Exploring the Black Experience through the Arts

Black Americans’ work in the arts has long been both prominent and under-recognized. Black artists’ expressions of their experiences are some of the most iconic artifacts of American history. This Black History Month, we explore Black resistance through visual art, literature, and other art forms, and we highlight the central role of Black artists and Black art in American aesthetics and culture.

These books from PUP’s catalog focus on an iconic historical engraving, an award-winning immigrant writer, Black literature under surveillance, an important contemporary visual artist, and the poetry of loss, memory, and the natural world.

One of the most iconic images of slavery is a schematic wood engraving depicting the human cargo hold of a slave ship. First published by British abolitionists in 1788, it exposed this widespread commercial practice for what it really was–shocking, immoral, barbaric, unimaginable. Printed as handbills and broadsides, the image Cheryl Finley has termed the “slave ship icon” was easily reproduced, and by the end of the eighteenth century it was circulating by the tens of thousands around the Atlantic rim. Committed to Memory provides the first in-depth look at how this artifact of the fight against slavery became an enduring symbol of black resistance, identity, and remembrance.

Beautifully illustrated, Committed to Memory features works from around the world, taking readers from the United States and England to West Africa and the Caribbean. It shows how contemporary black artists and their allies have used this iconic eighteenth-century engraving to reflect on the trauma of slavery and come to terms with its legacy.

“Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”—Create Dangerously

In this deeply personal book, the celebrated Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat reflects on art and exile, examining what it means to be an immigrant artist from a country in crisis. Inspired by Albert Camus’ lecture, “Create Dangerously,” and combining memoir and essay, Danticat tells the stories of artists, including herself, who create despite, or because of, the horrors that drove them from their homelands and that continue to haunt them. Danticat also suggests that the aftermaths of natural disasters in Haiti and the United States reveal that the countries are not as different as many Americans might like to believe.

Create Dangerously is an eloquent and moving expression of Danticat’s belief that immigrant artists are obliged to bear witness when their countries of origin are suffering from violence, oppression, poverty, and tragedy.

Brooklyn-born Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) was one of the most important artists of the 1980s. A key figure in the New York art scene, he inventively explored the interplay between words and images throughout his career, first as a member of SAMO, a graffiti group active on the Lower East Side in the late 1970s, and then as a painter acclaimed for his unmistakable Neoexpressionist style. From 1980 to 1987, he filled numerous working notebooks with drawings and handwritten texts. This facsimile edition reproduces the pages of eight of these fascinating and rarely seen notebooks for the first time.

The Notebooks are filled with images and words that recur in Basquiat’s paintings and other works. Iconic drawings and pictograms of crowns, teepees, and hatch-marked hearts share space with handwritten texts, including notes, observations, and poems that often touch on culture, race, class, and life in New York. Like his other work, the notebooks vividly demonstrate Basquiat’s deep interests in comic, street, and pop art, hip-hop, politics, and the ephemera of urban life. They also provide an intimate look at the working process of one of the most creative forces in contemporary American art.

Few institutions seem more opposed than African American literature and J. Edgar Hoover’s white-bread Federal Bureau of Investigation. But behind the scenes the FBI’s hostility to black protest was energized by fear of and respect for black writing. Drawing on nearly 14,000 pages of newly released FBI files, F.B. Eyes exposes the Bureau’s intimate policing of five decades of African American poems, plays, essays, and novels. Starting in 1919, year one of Harlem’s renaissance and Hoover’s career at the Bureau, secretive FBI “ghostreaders” monitored the latest developments in African American letters. By the time of Hoover’s death in 1972, these ghostreaders knew enough to simulate a sinister black literature of their own. The official aim behind the Bureau’s close reading was to anticipate political unrest. Yet, as William J. Maxwell reveals, FBI surveillance came to influence the creation and public reception of African American literature in the heart of the twentieth century.

Illuminating both the serious harms of state surveillance and the ways in which imaginative writing can withstand and exploit it, F.B. Eyes is a groundbreaking account of a long-hidden dimension of African American literature.

In Radioactive Starlings, award-winning poet Myronn Hardy explores the divergences between the natural world and technology, asking what progress means when it destroys the places that sustain us. Primarily set in North Africa and the Middle East, but making frequent reference to the poet’s native United States, these poems reflect on loss, beauty, and dissent, as well as memory and the contemporary world’s relationship to the collective past.

A meditation on the complexities of transformation, cultures, and politics, Radioactive Starlings is an important collection from a highly accomplished young poet.


Blue: Ten Surprising Facts about the Color Blue

We all know the sky is blue, the ocean is blue, and the flag is (red, white, and) blue. Some of us have blue eyes, or blue blood, or are in a blue mood. And chances are you’re wearing something blue today. But how much do you know about the history of the color blue?

