November 28, 2012

Primate Behavior Speaker Series Q&A with Kevin Hunt

An orangutan - photo courtesy of Michael Muehlenbein
Professor Kevin Hunt of the IU Department of Anthropology is a co-organizer for Themester's Primate Behavior lecture series, along with Professor Michael Muehlenbein. The series was comprised of seven events throughout the semester, with its two final speakers Karen Strier of the University of Wisconsin speaking Nov. 28 and Rob Shumaker of the Indianapolis Zoo speaking Dec. 5. Here, Professor Hunt discusses the series and its relationship to Good Behavior, Bad Behavior.

Why did you decide to organize a lecture series on primate behavior? How did you choose speakers to invite?
It is relatively recently that Michael Muehlenbein was hired giving us two primatologists on the faculty.  We thought we would celebrate that important event by spotlighting primatology at IU by bringing in guest speakers. We looked for primatologists who were doing interesting work that was in the news or widely discussed in the field.

How will the series appeal to students outside of the sciences?
Animal behavior in general, but primatology in particular, appeals to a broad audience because it often sheds light on human behavior and human society.

Are primates sentient of their decisions to exhibit “good” or “bad” behavior?
Rarely.  Some primates have a sense of guilt, I would guess (nobody knows for sure) when they behave in ways they know will be unexpected in their social group, but my opinion is that experiencing the feeling that they're behaving 'badly' is unusual in primates, except for humans.

A macaque - photo courtesy of Michael Muehlenbein

What have you learned about primates in your career that is most surprising?
When we look for human-like traits in primates, their presence is dispersed across the order; our closest relatives aren't always the primate that most closely expresses human-like traits.  

For more information on this speaker series, please visit 


Rebecca Kimberly
Themester 2012 Intern

November 6, 2012

"Pioneers and Exiles: German Expressionism" Exhibit Q&A

Jenny McComas, curator of Western Art after 1800 for the Indiana University Art Museum, discusses the new exhibit exploring works of art in German Expressionism that connect to moral behavior.

Courtesy of IU Art Museum.
How does this exhibit connect to Themester 2012?

The exhibition provides an opportunity to examine what constitutes ethical behavior in the art world. One section of the exhibition focuses on the impact of World War II on German Expressionist art. Seventy-five years ago, in July 1937, the Degenerate Art exhibition opened in Munich. This exhibition was one of the Nazis’ most spectacular undertakings in the realm of cultural propaganda. The exhibition, comprised of six hundred works of art recently removed from Germany’s state-run art museums, was meant to discredit German Expressionism—previously considered Germany’s proudest accomplishment in the field of modern art. Degenerate Art and its aftermath—the sale of most of the so-called degenerate works abroad—were examples of bad behavior at a governmental level. These sales presented potential buyers with an ethical dilemma as they had to consider whether it was “good” or “bad” to purchase these works for their own collections. The exhibition includes three works that the Nazis “purged” from German museums, including one that was featured in the Degenerate Art exhibition. I will be discussing these issues further at a gallery talk on December 5.

What inspired this exhibit?

A number of factors inspired the exhibition. As an art historian, my primary area of research is in early twentieth century German art, so it was natural to propose an exhibition that takes advantage of the IU Art Museum’s superb collection of German Expressionist art. The concept of the exhibition was also influenced by the work I have done as the head of the museum’s Nazi-Era Provenance Research Project. In this ongoing project, I conduct research into the provenance (ownership history) of European works in our collection. The goal is to determine whether or not the work could have been looted during World War II. By conducting research into the histories of these objects, I’ve uncovered fascinating stories and found interesting connections between works in the collection and important historical exhibitions or collectors. Thus, rather than simply organizing an exhibition that surveyed the Expressionist movement, I chose to present the works in a way that would also emphasize the history and development of the museum’s collection by highlighting previous owners or exhibition histories of many of the works on view.

Courtesy of IU Art Museum.
What does the title mean? Who are the exiles referred to in the title?

