latest reviews and articles

Astrolabe Tech Made… not so easy

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Let me start with a confession: I am no engineering whiz, but I like to know how things work. I studied religion, and I often write about art, which is how I became entranced by astrolabes. Their beauty is mesmerizing, but their efficacy as an instrument leaves me perplexed. Imagine a medieval lass trying to ferret out the secrets of a smartphone, or even a dumb phone. Well, that’s how I feel, and I don’t like it.

So I’ll set myself a task: I, a Brooklynite, am going to find my way around an unfamiliar city—Boston—using an astrolabe. To get started, I ask Sara Schechner about this. She is a historian of science with a special interest in the history of astronomy, and she curates the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University. “It can’t do that,” she says. “Astrolabes,” she explains to this liberal arts major, “aren’t navigation devices. They’re early computers.”….  read the whole article and watch the accompanying video  (there’s no firewall)

Where Sacred Meets Secular

1 May 2019 ~ The Wall Street Journal
Kasuga Sacred Deer Mandala – left: 16th-C, collection of Cleveland Museum of Art; right, first half of 15th C, collection of Minneapolis Institute of Art.

By the time you leave “Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art” at the Cleveland Museum of Art, you’ll have interacted with striking works—from depictions of exuberant festivities to evocative images of deities. You’ll know that many are on loan from Japan, including a number prized as Important Cultural Property, and that they are all tied in one way or another to the veneration of divine beings called kami. You may also remember that the works date from the 10th century until 1868, when the government declared Shinto the state religion. What you won’t be able to do is concisely define Japan’s age-old “way of the gods.” And that is good.  (read full review)


An Ancient Story Continually Reinvented

10 April 2019 ~ The Wall Street Journal

20190311_135325At no time over the past 1,000 years has “The Tale of Genji” fallen out of favor with the Japanese public. Begun at the turn of the 11th century by a woman known to history as Murasaki Shikibu, the sprawling tale of amorous pursuits in a court rife with power plays came out in installments over a number of years. It was instantly and persistently popular even though, for centuries, the only way to reproduce the “Tale of Genji” was to either commission or transcribe a copy. Only in the early 17th century was the story printed, triggering yet another explosion in readership.

Beginning with illustrated books and albums, the book also inspired artists and artisans, from calligraphers and painters to ukiyo-eprintmakers, ceramists, and creators of luxury lacquerware. The resulting trove makes what many consider to be the world’s first novel an ideal subject for exhibitions, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated” is a particularly grand one.  (link to review)20190311_142934

Power Made Pretty

21 March 2019 ~ The Wall Street Journal
Detail of a Ming dynasty (Yongle period ca. 1417-1423) silk embroidery of Hevajra in the Pritzker Collection

Seeing a portrait as claiming—and proclaiming—a ruler’s legitimacy or attributing political motives to a beautifully made artwork is hardly groundbreaking. Yet for all the familiarity of its underlying concept, the Rubin Museum of Art’s “Faith and Empire: Art and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism” proves refreshingly new. It provides a much needed and highly informative corrective to the prevailing tendency in the West to view Tibetan Buddhism and its adherents exclusively through the lens of spirituality and pacifism. (read full review)

Multifaceted Devotion

19 February 2019 ~ The Wall Street Journal
‘Durga Confronting the Demon Mahisha in the Form of an Elephant’
‘Durga Confronting the Demon Mahisha in the Form of an Elephant,’ by the Master at the Court of Mankot (active c. 1680–1730) Photo: Steven Kossak, The Kronos Collections

On the third floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a gallery overlooking a hall filled with South Asian statuary, bear and monkey soldiers look on in dismay as their divine leaders are assailed by enemy arrows; light reflects off the beetle-wing jewels of a fanged goddess; and a boar-headed avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu wades neck-high in a gray, swirling ocean, a gold mace resting on his shoulder while, by his feet, an orange demon sinks to the depths. Elsewhere, scenes feature the Hindu god Krishna—as a blue-skinned child sneaking a handful of butter from the churn; as a lad, perched in a tree on a riverbank, watching as bathing beauties whose clothes he’s stolen shyly rise from the water; as a lover eagerly embracing a maiden.

These are but some of the 20 17th- and 18th-century paintings and drawings featured in “Seeing the Divine: Pahari Painting of North India.” They are by artists in kingdoms nestled in the Himalayan foothills, all but four folio-sized, and together they show off the richness of this chapter in South Asia’s art history.  (link to review)

Reclaiming a Country’s Creative History

1 January 2019

20181205_104456Floating like a teardrop pendant off the southern coast of India, Sri Lanka has for more than two millennia hosted mariners, traders and monks who’ve docked at its ports, purchased its gems and minerals, visited its monasteries and sacred sites. Successive conquerors and colonizers swept in from India and Europe, adding Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity into an already rich mix of indigenous beliefs, while ships carried works by the island’s artists and artisans to ports near and far. Just as travelers have long marveled at its monumental sculptures and murals, so have scholars recognized Sri Lanka’s artistic impact on Southeast Asia. Yet its art has often been considered an interesting but provincial stepchild of India’s.

Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “The Jeweled Isle: Art From Sri Lanka” is the latest attempt by a major U.S. museum to change this perception. (link to review)


Masterpiece Essay:

Intimations of Medieval Mortality

30 June – 1 July 2018 ~ The Wall Street Journal

Screen Shot 2018-06-30 at 3.38.38 PMSometime in the mid-1440s, an as yet unidentified artist filled a wall at the entrance to Palermo’s first municipal hospital with a 19½-by-21-foot painting designed to scare people to death—and into the arms of the Church. Today, housed in the city’s Sicilian Regional Art Gallery, this interpretation of the “Triumph of Death” roots you to the spot with its masterly composition and complex, hard-hitting message.

Filling the center of an almost perfect square, a large horse lunges left to right, its bony haunches, washboard ribs and skull-like head reminiscent of the horse in Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” which some art historians speculate this depiction inspired. But this horse is devoid of emotion: Its eye sockets empty, its body cadaverous and colorless, it charges, implacable, into the mortal world. Sitting astride is an ash-colored skeleton, a thick loop of fabric lashing a scythe to its waist.  (link to essay)



The Art Bridge

March-April 2018 ~ Aramco World magazine

Whether it is to learn, laugh or be challenged, to share discovery or wonder, art brings people together. And whether by stimulating appreciation or controversy, art helps people understand each other. This sounds straightforward enough, but is it true? Does art really do this and, if so, how? Those were my questions as I set out to write about the Building Bridges Program, which since 2007 has backed arts initiatives in the us through a total of 138 grants, all of them focused on Arab and Islamic cultures.
. . .

Art connects people because “art opens us up,” says Zeyba Rahman, senior program officer for Building Bridges. “Makes us consider and reconsider positions. Provokes us to think more deeply.”

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 1.33.44 PMRahman unabashedly aims to “move the needle for people.” The problem, she acknowledges, is that nobody has devised a foolproof way to identify, much less quantify, just what makes us change our mind about others. Researchers can measure changes in people’s intrinsic biases, but they don’t agree on which tools to use. It is also hard to tease out the active ingredients in a program and correlate these to outcomes. Ask anyone who has filled out a grant request. They sigh. They often have more anecdotes than data. They know things in their gut but can’t prove them.

So what is it they think they know? How does art change us? I set out to find out by taking a close look at four Building Bridges-supported programs, each centered on a different approach: play, laughter, visual appeal and performance.  (here’s the link to what I found)

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First Stop: “America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far” at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.  Read more here about this and three other projects I dive into.



2 thoughts on “latest reviews and articles

  1. For some reason I always found myself hanging out with minority students as an undergraduate. In the sixties there was not a lot of integration on the Lutheran college campuses Iattended and being a bit of an outcast myself I identified to a small degree with their apparent anxiety over the problems of assimilation on a white campus. The programs you wrote about would have made an incredible difference in their lives, I’m sure. When I was a graduate student, however, I noticed that one possible effect of a growing population of minorities in college in many courses was a “watering-down” of the material being taught. Those courses that retained a high level of academic expectation were deserted quickly by students who dropped out of such classes in droves. When I returned to school later to earn a secondary degree I found many such classes apparently eliminated from the course options altogether. I am sure that there were many factors behind these changes besides the changes in the student population, but I can not help but think from my personal experiences that our general curriculum might be slowly watered down to ensure student success. Western literature and culture seems to be slipping away, in my opinion, at an alarming rate. I fully acknowledge the need for all people of every ethnic heritage to receive a college education, Indeed, our nation depends on it.. I am also aware of the personal struggles that may plague students from different socio-economic backgrounds and applaud the steps being made to help them succeed in college programs. I also pray that our schools do not become mere training centers for specialized careers and that the liberal arts are not totally eliminated from college and university curriculums in order to made the road to a degree a little smoother for students who for various reasons are not sufficiently prepared academically to meet the abstract thinking skills such courses may require.

    1. Your concerns are shared by many and most valid. By all accounts, in Prof Hogan’s biology classs (the opening example I give in the piece) , the material stayed exactly the same; all that the professor changed were her teaching methods. It is of course easier to test for this in the sciences than it is for liberal arts classes where the quality of essays and discussions (breadth of knowledge, critical analysis, etc) is key. I am interested in seeing what a current study headed by Howard Gardner reveals about Liberal Arts programs (

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