In Blue: The History of a Color, historian and symbologist Michel Pastoureau takes readers through the different meanings and uses of blue throughout Western history. Pastoureau’s fascinating anecdotes and lavish illustrations remind us that “color is first and foremost a social phenomenon.”

Originally published in 2000 as the first title in Pastoureau’s acclaimed series on the histories of colors, Blue is now back in print.

Here are ten surprising facts about blue:

1. In ancient Rome, blue was associated with barbarians. Wearing blue was looked down on as a sign of eccentricity or mourning, and blue eyes were considered a sign of bad character or a physical deformity.

2. The uses and meanings of blue in Europe shifted sharply when it became the color of Mary’s cloak during the development of the cult of the Virgin in the twelfth century. From depictions of Mary, blue spread to other religious imagery.

3. Because of the low usage of blue in ancient Greek and Rome, researchers in the 1800s wondered if the ancient Greeks and Romans could even see the color blue. (They could.)

4. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, merchants of woad (a blue plant-based dye) and madder (a red plant-based dye) competed fiercely and even violently to discredit each other’s colors.

5. During the Reformation, blue was classed with white, black, gray and brown as an “honest” color.

6. Blue was the symbolic color of the French Revolution, but France had trouble maintaining a large enough supply of indigo dye to keep its military dressed in blue. In 1829, infantrymen were ordered to wear red pants instead. They switched back to blue, however, in 1915, after the visibility of their bright red pants led to mass casualties in the first year of the Great War.

7. Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther popularized blue coats for young men. The character Werther wears a “simple blue dress coat” with a yellow vest and trousers. Goethe saw blue and yellow as symbolic opposites, with blue being positive (active, warm, and bright) color and yellow being negative (passive, weak, and cold).

8. Between 1910 and 1950, black uniforms and clothing gave way to navy blue in one of the most important fashion events of the century.

9. Levi Strauss denim jeans were the first garments to have the brand name displayed on the outside. This was done to distinguish them from competing blue jeans brands Lee and Blue Bell (now Wrangler).

10. More than half of American adults today say blue is their favorite color. Pastoreau suggests that this statistic be taken with a grain of salt, even as he cites it as evidence of just how far blue has come since antiquity.


Exploring the Black Experience

In honor of Black History Month, PUP is running a special blog series aimed at Exploring the Black Experience. Each week, we’ll highlight titles from PUP’s catalog to highlight a different facet of Black Americans’ experiences and histories. There are as many understandings—not to mention experiences or mobilizations—of identity as there are individuals. Today we look at the role of Black identity in local neighborhood history, nonviolent religious activism, global liberation movements, and American historical memorialization.

These four books explore Black identities both local and transnational, through movements both religious and political, and conversations both current and historical.

American Prophets sheds critical new light on the lives and thought of seven major prophetic figures in twentieth-century America whose social activism was motivated by a deeply felt compassion for those suffering injustice. In this compelling and provocative book, acclaimed religious scholar Albert Raboteau tells the remarkable stories of Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and four other inspired individuals who succeeded in conveying their vision to the broader public through writing, speaking, demonstrating, and organizing.

Raboteau examines the influences that shaped their ideas, discusses their theological and ethical positions, and traces how their lives intertwined—creating a network of committed activists who significantly changed attitudes about contentious political issues such as war, racism, and poverty. A momentous scholarly achievement as well as a moving testimony to the human spirit, American Prophets represents a major contribution to the history of religion in American politics.

I Hear My People Singing shines a light on a small but historic black neighborhood at the heart of one of the most elite and world-renowned Ivy-League towns—Princeton, New Jersey. The vivid first-person accounts of more than fifty black residents detail aspects of their lives throughout the twentieth century. Their stories show that the roots of Princeton’s African American community are as deeply intertwined with the town and university as they are with the history of the United States, the legacies of slavery, and the nation’s current conversations on race.

An intimate testament of the black community’s resilience and ingenuity, I Hear My People Singing adds a never-before-compiled account of poignant black experience to an American narrative that needs to be heard now more than ever.

Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Harlem in 1917. By the early 1920s, his program of African liberation and racial uplift had attracted millions of supporters, both in the United States and abroad. The Age of Garvey presents an expansive global history of the movement that came to be known as Garveyism. Offering a groundbreaking new interpretation of global black politics between the First and Second World Wars, Adam Ewing charts Garveyism’s emergence, its remarkable global transmission, and its influence in the responses among African descendants to white supremacy and colonial rule in Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States.

