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Seeing Art the Way Jane Austen Saw it
On May 24, 1813, just months after publishing Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen went to a show in search of her female hero. ''I dare say Mrs. D[arcy] will be in yellow,'' Austen wrote to her sister, fully expecting to find her heroine at the event—a retrospective of the painting of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the preeminent painter to the rich and powerful of late 18th century England. Austen came away disappointed at not finding a painted equivalent to her novel’s main draw, but modern viewers won’t be disappointed by an online recreation of the exhibition titled What Jane Saw, which will draw in not just the legions of Jane Austen fans but also anyone interested in the origins of the museum blockbuster as well as the beginnings of celebrity culture and its discontents.
Prof. Janine Barchas of University of Texas at Austen, er, Austin, gathered together a team of researchers and programmers to recreate the Reynolds exhibit for the bicentennial of Austen’s trip, but even if Austen never saw the show, it would have been of historical significance. The exhibition stands as the first major retrospective of any single artist. Museums and public galleries were still relatively new phenomena in the early 19th century. In the preface to the exhibit catalogue, Richard Payne Knight praises Reynolds work both for its own merits and for its power "to call attention generally to British, in preference to Foreign Art." Thus, this first museum blockbuster, which drew over 800 visitors per day, became war by other means. Just as every major art exhibition serves (or disserves) some agenda, this initial salvo in the blockbuster game did so unashamedly.
What Jane Saw allows you to peruse the exhibit just as Jane did, to the best of present-day knowledge. No visual record of the exhibition exists, but the researchers culled contemporary accounts and other sources to make the best approximation possible. You can, as Jane probably did, pick up the exhibition catalogue and work your way along. (The online catalogue reproduces an actual copy of the original but with helpful hyperlinks dropped in.) Or you can just stroll virtually among the three rooms of paintings, starting with the North Room (where His Majesty George III starts the show), through the Middle Room, and finishing in the South Room (where Her Majesty Queen Charlotte marks the end). Between the bewigged monarchs sit a vast array of portraits of the rich, powerful, beautiful, young, old, famous, and infamous that generated the celebrity culture Austen both celebrated and critiqued in her novels like someone flipping through People Magazine today.
Each of the 141 paintings (reproduced visually except for a few exceptions, an amazing achievement considering two centuries of dispersion) comes with helpful notes and Austen connections that assist the modern-day viewer in reading both the individual paintings and their arrangement. Was Austen a careful enough reader to recognize the subtle suggestion made by placing a wind-blown head of Shakespeare’s maddened King Lear near the Portrait of his Majesty, W.L., i.e., “Mad King George”? Did she also seen the inequity of that same king’s portrait taking the number 1 slot in the program, per protocol, over the Portrait of Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, whose subject, the acclaimed actress Sarah Siddons, reigned in terms of popularity if not political power? It’s probably safe to say that Austen, whose novels demand close, attentive reading, was a close, attentive reader herself and got most of the jokes.
Wandering virtually through the exhibition made me feel like I was perusing the Facebook page of some circa 1780s British noble: A portrait of Lady George Cavendish, W.L. shows off the typical trophy wife in a full-length pose, the Portrait of Master Henry Herbert, as infant Bacchus simultaneously shows off and embarrasses the future Second Earl of Carnarvon, the Portrait of the Duke of Orleans depicts Louis Philippe Joseph, the Duke of Chartres and later Duke of Orleans, at his gaudily uniformed manliest, complete with virile stallion to make things perfectly clear. Even without the helpful explanatory notes you can still read the signs today—these people had it all, and wanted you to know it.
Some cracks in the edifice, however, allow different messages to leak through. The Portrait of the Marchioness of Tavistock, W.L. shows Lady Elizabeth Keppel, one of Queen Charlotte’s bridesmaids, in her bridesmaid’s dress as a black female servant stands at the ready. More subtly, the Portrait of a Gentleman, aka, Captain Robert Haldane of the East India Company, alludes to the darker side of the sea-borne British Empire only by a rocky coast and crashing waves behind the figure. Both, however, made me think of Edward Said’s essay “Jane Austen and Empire” and what Austen herself thought, if anything, when standing before those portraits.
Although Jane didn’t find her Mrs. Darcy, she did find an interesting group of women beyond just the beautifully painted arm candy. Sarah Siddons, as already mentioned, set an early standard for strong, gifted women. The Portrait of Mrs. Mary Hale in the character of the Allegro shows Mary Hale as Euphrosyne, one of the Three Graces of Greek mythology. Euphrosyne personifies joy itself, and it’s not hard to imagine Mary’s own zestful personality. As the site notes, the change to "the Allegro" from the Greek connection may allude to John Milton's “L'Allegro,” another celebration of active and joyful living. In the Portrait of Lady Charles Spencer, Mary Beauclerk Spencer appears, quite unconventionally, not just with her horse, but also in a scarlet red riding coat with a very masculine fit. Although a long skirt saves Lady Spencer’s respectability somewhat, the rest of the portrait steals all the stereotypically masculine trappings of power (depicted in portraits of men hung close by this one, as if for emphasis).
But what would female fame be without a touch of infamy? The Portrait of Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra gives a classical touch to Catherine “Kitty” Fisher, the most famous courtesan of Reynolds’ heyday. The name “Kitty” itself became synonymous with reckless female sexuality, something, as the site notes, Austen herself used in naming the boldest of the Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice “Kitty.” Jane didn’t find her Mrs. Darcy at the show, but she did find the original “Kitty.” The only female nude in the exhibition appears in Venus and Cupid (shown in family-friendly detail above). To protect a single model from scandal, Reynolds created a composite Venus from face and hair of the 16-year-old daughter of his manservant and the body of a single mother found begging in the streets. To protect the innocent, the curators of the 1813 show placed it higher on the wall, above eye level. Did Jane look up? We’ll never know. I almost wish Lord Byron (the period’s bad boy, who attended the show’s opening for A-list celebrities) were standing next to her if she did.
Reynolds himself makes three self-portrait appearances in the show, all at conspicuous eye level. In the earliest portrait, dating from the 1750s, when Reynolds was taking in the Renaissance masters in Rome, Reynolds poses himself in the style of a Rembrandt self-portrait by the Old Master at around the same age of 30. In Portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the most famous of all Reynolds self-portraits, he not only wears the Rembrandt-esque velvet cape and floppy hat, but poses next to a bust of Michelangelo, his favorite artist. Like many of the other paintings in this show, this portrait became a popular engraving—the public “face” that the public would know and collect. A final portrait shows Reynolds painting himself into a commission for the New College window design. Reynolds “hides” as an adoring shepherd, in a nod to the Renaissance practice of artists hiding self-portraits in larger works as a signature “hidden” in plain sight. Even before this retrospective raising Reynolds to the rank of Old Master, Reynolds never hesitated putting himself in rarified company.
What Jane Saw works on so many levels. There’s the obvious Austen appeal, stronger than usual in this Pride and Prejudice bicentennial year. But there’s also the appeal of recreating a slice of the world around Austen, which looks remarkably similar to our own, that is, infatuated with celebrity in all its forms—royal, artistic, military, monetary, infamy. The Sarah Siddons and Lady Spencer of Austen’s day may be the Lindsay Lohan and Princess Kate of today. What Jane Austen saw looks much like what we see today, but What Jane Saw teaches us, like Austen’s novels do, is to read the signs in a deeper way, lest we get caught up in the glamorous surfaces.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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