Sunday, June 15, 2014

Hey, Diogenes! I got one right here!!

For the first time in a number of years I get to spend Father’s Day with my father, Ken Leistler. Now I know practically everyone else feels they might have a monopoly on “the best dad,” but I want to cast a vote for my father as an admirable and good man.
I mentioned to him that I was going to write a blog post about him, and he said with characteristic modesty and charm, "Now don't go on and on like you usually do."  'Nuff said. I will be brief!

I have extolled his salt-of-the-earth and straightforward virtues before, but I want to highlight just a few qualities I most admire about him in an otherwise short-but-sweet blog post.

Diogenes, the ancient Greek philosopher, spent a lifetime in search of honesty and concluded that an honest man could not be found.  Of all my father’s traits, I may be most in awe of his honesty and integrity. My father has said that “honesty is not the best policy—it is the only policy.” There are countless paintings of Diogenes with his lantern searching for that elusive honest man. Here he is, buddy.

The other night my dad and I were out to dinner with two of my cousins and their wives. As we talked about various things over the course of the evening, one cousin’s wife leaned in to me and remarked quietly, “You know Kathi and I have talked from time to time about how your father loved your mother. We could only wish to be loved in the same way,” she marveled. I know that those cousins are indeed loving husbands, but I treasured how their wives looked at my father and his capacity to love in a very special way.

Look up at the photo from around 1971—I am now 10 years older than my father was in that photo, but I don’t know if I could ever master many of the things he has in his lifetime.

Finally, if you were to look through my Bible, there is an old bulletin saved from a church service in New York from about a decade ago. The sermon title from that day reads “The Grip Of A Loving God,” and I saved it in large part because the sermon title reminded me of my father and his relationship with those for whom he has cared and protected. There has always been a strength about him, and always a tenderness in his love for his family. I have been in the grip of this loving man's arms for fifty years.
Brevity--nice to meet you!  Happy Father's Day...


Saturday, June 14, 2014


“What do you see?” is almost always the first question I ask when I show an art work to a class.

With this unusual art work from the year 2000 by a British husband-and-wife team, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, it’s hard to even know what you are seeing!

“What do you see?” So as I showed this work to my class on the second-to-last day of AP Art History I got several responses: “Is that a pile of animals?” and then, “Are those people on the wall?” and then, “Is that a naked woman?” Of course pragmatic Sara kept asking, “What kind of an art work is this??? Are they real animals?”

This is a work I never knew about until poking around on the internet for some new art works to teach at the completion of the 5,000 years of art history. This work intrigued me…I’m still not quite sure what to even call it, an installation??

But since pragmatic Sara looked suspicious, let’s look at what this work is and try and figure out something about it. Officially, we have a pile of 88 stuffed animals and a projector throwing a shadow on a wall of the pile of animals. Art???

The little-kid in all of us is eager to learn if the animals are real. Yes, they are real stuffed animals. The artist Tim’s father was a huntsman and he killed and stuffed the animals. When his father died, Tim and Sue created this piece, called British Wildlife as a tribute to him.

What more do you need to know to make sense of this art work???  That is the question I ask once we have kind-of established what we see. Sooooo….what more do you need to know?

Rami asked, “What is up with the people on the wall?” Tim and Sue assembled this pile of stuffed animals, turned on a projector, and the shadows on the wall are self-portraits of Tim and Sue, backs to one another but seemingly joined together.

Zein asked why they made a pile of stuffed animals. Sure, they could have displayed them in a traditional way, but you’d need lots of space for 88 stuffed animals, and actually Tim thought it was like a memory of his childhood, and he wanted something other than simple hunting trophies. Piled up like this they create a single image, a summary of the past.

Farouk, the young man who loved the theme of the reclining female nude throughout the history of art, reminded us that the woman is naked. Yes, Farouk, and this work is all about nature in its wild state, so I guess clothes seem unnecessary. Actually, both Tim and are naked, just like the animals.