The United States of America originated as a slave society, holding millions of Africans and their descendants in bondage, and remained so until a civil war took the lives of a half million soldiers, some once slaves themselves. Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves explores how that history of slavery and its violent end was told in public space—specifically in the sculptural monuments that increasingly came to dominate streets, parks, and town squares in nineteenth-century America. Here Kirk Savage shows how the greatest era of monument building in American history arose amidst struggles over race, gender, and collective memory. As men and women North and South fought to define the war’s legacy in monumental art, they reshaped the cultural landscape of American nationalism.

Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves, the first sustained investigation of monument building as a process of national and racial definition, probes a host of fascinating questions: How was slavery to be explained without exploding the myth of a “united” people? How did notions of heroism become racialized? And more generally, who is represented in and by monumental space? How are particular visions of history constructed by public monuments? As debates rage around the status of Civil War monuments in public spaces around the country, these questions have never been more relevant. An updated edition, forthcoming in fall 2018, will feature a new introduction from the author addressing these debates.

Kieran Setiya: How Schopenhauer’s thought can illuminate a midlife crisis

MidlifeThis article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Despite reflecting on the good life for more than 2,500 years, philosophers have not had much to say about middle age. For me, approaching 40 was a time of stereotypical crisis. Having jumped the hurdles of the academic career track, I knew I was lucky to be a tenured professor of philosophy. Yet stepping back from the busyness of life, the rush of things to do, I found myself wondering, what now? I felt a sense of repetition and futility, of projects completed just to be replaced by more. I would finish this article, teach this class, and then I would do it all again. It was not that everything seemed worthless. Even at my lowest ebb, I didn’t feel there was no point in what I was doing. Yet somehow the succession of activities, each one rational in itself, fell short.

I am not alone. Perhaps you have felt, too, an emptiness in the pursuit of worthy goals. This is one form of midlife crisis, at once familiar and philosophically puzzling. The paradox is that success can seem like failure. Like any paradox, it calls for philosophical treatment. What is the emptiness of the midlife crisis if not the unqualified emptiness in which one sees no value in anything? What was wrong with my life?

In search of an answer, I turned to the 19th-century pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer is notorious for preaching the futility of desire. That getting what you want could fail to make you happy would not have surprised him at all. On the other hand, not having it is just as bad. For Schopenhauer, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you get what you want, your pursuit is over. You are aimless, flooded with a ‘fearful emptiness and boredom’, as he put it in The World as Will and Representation (1818). Life needs direction: desires, projects, goals that are so far unachieved. And yet this, too, is fatal. Because wanting what you do not have is suffering. In staving off the void by finding things to do, you have condemned yourself to misery. Life ‘swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents’.

Schopenhauer’s picture of human life might seem unduly bleak. Often enough, midlife brings with it failure or success in cherished projects: you have the job you worked for many years to get, the partner you hoped to meet, the family you meant to start – or else you don’t. Either way, you look for new directions. But the answer to achieving your goals, or giving them up, feels obvious: you simply make new ones. Nor is the pursuit of what you want pure agony. Revamping your ambitions can be fun.

Still, I think there is something right in Schopenhauer’s dismal conception of our relationship with our ends, and that it can illuminate the darkness of midlife. Taking up new projects, after all, simply obscures the problem. When you aim at a future goal, satisfaction is deferred: success has yet to come. But the moment you succeed, your achievement is in the past. Meanwhile, your engagement with projects subverts itself. In pursuing a goal, you either fail or, in succeeding, end its power to guide your life. No doubt you can formulate other plans. The problem is not that you will run out of projects (the aimless state of Schopenhauer’s boredom), it’s that your way of engaging with the ones that matter most to you is by trying to complete them and thus expel them from your life. When you pursue a goal, you exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye.

Hence one common figure of the midlife crisis: the striving high-achiever, obsessed with getting things done, who is haunted by the hollowness of everyday life. When you are obsessed with projects, ceaselessly replacing old with new, satisfaction is always in the future. Or the past. It is mortgaged, then archived, but never possessed. In pursuing goals, you aim at outcomes that preclude the possibility of that pursuit, extinguishing the sparks of meaning in your life.

The question is what to do about this. For Schopenhauer, there is no way out: what I am calling a midlife crisis is simply the human condition. But Schopenhauer was wrong. In order to see his mistake, we need to draw distinctions among the activities we value: between ones that aim at completion, and ones that don’t.

Adapting terminology from linguistics, we can say that ‘telic’ activities – from ‘telos’, the Greek work for purpose – are ones that aim at terminal states of completion and exhaustion. You teach a class, get married, start a family, earn a raise. Not all activities are like this, however. Others are ‘atelic’: there is no point of termination at which they aim, or final state in which they have been achieved and there is no more to do. Think of listening to music, parenting, or spending time with friends. They are things you can stop doing, but you cannot finish or complete them. Their temporality is not that of a project with an ultimate goal, but of a limitless process.

