Last Word: Bending the Lens

Teaching Students to Look Deeper

For years I’ve been introducing students in my college-level fine-arts courses to the photographs of Diane Arbus (1923–71). Old friends of mine by now, the images created by this “photographer of freaks” have intrigued me since I was an undergraduate myself. There’s the frustrated little boy in Central Park clutching a toy grenade and looking as if someone’s pulled the pin on his own explosive core; the circus giant folded origami-style into his terrified parents’ tiny living room for fear he’ll scrape the ceiling; the tattooed carny with x-ray eyes who could be a real-life double for Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man. There are, as well, the assorted prostitutes, strippers, and drag queens whose lives Arbus described as having the “quality of legend,” the men with shaved bodies and tucked-away genitals pretending to be women and the women with plastic bodies and tucked-away souls pretending to be young. Together they form a communion of beings as ethereal as saints, whose lovely, silver-tone relics seem at home under glass.

Projected onto a lecture-room wall, their dearness vanishes. No longer objects to be held and studied like jewelry, the photos assume the scale of billboard graphics, which one might think would heighten their power. Lately, however, my students seem less responsive to Arbus’s pictures than they once were, even if I try nudging them in the direction of honest emotion with a few lines from Grace Bauer’s tribute poem “The Eye of the Beholder.” “Run your hands / across your average face, / your normal body,” Bauer dares my classes in her evocation of Arbus, “And tell me / how you differ from these / miracles that always make you / want to look away. / And see.”

More and more, however, my students don’t turn reflexively from Arbus’s anomalies of nature and culture, or show much interest in “seeing” in a way that doesn’t entail keeping at least one eye on the screens of their iPhones. Instead, an icy stupor possesses them, something partly induced by the bullet-point approach to learning they’ve endured since grade school—all prepackaged “data” with little affective content. Sitting beside classmates with Popsicle-colored hair and more angles on filigreeing one’s body parts than even Arbus’s subjects knew of, they balk at the chance to examine art that asks, “Who among you is without blemish?” and only half buy my claim we’re not doing religion.

None of this is to suggest I’m not often gifted with the epiphanies my students draw from the air like lightning rods—as when one deep-thinking young woman neatly distinguished the difference between art and pornography by the degree to which their fleshiest subjects “point beyond themselves,” or when an astrophysics whiz kid declared the universe aglow with the “radioactivity of grace.” Too young, perhaps, to grasp fully the meaning of the crucifix that hangs prominently in our classroom, they nevertheless recognize in their better moments the vast canopy formed by Christ’s outstretched arms, beneath which all earthly experience discloses the celestial.

I regard the classroom as a hallowed place and require male students to remove their baseball caps upon entering. Something miraculous happens there daily. In the art of Diane Arbus—or Giotto or Brueghel or van Gogh—in the street-smart plays of Shakespeare, in Mozart’s comic operas and an assigned zinger of a poem by Carolyn Forché or Mary Karr, my students touch something divine, whose utter familiarity begs to be reverenced. If they miss it at first, too cool to find it relevant, or distracted by the text messages on the screens in their laps, I don’t immediately lose heart. Experience tells me that five or ten years down the road they’ll write to say they’d stumbled on the boy with the grenade in the pages of some magazine, no older or less terrifying than they remembered him. They’ll recall the hours we shared letting great images and ideas wash over us like baptismal water, a trick to keep our hearts and minds supple against life’s hard edges, our eyes fine-tuned to behold the world as it points beyond itself.

Published in the 2013-06-01 issue: 

Michael E. DeSanctis is professor of fine arts and director of the Honors Program at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. He writes widely as a designer/consultant on Catholic church architecture and is the author of Building from Belief: Advance, Retreat, and Compromise in the Remaking of Catholic Church Architecture (Liturgical Press, 2004).

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