Mohammad wondered about these “shadow puppets” and how they figured out how the shadows would work. He said several times, “Where are Tim and Sue?” Of course, Tim and Sue are not there at all. When we see their shadows, we think Tim and Sue must be there, but in fact it’s the pile of animals lit by a projector that throws their silhouette on to the wall. Natasha looked at this wonder and said, “Even when you know that’s the case it’s hard to believe there’s no apparent link between the two things. Normally our shadow follows us around, but here Tim’s and Sue’s have taken on a life of their own.”

In the other class Yasmine mentioned that this is a “three-dimensional take-off on the old theme of a still life painting.” She was quite proud of her pronouncement and she and her friend Gheya commented that this pile of animals is not about the scientific view of animals, and they decided that this work is about the element of surprise.

Then Sammy, after stroking his chin in a rather scholar-like gesture, wondered if the theme of the work is not about contemplating appearance and reality, the contradiction of what we accumulate and the effects they produce. Yanbo, still trying to decide if this is a sculpture or what, is caught between the decision that this is a pile of animals or a double-portrait, or both. Fawzi mediates and suggests that both points of view are right, reminding us “that no one has a monopoly on truth.”

Farah, one of our philosophers in the class, wonders if this a symbol of the eternal link between animals and people—then her eyes dance as she says, “Maybe it’s a reminder of the beast in all of us and the humanity in all of us.” Youssef wonders if the double-portrait is also an allusion to Adam and Eve—and being driven out of paradise.

Rami, looking forward to reading The Republic this summer on the suggestion of art history alum Talal, gets excited as he announces that this is a little like the cave allegory Plato writes about. We discuss that story, one of the most important allegories in the western canon, and how Plato explains that men are like prisoners chained up in a cave with their backs to the entrance. All they can see of the world is the shadows thrown on to the back wall of the cave. As humans, we are prisoners of our senses and our view of the world is not truth, but an illusion. The class debates how British Wildlife plays with the same theme by presenting an actual fact of the group of stuffed animals and the illusion of the couple we think we can see. And we wonder if we can ever not be deceived by appearances.

Let’s look back to the photographs taken by thousands of families of the last month. May and June are months full of graduations. You can’t scroll down very far in Facebook postings without coming across cap and gown photos, caps in the air, smiles blazoned across serene and exuberant faces, hugs from family members and wishes for a happy life. Two weeks ago I marched in yet another a teacher I have marched in 26 graduation ceremonies, posed in photos with happy grads dozens of times, and bid farewell to yet another group of interesting, earnest, naïve, determined seniors. I have a great photo from the KA graduation as Queen Rania spoke to the senior class as they listened intently to her words of wisdom of never forsaking kindness. Then the photo op of photo ops came: hats aloft and frozen in time for all time.

Those graduation photos are summaries of our past. But one of the things I always remember to do is to look past the “borders” of the photos, look past the appearances of happiness and ease of graduation, and look at what shadows are thrown on the wall from these accomplishments. There is usually heartache and down days. There is usually frustration and failure.  In the shadows of these awesome graduations there is usually an admixture of terror and joy, unease and patience, impatience and delight. We need to be mindful of all of these as we enjoy the appearances of graduations.

What shadows will be reflected from today’s pile of stuff? What else do we see? What is the truth of this moment in time? As I look back on the 2013-14 school year, I see a pile of graded tests and essays, sweaty palms trying to make it through some tough moments, and I also have a wonderful “shadow,” a gift from my student Daniel.

In the last week of the course Daniel decided to write a journal sheet with many of his favorite moments of the year. He decided his favorite word of the year was a word he coined, a word he calls, ‘Leistlerism.’ Let me quote Daniel:

Vocabulary Word of the Year:

            Leistlerism, inspiration through the exploitation, in a good way, of curiosity. All art falls under the Leistlerism movement. All art devours our attention, digests us to wonder, and spits us back out, humbled. Without our curiosity the world would not be more than lines and piles of rocks. It is in honor of Mr. John, his beast of an Art History class, that I may summarize all art under one ism dedicated to him, to pay homage to the knowledge he has gifted me, the limits his class has aided me in abolishing, the new questions that have been implanted, and the new prospective and understanding of the World Mr. John has granted me. While it may not seem more than words, for me, and I too believe that for Mr. John, words are the greatest gift humanity has been granted, this ism which I dedicate to Mr. John is a thank you for the interest he took in me, when I was undecided about taking his class, throughout the course, and now at the overwhelming finale. Thank you Mr. John for the understanding you have given me and the opportunity to express myself, which I may sometimes have abused, through these Journal Sheets.