If the crisis diagnosed by Schopenhauer turns on excessive investment in projects, then the solution is to invest more fully in the process, giving meaning to your life through activities that have no terminal point: since they cannot be completed, your engagement with them is not exhaustive. It will not subvert itself. Nor does it invite the sense of frustration that Schopenhauer scorns in unsatisfied desire – the sense of being at a distance from one’s goal, so that fulfilment is always in the future or the past.

We should not give up on our worthwhile goals. Their achievement matters. But we should meditate, too, on the value of the process. It is no accident that the young and the old are generally more satisfied with life than those in middle age. Young adults have not embarked on life-defining projects; the aged have such accomplishments behind them. That makes it more natural for them to live in the present: to find value in atelic activities that are not exhausted by engagement or deferred to the future, but realised here and now. It is hard to resist the tyranny of projects in midlife, to find a balance between the telic and atelic. But if we hope to overcome the midlife crisis, to escape the gloom of emptiness and self-defeat, that is what we have to do.Aeon counter – do not remove

Kieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide.

The Painter’s Touch: 9 Things You Didn’t Know About These 18th Century Painters

In her new book, The Painter’s Touch, Ewa Lajer-Burcharth reexamines three French eighteenth-century painters: François Boucher (1703-1770), Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806). While these three artists were already successful in their time, reexamination and reflection of their works throughout the years have caused our understandings of these artists to change. Lajer-Burcharth examines the careers of these three painters, and provides close-readings of their work, to show how their paintings played a part in the emergence of modernity.

We’ve highlighted a few interesting facts about each of the painters showcased in this book, revealing what their careers were like, how their lives and societal standings may have inspired their paintings, and what new information has been unearthed to help us better understand their place in art history.


François Boucher:

  1. Boucher was not only a talented painter, but a financially savvy moneymaker: “Boucher’s practice inscribes itself in this commercial context — and in the broader realm of commercial modernity — more deeply than has been realized. … Scholars have noted how successful and prosperous the artist became as a result of his commercial savvy. We know for a fact that Boucher left a considerable fortune after his death, amounting to about 150,000 livres, more than half of which was obtained from the sale of his collection of art and curiosities.” (page 12)
  2. Boucher often used unique interpretations of well-known characters as his subjects: “Ancient myth was, moreover, represented by Boucher as a terrain of private fantasy based on the experiences of the senses. The subjects, though based on specific literary sources, did not require erudition to be grasped and appreciated. Boucher offered idiosyncratic interpretations that emphasized and encouraged a play of imagination linked to the interaction between the main figures in each pendant.” (pages 41-42)
  3. Even though he was the preferred portraitist for Madame de Pompadour, a member of the French Court, Boucher was notorious for his inability to have his paintings faithfully resemble their subjects: “Pompadour was well aware of his shortcoming — stating as she did in a letter written to her brother in April 1751 that the copy of Boucher’s likeness she was sending to him in Italy “greatly resembles the original, less myself” — she seems to have been entirely satisfied with his results, multiplying her portrait commissions from him more than from any other artists.” (page 83)

Jean Siméon Chardin:

  1. While he may be considered a great painter today, Chardin was known for less positive qualities during his life: “The master of illusion was, then, also a kind of neurotic avant la lettre. His legerdemain concealed painstaking effort, procrastination, dissatisfaction, and a frequent inability to complete the task of representation. Suggested in these commentaries is a connection between the painter’s character and his working method, his personality being seen as responsible for the idiosyncrasies of his process.” (page 89)
  2. When painting a domestic scene, Chardin was known to focus on mothers and children, frequently leaving out a paternal subject: “As has been noted, the domestic realm depicted by Chardin is dominated by the figures of women and children, in the near total absence of men. Whatever else these paintings are about, they construct a space of primary relations between mother, or a maternal figure, and child, a space of initial subjective experiences based in duality that seems yet unaffected by a third party, be it a paternal presence, language (the exchanges, when they do occur, are muted), or social experience. (page 127)
  3. While painting self-portraits, Chardin made the innovative decision to include his eyeglasses: “Unusual before Chardin, the choice of spectacles as an element of an artist’s self-definition signaled the artist’s social position. Besicles, relatively cheap to produce in the eighteenth century, were popular among the lower classes but were rarely worn by the elite, and never in public. At the theater or in another social context, members of the upper class preferred to use a monocle, considered more elegant. The inclusion of the besicles in Chardin’s self-portraits was something of a class act — one the matched the defiantly common character of the painter’s attire.” (page 172)

