A History of European Art
William Kloss, M.A.
Independent Art Historian
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This is a very long course at forty-eight lectures. Most Great Courses packages are twenty-four or thirty-six lectures. But then it covers a lot of territory. The survey begins with Carolingian and Ottonian art in the late Middle Ages and goes all the way through to art in the twentieth century between the two world wars.
There was a lot of interesting material in this course. It was amazing to learn how much art moved around. Works that were designed as altarpieces were taken down and moved elsewhere, sometimes simply to the museum on the site of the church, sometimes to another country. If the altarpiece was made of multiple panels it was often cut up into its separate components.
I had learned bits and pieces about European art here and there, but I’ve never taken a comprehensive course. I had never thought about how much of late medieval and Renaissance art was on one of two themes: either classical history and mythology or biblical material. I noticed that the art in that period bore a stronger resemblance to the physical world than that beginning in the late nineteenth century with the advent of impressionism. The subject matter also changes as artists began to paint based on their own inner ideas rather than on commonly known topics. As Professor Kloss says, “We have left the world of shared meaning behind.”
Kloss is knowledgeable but has an odd manner of presentation. He almost never looks at the camera, but looks at his notes or computer monitor, or seems to peer off into the middle distance. Nonetheless, he knows his stuff and is well qualified to present this engaging material.
When I was in college one of the two or three best courses I took in my entire college career was Greek Tragedy. It was taught by Dr. Robert Palmer, an old-school classicist. It is not a course I will forget.
That was some forty-five years ago, however, so I figured I was due for a review. This course filled the bill. This version of Greek Tragedy is one of the “older” Great Courses, published in 2000, and as such is not so graphics-intensive as some of the more recent offerings. That made it great for listening to on my walks.
Professor Vandiver is a first-class lecturer. Her lectures are clear and easy to listen to. She not only covers the literary aspect, but also discusses the staging of the various surviving plays. She clearly distinguishes between where the author drew from the original myth and where he (always “he,” sorry) embellished, added, or modified the myth we know from other sources.
Older does not mean inferior. The course was thoroughly enjoyable.
Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization
Amanda H. Podany, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
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This was a most enjoyable course.
I was familiar with some of the material, but I learned a lot. One of the things that Professor Podany made clear was that while we often think of Mesopotamia in terms of the great empires, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, for much of its history Mesopotamia was made up of multiple kingdoms and city-states.
One of the great things about this region in ancient history is the amount of written evidence that we have. The decipherment of the cuneiform script in the nineteenth century provided a wealth of information. Writing was done on clay tablets. Those clay tablets were either intentionally preserved by firing in kilns or accidentally preserved when a city was destroyed by fire.
There is a lot of boring administrative material, but also many other types of documents. We have legal documents such as court records, letters between kings, and even letters from the daughters of kings who were married off to peer or client kings.
Professor Podany’s presentation is engaging and her British accent is a delight to listen to. If the material interests you, you will love this course.
I recently wrote about The Great Courses lecture series on Athenian democracy. There is a lot of interesting material in this course. I wrote in my review that Athenian democracy came at the cost of maintaining a slave society. There were other costs to Athenian culture as well.
We are all aware of the marvelous culture we have inherited from Athens, including the architecture, sculpture, and drama. However, the great creations of the golden age of Pericles were funded by the Athenian empire in which client states paid tribute to Athens for military protection. And Pericles himself only held the role of general. He never had an official position in the actual governing body of Athens. His influence held sway nonetheless.
Athens paid for its arrogance, its hubris, when the client states got tired of the financial burden and turned against Athens. The result was, of course, the Peloponnesian war which dragged on for years and which Athens eventually lost.
History is a complex thing.
Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages
Professor Robert Garland, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
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I have listened to other courses by Robert Garland and have always enjoyed them. This particular course was especially good.
The material is not new to me. I was a classics major in college, meaning that I studied the Latin and Greek languages as well as Greek and Roman history, literature, art, and culture. Still, it’s always fun to review and there is always the opportunity to learn something new or discover a different perspective.
Athenian democracy was truly a democracy as far as it went. All free males in Athens were expected to take part in the governance of the state. There were a variety of roles to fill and everyone took his turn. Of course, this represented only a small portion of the total population. Women were excluded as were slaves. And it was a slave-based society that allowed the free men to have their democracy.
Of course the democracy wasn’t seamless and there were times when tyranny or oligarchy ruled the day. Still, overall Athens had a strong track record of democracy until the Macedonians put an end to it.
This course was recorded in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election and is heavily influenced by the result. Garland is no fan of the winner of that election. While the lecture series from the Great Courses are designed to be mostly evergreen, and the bulk of this course which focuses on the ancient world will be as well, it will be interesting to see how those parts referring to the election and its aftermath hold up after a couple of additional election cycles.
Nonetheless, if you are interested in the ancient world and its history and governance I can highly recommend this course.
I recently wrote about listening to an Open Yale course from iTunes on the New Testament. While the production values of iTunes U classes are not as polished as those for The Great Courses, they are interesting because you get to hear recordings of actual classroom sessions.
