Pictures from an Institution

By Panero, James | New Criterion, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Pictures from an Institution

Panero, James, New Criterion

[T]he absurdities of Benton were so absurd, and I myself was so thoroughly used to them, that they had come to seem to me, almost, the ordinary absurdities of existence. Like Gertrude, I cherished my grievances against God, but to some of them I had become very accustomed....

Sex, greed, envy, power, money: Gertrude knew that these were working away at Benton ... exactly as they work away everywhere else.--Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution

As far as I know, the great novel of graduate-student life has yet to be written. As for the life of the graduate student of art history, a subgenre of subgenres, one finds virgin literary terrain. Kingsley Amis gave us Dixon and Welch, and you could do worse for a model than that. Lucky Jim's archetype of hapless lecturer and dense don may find a good home just about anywhere you are thirty, you are in your fourth year of researching the role of dwarfs in seventeenth-century Spanish portraiture (with a nod towards Veronese), you have spent a fruitless year dilating on Oriental motifs in Regency caricature, and your funding is up for annual review. Evelyn Waugh's poor Paul Pennyfeather from Decline and Fall, sent down for indecent behavior ("I expect you'll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That's what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behavior"), might serve as fair warning for what happens when things turn south, and why a graduate student should avoid attention. David Lodge's campus trilogy with Philip Swallow and Morris Zapp--Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work--can also do a good turn to any young adjunct professor contending with his generation's Stanley Fish.

But as a guide to studying the likes of art history years on end (which can include a visiting lectureship here or there), Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution is the closest one comes to Baedeker's. Jarrell's erudite putdown of Benton, based on the poet's experience teaching at the progressive Sarah Lawrence College for Women in the late 1940S, should be awarded each year as the booby-prize to the most ill-treated graduate student in the realm--a consolation that life at school has always been strange, and that progress can sometimes mean a stampede over your mangled corpse. The life of the mind may be all that and a bag of chips, but it's nothing up against the life of the stomach. The motivating factors of grad-life can be as base as they come.

At the opposite extreme to grad-life is the undergraduate. At the Benton where I studied art history as a graduate student, and which I had an occasion to revisit, the dew that collects on these princes and princesses is the ichor of Greek mythology. Here a fountain replenishes itself every year with fresh faces. A Rhine flows with red-cheeked Kewpies. Fashionable gamines smell of Kiehl's. Blond tresses sprout Mikimoto. These undergraduates have been imbued with an admiration for their elders and a sinfully sophisticated libido. They are the reason Benton exists--forget Spanish portraiture and Regency caricature. They need teaching assistants, and whether you know it or not, for them you are to assist. Benton they wanted you really to believe everything that they did, especially if they hadn't told you what it was."

The daily psychodrama mostly unfolds in the afternoons, during office hours in the Brutalist building you called home. The slender legs and arms of future film-makers, auction-house workers, and assistants on the Council on Foreign Relations litter the corridors like limbs from sacrifice. Across from your temporary office, a professor in Chinese art slams her door pointedly at your arrival. You press into your fourth decade of life, but you have yet to be accorded the respect that comes from adulthood. The fact that you are the most educated, privileged person who is not a felon or insane to live this far below the poverty line is not lost on you. You take a pauper's pride in penury, as though asceticism has focused you on your studies and weakened you from deviation. …

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