Jean-Honoré Fragonard:

  1. Fragonard’s art, which was typically sexual in nature, hurt his reputation even as it made him financially successful: “Fragonard’s involvement with erotic subjects, combined with his reliance on private patrons, placed him in an awkward position as an artist. While his paintings and drawings were sought after by the renowned collectors and amateurs of the period, and they fetched high, at times even notoriously exorbitant prices, they were not the object of any sustained critical examination. Many admired Fragonard’s sheer technical brio … but no one was interested in articulating what were the specific aesthetic merits, if any, of his erotic art.” (page 178)
  2. While sketching landscape settings, Fragonard enjoyed walking, an unusual choice: “Why would Fragonard have needed to sketch as he walked? Evidently, there was no topographical necessity to do so, the site having been much easier to render while sitting or standing under the trees. But if the artist chose to walk, was it not because he was interested in capturing precisely that movement from withinthat was then perceived as being at once nature’s and mother’s? By simulating the quasinatural growth of the shape of the alley from the inner core — a hollow — at the bottom center, the draftsman let the page itself give birth to an image. By drawing as he moved, Fragonard was coming as close as he could to enacting the process of generation, his sequence of progressing or receding arches mapping out an act of becoming — of an image.” (page 196)
  3. In 2012, an important discovery caused the art community to rethink a collection of portraits Fragonard produced in the late 1760s: “The names scribbled by the artist under his thumbnail renditions of each likeness confirmed the identity of only two figures —abbé de Saint-Non and Monsieur de la Bretèche — and contradicted most of the others. The presumed Diderot and La Guimard have proven false.” (page 213)

For more information about these three artists, and the development of artistic modernity in eighteenth-century France, read The Painter’s Touch.

Ewa Lajer-Burcharth is the William Dorr Boardman Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard University. Her books include Chardin Materialand Necklines: The Art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror.

Browse our 2018 Art and Architecture Catalog

We are delighted to announce our new Art and Architecture catalog for 2018. Our list features a range of new titles, including a collection of quotations by one of the world’s most important political artists, a new edition of a classic book in the history of textiles, a lavishly illustrated volume by a renowned American photographer, and a new look at the portraiture of one of the greatest artists of the nineteenth century.

Stop by Booth #417 at CAA to see these titles and more! And join PUP at our booth at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, February 23 for a reception in honor of our new and forthcoming titles.

Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) is widely known as an artist across media: sculpture, installation, photography, performance, and architecture. He is also one of the world’s most important artist-activists and a powerful documentary filmmaker. His work and art call attention to attacks on democracy and free speech, abuses of human rights, and human displacement—often on an epic, international scale.

This collection of quotations demonstrates the range of Ai Weiwei’s thinking on humanity and mass migration, issues that have occupied him for decades. Humanity speaks to the profound urgency of the global refugee crisis, the resilience and vulnerability of the human condition, and the role of art in providing a voice for the voiceless.

Written by one of the twentieth century’s leading textile artists, this splendidly illustrated book is a luminous meditation on the art of weaving, its history, its tools and techniques, and its implications for modern design. First published in 1965, On Weaving bridges the transition between handcraft and the machine-made, highlighting the essential importance of material awareness and the creative leaps that can occur when design problems are tackled by hand.

With her focus on materials and handlooms, Anni Albers discusses how technology and mass production place limits on creativity and problem solving, and makes the case for a renewed embrace of human ingenuity that is particularly important today. Now available for a new generation of readers, this expanded edition of On Weaving updates the book’s original black-and-white illustrations with full-color photos.

American photographer Emmet Gowin (b. 1941) is best known for his portraits of his wife, Edith, and their family, as well as for his images documenting the impact of human activity upon landscapes around the world. For the past fifteen years, he has been engaged in an equally profound project on a different scale, capturing the exquisite beauty of more than one thousand species of nocturnal moths in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, French Guiana, and Panama. Gowin’s stunning color portraits foster awareness for a part of nature that is generally left unobserved and call for a greater awareness of the biodiversity and value of the tropics as a universally shared natural treasure.

Mariposas Nocturnas reminds readers that, as Terry Tempest Williams writes in her foreword, “The world is saturated with loveliness, inhabited by others far more adept at living with uncertainty than we are.”

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) may be best known for his landscapes, but he also painted some 160 portraits throughout his exceptional career. This major work by John Elderfield establishes portraiture as an essential practice for Cézanne, from his earliest self-portraits in the 1860s; to his famous depictions of figures including his wife Hortense Fiquet, the writer Emile Zola, and the art dealer Ambroise Vollard; and concluding with a poignant series of portraits of his gardener Vallier, made shortly before Cézanne’s death.

