The legacy and troubles of the Warburg Institute


Pages from Aby Warburg's Mneomysyne Atlas. Source: Mathias Bruhn


In The Burlington Review, Christopher S. Wood has a careful dissection of E. H. Gombrich’s famous 1960 opus Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation.

Gombrich was a prominent member of the Warburg Institute – but is the famous London institute under threat from savage cuts to British higher education funding. Anthony Grafton thinks so.

The value of the Warburg Institute to the study of art and ideas has been a recurring theme in my studies. Works such as Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology and Frances YatesThe Art of Memory have remained touchstones in fields such as art history and form a large part of the intellectual inheritance of currently important fields such as cultural studies.

But apparently the Warburg Institute and its remarkable library face significant funding and administration issues, no doubt as a result of the ongoing crisis of the British public sector and the UK university system. There’s an excellent interview with Grafton from ABC  Radio National here.

Martha Nussbaum on the shallowness of academic “impact”

In the New Republic, Martha Nussbaum (who knows a thing or two about … well, everything) has a short but flawless obituary of Sir Kenneth Dover, the noted British classics scholar whose book Greek Homosexuality “influenced all subsequent work on this topic, not least that of Michel Foucault.”

Dover’s mastery of classical scholarship impresses even Nussbaum, which is a little scary for someone like myself:

Sir Kenneth Dover, who died on March 9 just days short of his 90th birthday, was a scholar unsurpassed in his mastery of ancient Greek language, culture, and thought. What Dover could do without effort, most scholars could not do even with the most painstaking labor. When his autobiography, Marginal Comment, first appeared in 1994, I was visiting Dover and his wife Audrey at their home in St. Andrews. With a mischievous smile, he dashed into his study—to emerge a short time later with an inscribed copy. On the flyleaf was a Greek elegiac couplet in which Dover had managed (1) to use in an apposite and humorous way a Greek word whose meaning we had discussed in a co-authored article, disputing its translation with John Finnis; (2) to express pleasure at the collaboration; and (3) to compare the “daring” outspokenness of our article to that of his own memoir—all with not only impeccable meter and style, but also graciousness, wit, and elegance. This in ten minutes, from a man who wrote that he spent twenty hours preparing every hour-long undergraduate lecture he gave—so you can imagine how much knowledge those lucky students had lavished upon them.

But Nussbaum wonders whether the modern, impact-quantified research university can accommodate scholars of Dover’s ilk.

In Britain today there is a new government program called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Under the REF, scholars in all fields will be rated, and fully twenty-five percent of each person’s rating will be assigned for the “impact” of their work—not including its impact on other scholars or on people who like to think, but only including the crasser forms such “impact” might take. (Paradigmatic examples are “improved health outcomes or growth in business revenue.”) “Impact” must be immediate and short-term, and it must be brought about by the scholar’s own efforts, not by the way in which another generation might find their world enlivened by a book the scholar has produced. Britain’s assault on the love of truth for its own sake is particularly explicit, but such pernicious trends can be found in every country.

Dover would do poorly in the REF: even his widely influential ideas were not “marketed” by him, but were simply put out there to be picked up by others, a process that may take many years. And yet they changed our understanding of human sexuality. While the world mourns a towering figure (and while I mourn a man of the highest sort of daring, whom I am lucky to have known as a friend), let us not mourn the passing of the type of scholarship he loved. Let us fight for it, because it may still survive. If it does not, our nations and our individual spirits will be the poorer. The pursuit of short-term profit is death to the life of the mind.