the role of Hamlet in a New York production of the Shakespearean play.
  • The New York City AIDS memorial, recently unveiled and soon to be open to the public in West Village, includes a text piece by artist Jenny Holzer piece that utilizes excerpts from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. The work commemorates the 100,000 New Yorkers who suffered and lost their lives to AIDS.

The New York City AIDS memorial. (Credit: Max Flatow Photography)

How could you say no to a face like that?
Portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito.

Best of luck on finals, scholars! We’re sure each and every one of you will do great!