Look for the shadows that enrich and burnish these celebrations of life!



Friday, June 13, 2014

And now...turn around...


A week ago at this time I was on a plane wending my way back to the United States for summer vacation. That flight is the only flight of the entire school year when I can take the long view and see the entire school year for what it has been. Not until the very last moment of the school year has ended can I see what the year has actually been—the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful. I fly for thousands of miles and can take it all in.
This year was a calm and steady year, maybe the calmest and most stable in the seven years in the history of the school. However, in the last couple weeks, there were some incidences that showed that even in the calmest year, one can still be surprised at the end.

You must always expect the unexpected in a school. One can never just coast to the end. On Graduation Day, that wonderful and bittersweet day when you bid farewell to the seniors, a group (hopefully a small group) trashed the office of my friend the Dean of Students. Julianne works tirelessly for the students, and on that last day, some group deemed it important to leave a good-bye that was nasty and immature. No matter how long you ponder and anticipate the road of the year, I didn’t see that coming. That sounds like the work of the seniors of the first year of the school, not this last class. And then as final exams got underway, a student exposed a cheating scandal on the math exams that revealed that a large group of boys had stolen some math exams and disseminated them. The Office of Student Life spent hours unravelling this mess, and in spite of the warnings and the teachings for so long all year about academic honesty and academic dishonesty, as we turned the corner at the end of the year, a sizable group of boys found themselves in a mess and disabused the teachings and exhortations about integrity.

Of course, these little bubbles (what else should one call them??) do not diminish an otherwise productive, healthy, positive, fulfilling, progressive school year. But it does remind one to be ready to turn and see something unexpected.

All of this reminds me of an artwork I taught for the first time in the closing days of the AP Art History course. I discovered a recent statue by a Spanish artist that proved to be an exciting statue at the end of our course and the continuum of thousands of years of art images. Look at the photo above. Take a moment to process and guess and speculate what this art work is about. The museum in London that owns this piece showcases it in a very unique and interesting way. You walk into a long, narrow room, and there is this one art work, a statue, as I said, but having his back turned to us. Of course most of the time statues face their public. Hmmm…for some reason this person is not interested in anyone or he has his back to us on purpose. The title of Maurizio Cattelan’s statue is Him, so we get the idea it is a male.

I told the class how big the statue was—about four feet tall. When I asked my class what they saw, a student said it must be a little boy. Several of them tried to guess who or what he was. From the looks of seemingly real clothes and shoes my class thought it was meant to look like a real person. “What is he doing?” asked a student and another answered, “He’s on his knees with his hands linked and he is looking at the sky. Is he praying?” The position of the body gives us an idea but it doesn’t necessarily tell us what he’s thinking.

The class enjoyed guessing what was going on—several assumed that Cattelan wants us to think it’s a real person—“Í bet they want us to stumble upon this figure in the museum and assume he is real. The clothes look real.” My savvy students decided that Cattelan was sculpting like the Duane Hanson statues of the last 30-40 years that look like real people—not any of this marble or clay or bronze business of the old days of statues.

So after we had speculated about the statue, knowing the name of the statue, guessing about the size (since all slides show art works the same size, I told them that the size is the size of a normal 10 year-old boy) and what he might be doing, I showed a photograph of the statue from the front. Guess what? I got gasps in class! Gasps are always fun because they are caught off guard enough to really have that startling inhalation of air!  Okay, cyber-class: go to Google Images right now and look up Maurizio Cattelan's statue of Him. Do it now!!