Beautifully illustrated with works of art drawn from public and private collections around the world, Cézanne Portraits presents an astonishingly broad range of images that reveal the most personal and human qualities of this remarkable artist.

Seneca on How to Die

Romm“It takes an entire lifetime to learn how to die,” preached Seneca, the famed Stoic philosopher of Ancient Rome. In other words, it’s never too early to begin your preparations for departing this life. Seneca wrote eloquently on the universality of death, its importance as life’s final and most defining rite of passage, its part in purely natural processes and cycles, and its ability to liberate us. In How to Die, James Romm has selected and translated excerpts relating to death and dying from eight different works of ethical thought by Seneca—let it be your handy companion on your journey toward reconciling with the inevitable. Here are five tips from How to Die to ponder as you prepare for what may be the most important task you will ever undertake.


Prepare Yourself

“Perhaps you think it is useless to learn something that must only be used once; but this is the very reason we ought to rehearse.”

Have No Fear

“What’s to be feared in returning where you came from? He lives badly who does not know how to die well…. [D]ying fearfully, often, is itself a cause of death…. He who fears death will never do anything to help the living. But he who knows that this was decreed the moment he was conceived will live by principle.”

Have No Regrets

“We consider this earth, with its cities, peoples, and rivers, enclosed by a circle of sea, as a tiny dot, if it’s compared with all of time…. What difference does it make to extend [life], if the amount of added time is little more than nothing?”

Set Yourself Free

“Each of us ought to seek a life that wins approval from others, but a death, from himself.”

Become Part of the Whole

“There are fixed seasons by which all things progress; they must be born, grow, and perish…. There is nothing that does not grow old. Nature disperses these things, all to the same end, though after different intervals. Whatever is, will no longer be; it won’t die, but will be undone.”


Browse Our 2018 Literature Catalog

Our new Literature catalog includes an unguarded look into the mind of Vladimir Nabokov, an examination of simultaneous absorption in and critical distance from a work of art, a study of poetry and community through the use of the word “we,” and much more.

If you’ll be at MLA 2018 in New York this weekend, stop by Booths 122-123 to see our full range of recent literature titles. We will toast new publications and award winners at a booth reception on January 5th at 4:30pm.

In October 1964, Vladimir Nabokov, a lifelong insomniac, began a curious experiment. Over the next eighty days, immediately upon waking, he wrote down his dreams, following the instructions he found in An Experiment with Time by the British philosopher John Dunne. The purpose was to test the theory that time may go in reverse, so that, paradoxically, a later event may generate an earlier dream. The result—published in its entirety for the first time—is a fascinating record of sixty-four dreams (and subsequent daytime episodes) that afford a rare glimpse of the artist at his most private.

Insomniac Dreams also includes previously unpublished records of Nabokov’s dreams from his letters and notebooks, and explores important connections between his fiction and private writings on dreams and time.

When you are half lost in a work of art, what happens to the half left behind? Semi-Detached delves into this state of being: what it means to be within and without our social and physical milieu, at once interacting and drifting away, and how it affects our ideas about aesthetics. John Plotz focuses on Victorian and early modernist writers and artists who understood their work as tapping into, amplifying, or giving shape to a suspended duality of experience.

In a time of cyber-dependency and virtual worlds, when it seems that attention to everyday reality is stretching thin, this book takes a historical and critical look at the halfway-thereness that artists and audiences have long comprehended and embraced in their aesthetic encounters.

The Plural of Us is the first book to focus on the poet’s use of the first-person plural voice—poetry’s “we.” Closely exploring the work of W. H. Auden along with other major poets, Bonnie Costello uncovers the trove of thought and feeling carried in this small word. While lyric has long been associated with inwardness and a voice saying “I,” “we” has hardly been noticed, even though it has appeared throughout the history of poetry. Reading for this pronoun in its variety and ambiguity, Costello explores the communal function of poetry—the reasons, risks, and rewards of the first-person plural.

Browse Our New Philosophy 2018 Catalog

Our new Philosophy catalog includes a guide to the middle years of life, a history of the concept of purpose, and Roger Scruton’s defense of human uniqueness.

If you will be attending the APA Eastern Division meeting in Savannah next week, please stop by our table to pick up a copy of the catalog and see our full range of books in Philosophy and related areas.

In Midlife, Kieran Setiya explores the many questions that beset us in middle age, and proposes a series of responses that can help us through the crises of confidence that these questions can prompt. Witty and thoughtful, Midlife is perfect reading for anyone dreading the onset of another year, just like the last one….

