Spiritual Politics - home

"The Scholar's Call to Arms:
Bruce Cole Sees the Humanities
as Key to Building a Homeland Defense"




Article in the Washington Post
By Jacqueline Trescott,
Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 6, 2002
© 2002 The Washington Post Company


Bruce Cole, the art scholar who is the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, wants to link the endowment's work with the resurgence in America's core values.

That is why Cole says the NEH, the quiet bailiwick of historians, philosophers, writers, linguists and translators, should be part of -- are you ready? -- homeland defense.

"We are here because democracy does demand wisdom," Cole says. "Our democracy will be as good as our citizens. Our citizens will engage best when they know who we are, where they come from, what our institutions and freedoms are. That is the bottom line."

The first test of his proposal comes this morning, as Cole makes his initial appearance before a House Appropriations subcommittee to argue for the agency's budget. Such hearings with NEH chairmen are usually cordial, and Cole has met with several members of Congress in his first few weeks. "I found an awful lot of goodwill towards the agency," he says.

A sturdy, bespectacled man with a silvery mustache and Vandyke beard, Cole, 63, spent the past 30 years at Indiana University. He taught fine arts and comparative literature, and he directed the art history department for almost eight years. His influence was spread through 14 books, some aimed at scholars and others at general readers. He co-authored "Art of the Western World: From Ancient Greece to Post-Modernism," a companion volume to the PBS series. In the 1990s, Cole was appointed to the NEH's advisory council. He served five years, during which Lynne Cheney, Sheldon Hackney and William Ferris headed the agency.

Cheney, one of the most visible NEH chairmen, says no one will argue with Cole's credentials.

"You have to have the right scholarly credentials to satisfy the scholarly community and to pass down scholarly judgment on projects," Cheney says. "And secondly, you have to be able to talk about the humanities in a way the general public understands. Bruce has both of those things."

Edwin J. DeLattre, professor of philosophy and education at Boston University and a former vice chairman of the NEH council, says: "Bruce has intellectual honesty. He's impervious to political pressure, and he understands the nature of artistic and intellectual merit."

With a $124.5 million budget, the NEH is one of the few sources of money for general scholarly research. The agency supports a wide range of projects, including institutes for teachers and documentaries on such topics as baseball and Mark Twain. There's a lot at stake at the NEH for the people who are the core of America's education system.

"What I want to emphasize is for the core functions of the NEH to reach as wide an audience as possible, from scholars doing the work in Sumerian texts to reading groups in church basements," Cole says.

To support his idea that the agency needs to pay attention to its original mandate and establish its role as a defender of the homeland, Cole has designed an initiative called "We the People." The program is meant to encourage scholars to propose programs "that advance our knowledge of the events, ideas and principles that define the American nation."

This all fits neatly into Cole's own scholarly and personal pattern of returning to origins. The Italian Renaissance. The Bill of Rights. Even his pastimes. When he was a teenager, he loved motorcycles but eventually gave them up. Recently he bought a used fire-engine-red Suzuki 750.

When as a college freshman at Case Western Reserve University, Cole happened upon a painting called "The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul" in a book on Western civilization, he stopped cold. "It was an epiphany. . . . I wanted to know more about it," he says. The painting, by Sassetta and his workshop in Siena, was done about 1440. And from the moment Cole saw it, he was hooked on the Italian Renaissance.

But his introduction to art started earlier, with weekend excursions to the Cleveland Art Museum with his Aunt Gertrude. "She also took me to see Sir Edmund Hillary. She was expanding my cultural horizons," Cole says. He grew up in a home with few books but a firm encouragement to get an education. His father was a salesman and his mother a homemaker; he has younger twin brothers. After Case Western, Cole earned advanced degrees at Oberlin and Bryn Mawr.

The Italian Renaissance, he says, is where the discipline of art history began. "A few people might give me an argument about that," he concedes. But almost every college that teaches the history of art needs a Renaissance specialist, so finding a niche wasn't hard.

"Yes, there is a lot of scholarship on Renaissance art. I did my master's thesis and PhD on Agnolo Gaddi. At the time, I was convinced he was one of the foremost artists of the Western world," he says, laughing. "I now think he is an obscure yet fascinating figure."

Settled into a soft office couch, he smiles broadly because Gaddi did open the door for him to fellowships, academic societies and more than 50 trips to Italy. Colo's scholarly concentration got an early boost from the NEH in 1971 with a grant to study early Florentine painting.

His approach to his scholarship was shaped by many. Douglas Lewis, curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the National Gallery, remembers how he and Cole were drawn to Ulrich Middeldorf, a noted Renaissance scholar in Florence. "He had the same effect on both of us: Develop reverence for the object of art, rather than the theories around it," Lewis says.

With this focus on the actual paintings, Cole went on to make his mark. "He began his career with a series of brilliant elucidations about the art of transition, the meaning of the Middle Ages," Lewis says. "As his books became more celebrated . . . they were always used as college texts. He became one of the household names in art history."

Cole started his career at the University of Rochester and moved to Indiana in 1973. Janet Kennedy, a colleague at Indiana, says that as head of the department, Cole was someone who could raise morale through advocacy with the college administration, as well as simply keeping his door open. Julia Bondanella, now an assistant chairman of NEH, taught a class with Cole at Indiana.

His most important trait, she says, is his clarity. "He has a good eye, sees the details, and he is good at explaining. He makes what he has learned come alive and can easily show the students the subtle things, such as the changing status of the artist as a professional and a genius."

Eventually, Cole found it more satisfying to be a public art historian.

After Oxford University Press published his book on Gaddi in 1977, he had an uneasy feeling. "I was very proud to have it published," he says, "yet after it was published, there was something curiously unsatisfying about it. I realized that the book would probably be of interest to 10 people, and five of them were working on the same book," he says.

So Cole tried to develop a "jargon-free" style, crafting volumes on Italian Maiolica, Sienese paintings, Venetian paintings, Piero della Francesca and the Scrovegni chapel in Padua. "The Informed Eye: Understanding Masterpieces of Western Art," published in 1999, was another departure. He looked at all the ages of art and picked out 32 examples of paintings, sculpture and architecture to showcase. "They are all friends, all old favorites," says Cole, declining to choose the best of them.

What he would really like to do is use the chairman's office as a bully pulpit, he says, for "excellence and significance." Although fractious politics sometimes creep into NEH business, Cole says firmly that won't happen in his office in the Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Right now, Cole is settling in, enjoying a large city after 30 years in Bloomington, waiting for his wife of 40 years, Doreen, to move from the college town, keeping up with his 26-year-old son, an intern on Capitol Hill, and his 32-year-old daughter, a child psychologist in Lexington, Ky. "I love riding the Metro; I even like the smell of the diesel exhaust -- that makes me feel I'm in a big city," he says.

His office is also a three-minute walk from "The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul," which hangs in Gallery 3 of the National Gallery of Art's West Building.

Spiritual Politics - home