The class loved thinking about why the museum would not have the face visible from the front from the get-go. They realized that the surprise element was a big part of the experience of seeing this statue for the first time. After his gasp, Mohammad exclaimed, “It’s Adolf Hitler!” The students went from trying to piece together enough information to make a credible guess about the identity to a ton of historical information about the subject.

I reviewed for the class—just in case they had not had a strong enough World History class—that Hitler had seized power (legally, I reminded them!) in Germany in 1933 and then propelled Germany into another world war while at the same time deporting, imprisoning, torturing and killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people. They took all this ready historical information and looked at what Cattelan hoped to communicate in his statue. Sara asked, “Why not have the face visible from the start? It is one of the most instantly recognized faces in history?” Zein, very bright Zein, answered: “But this way you have to actually go up to him, walk around him, and only then do you know who he is. It’s a shock when you recognize him because nothing about the figure prepared you for who it is.” As we looked at the statue, realizing it is a waxwork in real clothes, Farouk asked, “So why is he the size of a little boy?” Natasha smiled widely and said, “I think it is a little like Surrealism in that part of the work is the surprise. It is disconcerting to think it is a little boy praying, and then you realize it is Hitler, one of the most evil men in history.”

I asked the class, “So you give one whole room of the museum to this disconcerting statue. Does this glorify Hitler? Celebrate this hateful and cruel man?” We thought about the history of statuary—from ancient governors beseeching the gods for help, to the Greek statues of idealized young men, to Michelangelo’s David to the strong and stoic Burghers of Calais by Rodin. “This is an odd statue in the history of art, isn’t it? Artists usually make statues of people they admire. Why, in the new 21st century might Cattelan have made this??”

The class mulled this over, reminding themselves that usually cities and towns and countries pull down statues of controversial and hated leaders. Then Bryan, another excellent historian, commented, “Maybe the statue is meant to remind us to be vigilant, to show us what we need to be wary of.” Rami thought it had a strange connection to images of Satan in Bosch paintings or other medieval works. Bryan continued, “When we look at this, and instantly know who it is, it reminds us of the atrocities of the Nazi era.”

In my other class Eun wondered, “Why is he the size of a child but with the adult Hitler’s face?” The class debated several interesting answers—knowing that there might be more than one right answer—the best art works allow for multiple interpretations. Halima said we never think of Hitler as a child, and then Farah added, “and when does one go from the innocence of childhood to the barbarity of Nazi atrocities?” Heidi wondered if this was meant to allude to the young children indoctrinated by the Hitler youth programs. Fawzi put his two cents in: “Don’t forget that to many Germans Hitler was a great man, avenging their honor after the devastation of World War I.”

More than one student wondered why Hitler’s name is not in the title. Sammy, one of the great ‘concluders’ of all time deemed that by calling it Him it sounds like an accusation, like someone is pointing at him, and being incapable of knowing how to sum up the totality of Hitler. Don’t you just love these guys??? I mean, all you have to do, it seems, is throw a slide on the wall, and my class just takes off!

Heidi brought us back to the position of Cattelan’s statue of Hitler. Heidi decides that the statue is Cattelan’s way of telling the end of the story of World War II: “Cattelan puts Hitler on his knees, where he will forever be praying in penitence.” 

The statue works because it inspired thought and conversation. You walk up to it in this long, narrow room, thinking you have figured it out, and then you turn around, and get a surprise, at first a seemingly offensive surprise, but then perhaps a deeper, profound reconciliation of childhood innocence and the consequences of our actions.

So I can turn around now and look at the school year with clear eyes. It was an excellent year. There were some bumps at the end of the journey. We will never know which seniors cruelly mocked and trashed a dedicated educator’s office. But the cheating scandal ended with some withdrawals from the school and suspensions. More than parent thought that was a harsh consequence to the innocence and naivete of youth. Or maybe they have learned a valuable lesson about the consequences for their actions.

But, just like with Him you come to a point when you walk the long journey and then you get to turn around and see what you have. There may be a surprise, there may be reconciliation, but part of the fun of the journey is imagining the next step, the unexpected step, in the journey. I have two more blog posts to write in the next couple days before I take my summer blog vacation.