Midlife, by Kieran Setiya

The concept of purpose has been with us since the dawn of western philosophy. In On Purpose Michael Ruses traces the long history of this idea that seems both elusive and fundamental to human experience, from Plato and Aristotle to Darwin and beyond.

On Purpose, by Michael Ruse

In On Human Nature, Roger Scruton argues that, contra Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, humans cannot be understood solely in terms of their biology – our social relations with fellow humans and the shared world that we construct around them are no less essential to human nature than our physical bodies.

On Human Nature, by Roger Scruton

Find these and many more new titles in our Philosophy 2018 catalog.

William A. P. Childs on Greek Art and Aesthetics in the Fourth Century B.C.

Greek Art and Aesthetics in the Fourth Century B.C. analyzes the broad character of art produced during this period, providing in-depth analysis of and commentary on many of its most notable examples of sculpture and painting. Taking into consideration developments in style and subject matter, and elucidating political, religious, and intellectual context, William A. P. Childs argues that Greek art in this era was a natural outgrowth of the high classical period and focused on developing the rudiments of individual expression that became the hallmark of the classical in the fifth century. Read on to learn more about fourth century B.C. Greek art:

Why the fourth century?

The fourth century BCE has been neglected in scholarly treatises with a  few recent exceptions: Blanch Brown, Anticlassicism in Greek Sculpture of the Fourth Century B.C.; Monographs on Archaeology and the Fine Arts sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America and the College Art Association of America 26 (New York, 1976); and Brunilde Ridgway, Fourth-Century Styles in Greek Sculpture, Wisconsin Studies in Classics (Madison, WI, 1997).

One reason is simply that taste has been antithetical to the character of the century. Thus literary critics disparaged the wild reassessments of mythology by Euripides at the end of the fifth century as well as his supposedly colloquial language, and treated the sophists as morally dishonest.

Socially the century was marked by continuous warfare and the rise of  a new, rich elite. Individuals were as important, or more important, than society/community; artists were thought to have individual styles that reflected their personal vision. This was thought to debase the grandness of the high classic and replace it with cheap sensationalism and pluralism that defied straight-forward categorization.

The age-old hostility to Persia was revived, it seems largely for political reasons, while Persian artistic influence permeated much of the ornaments of the new, wealthy elite: mosaics, rich cloth, and metal work. At the same time Persia was constantly meddling in Greek affaires, which produced a certain hypocritical political atmosphere.

And, finally, Philip of Macedon brought the whole democratic adventure of the fifth century to a close with the establishment of monarchy as the default political system, and Alexander brought the East into the new Hellenic or Hellenistic culture out of which Roman culture was to arise.

Clearly most of the past criticism is true; it is our response that has totally changed, one assumes, because our own period is in many respects very similar to the character of the fourth century.

What is the character of the art of the fourth century?

On the surface there is little change from the high classical style of the fifth century—the subject of art is primarily religion in the form of votive reliefs and statues dedicated in sanctuaries. The art of vase-painting in Athens undergoes a slow decline in quality with notable exceptions, though it comes to an end as the century closes.

Though the function of art remains the same as previously, the physical appearance changes and changes again. At the end of the fifth century and into the first quarter of the fourth there is a nervous, linear style with strong erotic overtones. After about 370 the preference is for solidity and quiet poses. But what becomes apparent on closer examination is that there are multiple contemporary variations of the dominant stylistic structures. This has led to some difficulty in assigning convincing dates to individual works, though this is exaggerated. It is widely thought that the different stylistic variations are due to individual artists asserting their personal visions and interpretations of the human condition.

The literary sources, almost all of Roman date, do state that the famous artists, sculptors and painters, of the fourth century developed very individual styles that with training could be recognized in the works still extant. Since there are almost no original Greek statues preserved and no original panel paintings, it is difficult to evaluate these claims convincingly. But, since there are quite distinct groups of works that share broad stylistic similarities and these similarities agree to a large extent with the stylistic observations in the literary sources, it is at least possible to suggest that these styles are connected in some way with particular, named artists of the fourth century. However, rather than attributing works to the named artists, it seems wiser simply to identify the style and recognize that it conveys a particular character of the figure portrayed. This appears also applicable to vase-paintings that may reflect the styles of different panel painters. There are therefore Praxitelian and Skopaic sculptures and Parrhasian and Zeuxian paintings. Style conveys content.

The variety of styles as expressive tools indicates that there is a variety of content. A corollary of this fact is that the artist is presenting works that must be read by the viewer and therefore do not primarily represent social norms but are particular interpretations of both traditional and novel subjects: Aphrodite bathes, a satyr rests peacefully in the woods, and athletes clean themselves. In brief, the heroic and the divine are humanized and humans gain a psychological depth  that allows portraits to suggest character.

