A new year and a new semester are upon us, and I will be meeting students this week, some of them whom I’ve had in class before, and some for the first time. I will be saying “Welcome to class” to all of them, of course; but if you–yes, you, the person now reading the very sentence I am now writing–have found your way here because you happened to see the URL address for this blog in your syllabus and became curious (I really am speaking to you in particular), then allow me to speak to you for a bit.
Later this semester, some of you will see the Velázquez painting you see here as part of an introduction to a writing assignment, but for the moment I’d like to put it to another use: to think of what you see here as something like a representation of the educational experience and, thus, to invite you to answer a perhaps not-so-simple question–“Where are you in this painting?”
In 1692, a painter named Luca Giordano saw Las Meninas and described it as “a theology of painting,” by which he meant, I think, that art (up until, give or take, the second half of the 19th century) was usually thought of as faithfully depicting the world, but Velázquez reveals something deeper, a truth about the work of the artist: the world really is disordered, even chaotic, hierarchic in structure, its (human) occupants paying various degrees of attention to who or what is around them; but the artist, whether by means of painting, writing, composing music, sculpting, or photography or filmmaking, discerns or imposes an order in or on that disorder. The artist becomes God-like, in other words. Add to all of that the mystery of what might be on the canvas whose back we see, and the illusion that we are standing in the positions of the King and Queen whom we see reflected in the mirror–thus, the space of the painting extends off the surface of the canvas to include the viewer as well as recedes back in its depiction of the room we see (and raises the tantalizing possibility that we ourselves are the subject of that painting whose back is to us), and this painting, despite its age, actually feels quite modern, if not contemporary, in the way it engages us.
So, what does all this have to do with education? Well, speaking for myself, I at various times have felt a connection to all the figures we see here in my various roles as student, scholar, and teacher: as not paying much attention at all; as attending to others; as, like the man we see standing in the far doorway, not sure whether I am entering or leaving this world; on occasion, like Velázquez, as a maker of knowledge–even, at times, I have felt like the long-suffering dog we see. At times, as with subject areas I’m not familiar with, I feel like a spectator of that figurative space; at other times, I feel included in the space.
Perhaps, as the expression goes, you can relate, to some of this at least. If you haven’t yet had a moment in your educational experience in which you can glimpse some larger schema regarding the subject you’re studying and, even better, begin to get a sense of what it might feel like to be more in control of it–not just a student of it, but someone who can contribute to that subject or help others feel more in control of it as well–I hope you will have a moment like that here at Butler with me or with one (or more) of my colleagues. That sense of knowing something–of feeling some small sense of what it’s like to be in Velázquez’s position as a maker of himself even as he makes a version of the space he occupies–is a special thing. Be open to it.
Welcome to the new semester. Let’s learn some stuff, shall we?