Art for the Ages

Harvard professors rank the most important works in their fields

It’s safe to assume that most Harvard students want to leave a mark in the books. This week, FM emailed professors to find out which artistic work in their field they think most shaped history. Please note: If you’re in a class with one of these professors, we just figured out your final paper topic.

Amanda J. Claybaugh, Professor of English, gave us two picks: “Well, the obvious choice is ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ which persuaded northern readers to advocate for the end of slavery. But I’m guessing everyone else will have already chosen that one, so I’ll say ‘Gone With the Wind,’ the movie, which continues to shape how people think about the Reconstruction period even today: people watch the film for its compelling love story, and, in the process, they absorb a depiction of the Confederacy as a heroic Lost Cause and, much worse, of Reconstruction as a time when corrupt carpetbaggers oppressed noble southern whites and uppity former slaves sexually threatened white women.”

Suzanne P. Blier, Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and Professor of African and African American Studies, opted for an African sculpture: “The famous head of Olokun (the goddess of trade and the sea), a c.1300 C.E. cast bronze head from the city-state of Ife in what is today Nigeria. This extraordinary work, first discovered and publicized by the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius, not only was featured in publicity for the 1977 FESTAC (an international festival of Black arts and culture), hosted by Nigeria, but also in the memoir by Nobel Prize winner, Wole Soyinka, ‘You Must Set Forth at Dawn.’”

Matthew B. Kaiser, Associate Professor of English, took a turn for the sciences: “Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species.’ Though it is not a work of literature per se, it is the Victorian text that had the most profound historical impact, not only because it redefined what it means to be human, but because it dramatically rewrote human history, conflated biology in the popular imagination with historical change itself.”

Richard Beaudoin, Preceptor in Music, couldn’t choose a single work: “Once, while a student London, I heard Sir Georg Solti (whose conducting scores were just donated to Harvard’s Loeb Music Library) being interviewed by the BBC before his conducting of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Beethoven’s Ninth is often spoken about as the most historically important work in the Western Canon, and the interviewer was trying to get Solti to say the same. And I recall Solti replying that, on the contrary, there were hundreds of works, some large and some small, that had enormous impact on the history of music. And that to try and single out one work was to miss the point, both of music and of history.”

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