Was the cultural response to these developments purely negative as most modern commentaries suggest?

The question of the reception of art and poetry in the Greek world particularly of the archaic and classical periods has occupied scholars for at least the last two hundred years. It has been amply documented that artisans and people we consider artists were generally repudiated by the people composing the preserved texts of literature and historical commentary. For example, Plato is generally considered a conservative Philistine. Most modern commentators are appalled by his criticism of poetry and the plastic arts in all forms. Yet the English romantic poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries thought Plato a kindred spirit. It was only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the negative assessment of Plato’s relation to poetry and art became authoritative.  However one wishes to assess Plato’s own appreciation of poetry and art, it is eminently clear that he had an intimate knowledge of contemporary art. Equally his criticism of people who praise art indicates that precisely what he criticizes is what Athenian society expected and praised. It does not require a large leap to surmise that Plato is the first art critic with a sophisticated approach though somewhat disorganized. His student, Aristotle, had the organization and perhaps a more nuanced view of art, but it is perhaps not an exaggeration to suggest that Aristotle was not as sensitive to art as was his teacher.

The fact of the matter is that from Homer on, the descriptions of objects, though very rare, are uniformly very appreciative. For Homer the wonder of life-likeness is paramount, a quality that endures down to the fourth century despite the changing styles and patent abstractions before the fourth century. At least in the fourth century artists also became wealthy and must have managed large workshops.  So the modern view that artisans/artists were considered inferior members of society appears to be a social evaluation by the wealthy and leisured.

In the fourth century BCE Greek artists embark on on an inquiry into individual expression of  profound insights into the human condition as well as social values. It is the conscious recognition of the varied expressive values of style that creates the modern concept of aesthetics and the artist.

ChildsWilliam A.P. Childs is professor emeritus of classical art and archaeology at Princeton University.

A peek inside Cézanne Portraits

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) may be best known for his landscapes, but he also painted some 160 portraits throughout his exceptional career. This major work establishes portraiture as an essential practice for Cézanne, from his earliest self-portraits in the 1860s; to his famous depictions of figures including his wife Hortense Fiquet, the writer Emile Zola, and the art dealer Ambroise Vollard; and concluding with a poignant series of portraits of his gardener Vallier, made shortly before Cézanne’s death. Beautifully illustrated with works of art drawn from public and private collections around the world, Cézanne Portraits presents an astonishingly broad range of images that reveal the most personal and human qualities of this remarkable artist. Check out the trailer below to learn more about the book, and the exhibition schedule below:

Exhibition Schedule:
National Portrait Gallery, London (October 26, 2017 to February 11, 2018)
National Gallery of Art, Washington (March 25 to July 1, 2018

Miller Oberman: The Grave

The Unstill Ones: Poems by award-winning poet Miller Oberman is an exciting debut collection of original poems and translations from Old English. Check out the author’s translation of The Grave, followed by the poem in Old English and the author’s original poem of the same name. 

A translation of “The Grave”

“The Grave” in Old English

“The Grave” after

“The Grave,” found on folio 170r of MS Bodley 343, is sometimes referred to as the last poem written in Old English, and its final three lines were likely added on later, in Middle English, by a scribe medievalists refer to as “the tremulous hand of Worcester.” While it’s impossible to say whether the shaky writing belonged to “the tremulous hand,” or whether this is indeed the final Old English poem, I like to think both are true.

At a recent reading I heard audible nervous laughter from the audience as I read my translation of “The Grave,” which at first surprised me. I later wondered that it doesn’t happen every time—it’s truly a discomfiting piece of writing, an uncommonly embodied depiction of the physical experience of the grave itself, written from the perspective of within. The poem is haunting it its second person address, as your own grave seems to speak to you: “now you are measured, and the dirt after that.” Simple, declarative, and nearly impossible to argue with, the poem induces the claustrophobia of burial, and the loss of the self and the world.

It’s been crucial for me to hear and say this poem aloud in Old English, to allow its language the life and breath of speech. My translation is fairly literal, but the third reading here, my response to the poem, or my “after” has a different spatial relationship to death, if not to the physicality of the grave. It’s hard to make an argument about “self” to a poem written, memorized, and copied down anonymously a thousand years ago, but the speaker of my poem argues that, even if each grave is inevitable, the sky itself and those who continue to live under it are changed.

Miller Oberman has received a number of awards for his poetry, including a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a 92Y Discovery Prize, and Poetry magazine’s John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation. His work has appeared in Poetry, London Review of Books, the Nation, Boston Review, Tin House, and Harvard Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Unstill Ones: Poems.