The Recovering Art Historian Visits Hanoi

February 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

In one of the gardens of the Temple of Literature, Hanoi. Photo by SRD

When I went to Vietnam I was staying with a friend from graduate school. Years before when we were earning doctorates in art history, we were in seminars together, shared child care, had long talks on the quad. The discipline of art history was, at that time, coming apart. In a world that was deconstructing everything, the classical model of art history, based on value judgments and masterpieces, was eroding and there was much hand-wringing over what would take its place.

My friend entered this new world more fully than I did but over the subsequent years I called the old world into question more completely than he did. He had a teaching career and I did not but at least I knew exactly why I was choosing a different path. In this I was aided by my rebellion from a classicly trained art historian father who was the very personification of the word “gatekeeper.” Over time I came to want nothing to do with that model.

So my trip to Vietnam quite specifically did not involve checking the Great Cultural Monuments off my list. I had been raised doing that (I was fortunate to have been taken to Europe on multiple occasions by the father I was later to rebel against), I knew how to do it, and I knew that was not the experience I wanted to have.

This was all quite disconcerting to my friend. He seemed alarmed that I was not taking off to Cambodia on my own to see Angor Wat or to Java to see Borobudur. He did not know what to do with me, what category to put me in. If I wasn’t “doing art history,” then I must be “doing the war.” But I was also not going to the Great Monuments of the American involvement – Hue, Danang, Saigon, the Mekong Delta. I visited what remains of Hoa Lo Prison, looked for the lake that still has a B52 sticking out of it, and found the plaque on the spot where John McCain was captured. But I found those things not so I could have a secondary, almost voyeuristic experience but simply because they were points of intersection between my history and that of Hanoi.

I still feel a little guilty for not seeing more Sights. I went to a museum and felt comfortable and at home there but I was happier in my cooking class. I still wonder if my friend was right that, fortunate as I was to go there at all, I had an obligation to see as much as possible. But I kept wondering, “and then what?”

The United States has a fraught, tragic relationship with Vietnam. I want to play a small part in healing that relationship. I thought the best way was to set down the baggage people of my generation tend to carry and to observe – without judging, heart open – the city of Hanoi, as a place filled with people, people who shop in markets and raise children.

But the training runs deep. Art historians interpret, transmit, and translate. As an occupational perk they travel from one place of artistic greatness to another. They may or may not be interested in the culture in which these monuments are embedded. On this trip I learned to use my training more nearly to see the whole, or to try to anyway. I saw the temples, the shrines, the objects in museums, not as isolated examples of beauty, value, ‘otherness,’ but as organically bound to the people and the land. And I learned to see the people as not so very different from me and to see the land as a part of my planet.

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