U bent hier
Professor Michaël Amy from the College of Imaging Arts & Sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York is an accomplished art historian, critic, writer, lecturer and curator whose journey into higher education was launched at the VUB. In this article, Professor Amy mentions one of his childhood passions, which led him to where he is now, and shares some insights about the history of art.
Interview by Marnix van Strydonck, alumnus of the faculty of Arts and Philosophy and VUB correspondent in New York
Picture taken in Madrid by Monique Barrera
Before we touch upon some among Michaël Amy’s endeavors, it may be worthwhile to point out that his father, dr. Jean-Jacques Amy (who worked at the AZ in Ghent, the Hôpital Saint Pierre in Brussels and subsequently the UZ in Jette) was known for being one of the first doctors to overtly transgress the restrictive abortion law then in force in Belgium. We asked Michaël to tell us something about his position vis à vis his father’s bold actions in this area.
Professor Amy: “Someone needed to do what my father ended up doing as far as the issue of abortion in Belgium was concerned. Being both a feminist and an atheist, I was entirely in favor of my father’s actions in that area. Belgium was among the last countries in all of Europe that criminalized the practice of abortion. The Belgian law prohibiting abortion clearly needed to be overturned. My father did not overturn the law singlehandedly, but he – amongst the doctors who were practicing abortion in Belgium – had the intelligence, stamina, prominence and courage to see to it that abortion was finally legalized. This happened in 1990, three years after I arrived in the US.”
Though reserved, Michaël Amy did not shy away from asserting his views. The VUB provided a platform from which he could explore the vast subject of art history, while developing his own set of values and principles within his field of predilection.
Professor Amy: “I was strongly drawn to certain subjects I was studying, more so than to any individual instructor. I particularly enjoyed some among the subjects I had barely been exposed to before - I am thinking of Western philosophy, Western music reaching from Monteverdi to Schönberg, the history of Western Europe, and a course elective on French literature of the 20th century. I recall arguing with Professor Namenwirth during my oral exam whether or not Claude Debussy was an Impressionist composer. My instructor had never heard Debussy be described in this way. I felt, in school and later at the universities I attended, and on more than one occasion, that I knew more about a particular subject than an instructor did. I reportedly upset one of my teachers at the VUB by asking one question too many about the Cecilia Master, an artist active during a period, the Dugento and Trecento, of continuing fascination to me.”
“I am working, when time permits, on one of my big articles, as I call these, on the great Tuscan painter Cimabue. My students may also claim at times that they know more about something I teach than I do. I cover after all the history of western art from circa 25,000 years BCE to circa 1935, and reach way beyond art history, as good art history is always about much more than the history of art. It is an interdisciplinary field, “par excellence”. The arrogance of youth should not be underestimated. One feels the need to topple the father figure, and one tends to underestimate many among one’s elders”.
Professor Amy recalls an encounter with a work of art around the age of five, during a visit to the Cloisters (which holds part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s vast collection of medieval art) in Fort Tryon Park in New York City.
Professor Amy: “At the Cloisters, I was stunned by the seven tapestries of 1495-1505 showing the story of the unicorn. I had an aesthetic shock. These splendid works packed with mystery and drama have a truly indelible narrative drive. For a little mischievous boy then living in the Bronx, this was all terribly exciting.”
During his years at the VUB, Michaël Amy discovered the approach to art history he preferred. He went on to become, as he sees it, an impassioned generalist with a deep love for western art and architecture, who did not have a desire to carve out a narrow area of specialization which he would then go on to defend with tooth and nail and to which he would chain himself until the bitter end.
Professor Amy: “The VUB compelled its students to conduct research, peruse the literature, and write. It takes time to attain that level of maturity where you can find new things to say, in your own voice, as you establish meaningful connections between images and ideas across time and space. To me, who frequented museums from a young age, it comes naturally to work within different periods within the history of western art. Once I arrived in New York City in 1987 to study at the Institute of Fine Arts, I followed the contemporary art scene after hours, as it were, while studying van der Goes, Raphael, and Poussin on 78th Street.”
“It is rather nice to also be able to write about and interact with artists who are alive and kicking. One is freer, one tries to try to make sense of chaos, one does not have to peruse vast quantities of uneven literature when exploring what is brand new. Going back and forth, from the old masters to the new, keeps me nimble, inspired and energized. I ground the subject I study in my understanding of the western canon, which serves me as a magnifying glass of sorts, allowing me to highlight characteristics or points that have been overlooked, though my debts to the historians and critics who came before me is often great indeed.”
Besides Panofsky, Wittkower, Gombrich, and say Blunt, key figures in 20th century art history, Professor Amy considers Miles Davis a fundamental role model.
“Miles kept moving forward and shifting gears, and had this remarkable devil may care attitude. Scholars need to take intellectual risks; they need to get out of their comfort zones. The latter principle has been important for me, for as someone who has lived in the United States, Uganda, Belgium, and Italy, I experience things differently, wherever I find myself. This brings me back to my views on over-specialization within the humanities: If you work exclusively in one area, you will eventually develop blinders.”
“Being critically inclined, after more than thirty years spent living in the United States, I am still struck by a great many things which locals do not notice, or barely notice. You see things differently when peering in from the outside, that is if you keep your ear to the ground, have acquired a diverse body of experiences and are willing to connect the dots. I try to steer clear from well-trodden avenues of thought.”
If you had any advice for Michaël Amy, right before he launched his academic career at the VUB, what would you tell him?
Professor Amy: “Reach out – this never came easily to me. Build a strong and diverse network with people from other fields in the humanities, and beyond that. We should all have been encouraged to do so while at the VUB. A strong network may prove useful at every step of one’s professional and social life.”
To conclude the interview, Michaël Amy left us with a word of advice for beginning students.
Professor Amy: “If you are sure this is what you are passionate about, go ahead and study the history of art. It is not easy to find employment as an art historian or art critic, but if you work hard and do not give up, your efforts will eventually be rewarded, in some field within the realm of art, culture and/or education. Art history requires a panoply of critical skills and these skills can lead one down a variety of avenues. Do not tie yourself down to a single methodology or a single school of thought; remain flexible and open minded, think critically and express yourself both in writing and in speech as clearly as you possibly can.
“Steep yourself in the wider field of culture, for art is part of a much larger dialogue. Read art history, but also read fiction and essays outside of your field. These will make you a better writer and thinker. Solid writing is grounded in the reading of solid prose, and writing allows one to push one’s ideas further and further, but as you do so, always return to the actual work of art, and think historically. Feel free to rock the boat. When some question what you are doing, this may mean that you are not handling the problem as it should be handled, or it may mean that your approach is unorthodox and that you are ruffling some feathers. If, upon consideration, your gut tells you that you are on the right track, trust your gut, and carry on.”
“Learn a second, third, or fourth language. This will help you as an art historian or critic, and it will make you marketable. It will allow you to move beyond Belgium, where there may not be that many opportunities. Be prepared to embrace the unknown.”