When I was in college we didn’t have computers. Well, we had one DEC System 10 mainframe for all of the Claremont colleges that sat in basement of Scott Hall at Pitzer College. You could get access to it by going to a computer room on one of the campuses that had three or four terminals and you could either play one of a few games or do some basic programming if you had those skills. Few of us did much with that.
Today having a laptop is essential to academic life on campus. The professor spoke at the beginning of the course about access to course materials on the server. At the end of the course he stated that the final exam could be emailed to one’s teaching fellow.
Some things, perhaps, don’t change. Like students being lazy. At one point the professor said that he could tell that many of the students hadn’t downloaded and read a certain document that he was lecturing on by the blank looks on their faces.
The technology has certainly changed. Student attitudes, even at Yale, seem to have not.
It has been a long time since I have listened to an iTunes U course, and much as changed in that time. iTunes U is no longer available on iTunes for the PC. For mobile devices it is a separate app and not part of iTunes. It appears to me that the number of available courses has been greatly reduced.
Compared to The Great Courses the production values on iTunes U courses are inferior. That’s because they are recordings of actual classroom lectures. In the case of this course recording quality varied across lectures.
Nonetheless, Introduction to New Testament History and Literature was quite enjoyable. I was familiar with much of the material, but it reinforced some of what I knew and also provided me with new material. The most interesting aspect of this course was the emphasis on the diversity of Christianity in the New testament period. Even within a single book, Acts, for example, different Christianities emerge, such as whether gentile converts need to be circumcised or not. Similarly, the later letters purported to be written Paul have a very different theology from the authentic letters. While the author of Revelation is virulently anti-Roman rule, some of the later epistles preach accommodation.
It was interesting stuff, all of it.
Jennifer Paxton is one of the most engaging lecturers at The Great Courses and the subject matter for this course is fascinating.
Paxton starts out by telling us that many of the conceptions that scholarship has had about the Celts have been proven wrong in recent years. She spends a good deal of time setting us straight. For example there was long a belief that the Celts of mainland Europe, the Gauls of Julius Caesar for example, were related to the Celts of Ireland and Scotland. Later evidence, including what we have learned from genetics, tells us that the peoples are not related. Paxton demonstrates that common culture and art does not necessarily mean a racial or genetic relationship.
Paxton busts other myths as well. She tells us that Celtic Christianity wasn’t that much different from mainline Christianity. She says that Sir William Wallace (of Bravehart fame) and his men would never have worn blue paint on their faces. She even disappoints aficionados of Scottish festivals by explaining that tartans originally varied by geographic region and not by clan. Assigning a specific tartan to a particular clan is only a couple of hundred years old and was a result of the Celtic revival of the nineteenth century.
If such material interests you, you will likely love this course. You might consider a video version, as I’m sure I missed a lot with respect to art and visual depictions of geographical locations.
While most sets from The Great Courses are twenty-four or thirty-six lectures, this series is twelve lectures. But what a lot of information is packed into those twelve lectures.
You may recall when the announcement of the Higgs Boson was made in 2012. It was a major scientific breakthrough. The Higgs had been predicted by physicists working on the Standard Model of quantum physics as necessary to provide mass at the subatomic level. After the discovery, there were a lot of jokes floating around about the Higgs Boson. (The Higgs Boson walks into a church. The priest says, “Hey, get out of here!” The Higgs Boson replies, “But without me how can you have mass?”)
In this series of lectures Professor Carroll describes the theoretical background to the search for the Higgs Boson. He talks about the researchers who developed the theory and the creation of the Large Hadron Collider on the French-Swiss border, and how it was specifically designed to look for the Higgs. He explains how the phenomenon is actually a field and not a particle, but that it’s easier to talk about it as a particle. Carroll describes how the Higgs cannot be observed directly but must be deduced by the parts into which it decays.
You may know that I buy Great Courses in audio format because I listen to them on my walks. I will say for this course, however, that I believe I missed a great deal taking the audio-only route. If you’re interested in this material I would suggest you buy the DVD or video download.
I generally buy twenty-four and thirty-six lecture courses from The Great Courses, but the material in this course looked fascinating so I purchased this twelve lecture set.
Professor Hooper makes clear that he is not critical of Einstein nor does he in any way intend to diminish Einstein’s monumental accomplishments. His point is every scientist gets some things wrong: even Einstein.
Sometimes Einstein was just stubborn. He refused to believe that black holes could exist physically, even though his own theory of relativity and the mathematics predict they should. Unfortunately, the first black holes weren’t discovered until long after his death. His choices were sometimes based on philosophical or aesthetic preferences. For example, he simply preferred to believe that the universe was neither expanding or collapsing. However, when Edwin Hubble showed him solid evidence that the universe was expanding he accepted it.
Einstein never would accept the conclusions of quantum mechanics. Again, the mathematics could not be disputed, but Einstein preferred to believe that the theory was incomplete. He spent years trying to find a way to prove a deterministic subatomic universe rather than the random one that quantum theory predicts. He never did succeed.
If you enjoy science, physics, and astronomy you will find this course fascinating.