The title is a reference to the individuals who helped introduce German Expressionism to American audiences. The “pioneers” are the art museum directors, curators, scholars, and art dealers who played a role in bringing German Expressionism to America, writing about it, displaying it, and creating a market for it. The IU Art Museum’s first two directors, Henry Radford Hope and Thomas T. Solley, were pioneers in this regard. Hope prepared several exhibitions of Expressionism in the 1940s and 1950s and Solley was responsible for building up the collection we currently have at the museum. The “exiles” are German artists, collectors, and art dealers who fled Nazi Germany and resettled in the United States. In some cases, the “pioneers” and “exiles” were one and the same. Quite a few works in the exhibition were acquired either through purchase from German émigré art dealers or were donated by émigré collectors.

Most IU students probably don’t know what Expressionism is. Could you briefly explain some of the qualities that make a work Expressionist?

Expressionism was a modern art movement that arose in Germany in the early twentieth century. As the word “Expressionism” indicates, these works can be broadly characterized as expressive. Rather than depicting the world naturalistically, the Expressionists utilized color and form to express inner emotions or to depict contemporary events. There were two main groups of artists associated with Expressionism prior to World War I: the Brücke (Bridge) in Dresden and Berlin and the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) in Munich. The Brücke artists developed a bold, angular style characterized by radically simplified form and expressive color, while the Blaue Reiter artists were particularly interested in the spiritual power of color and in painting’s affinities to music. Artists associated with the Blaue Reiter, especially Wassily Kandinsky, were among the first European artists to experiment with abstraction in their work. World War I also had a profound impact on German artists, many of whom adopted an Expressionist aesthetic to comment upon Germany’s social and political woes.

This exhibit will be displayed from October 6 to December 23 in the Special Exhibitions Gallery on the first floor of the museum.

Amber Hendricks
Themester 2012 intern

November 2, 2012

Why are narratives so moral?

Why are narratives so moral? Fritz Breithaupt from the Germanic Studies department has organized a conference to address this complex question. 17 speakers, including professors, graduate students, and undergraduate students, will present their answers.

There will be two keynote speakers at this conference. One will open and the other will close. Both of these speakers are "really outstanding scholars who have made a name for themselves working on this topic,” said Breithaupt. 15 other locals were selected to present after a call for papers. The prompt asked people to simply submit a short answer to the question at hand: “Why are narratives so moral?” This question will be answered by people from many different disciplines and so will be approached from several different angles.

The topic is “incredibly rich and wide,” said Breithaupt. Presentations will consider evolutionary theories, why we developed the capability to tell stories, why it is good to have stories, how we use narratives as a way to evaluate ourselves, postmodern morality versus morality in previous generations, our impulses to assign "good" and "bad" to characters, and more.

Rather than come to an ultimate conclusion, the conference will provide 17 distinct conclusions. This is a funny conference in that it will allow the audience to indicate whether they agree or disagree with the presenter’s answer. Everyone in the audience will be provided with red and green Magic cards. If they agree with the presentation, they raise the green card at the end. If they disagree, they raise the red. “I expect to get a lot of red cards,” Breithaupt said. It will serve as a nice layer: assessing the good and bad of arguments about the good and bad in narratives.

“These are quick ideas that people will throw out,” Breithaupt said. “The audience will all consider the same question and should pick at least one idea to agree to. We hope for them to make sense of it and elaborate, to ask presenters a question, to expand the argument at the reception.”

Kevin Gardner, an undergraduate presenter, said that the conference should appeal to undergraduates because it “will bring professors from many disciplines to discuss one topic. An undergraduate who has been focusing on one area will learn from other departments.”

Hopefully audience members will come to their own conclusion about why narratives are so moral, if characters can exist outside the spectrum of good and bad. “I am one of the people who say characters cannot exist outside of that spectrum,” Breithaupt said. He believes that although the language we once used in terms of morality is disappearing and our perceptions of morality are fading, we cannot help but assess characters morally.

Of course people can disagree. Attendees are encouraged to question the ideas of the speakers, to decide for themselves. This conference will entertain multiple different perspectives and will hopefully shape many more.

For a schedule of the presentations and more information about the conference, see

Amber Hendricks
Themester 2012 intern

Themester Gallery Tours at the IU Art Museum

From now until May, the IU Art Museum will host gallery tours with the theme of "Good Behavior, Bad Behavior." Two docents, IU undergraduates Adam Grossman and Emma Bressler, give their takes on the collection and the tour. 

What can people expect to learn from these gallery tours?
"Judith with the Head of Holofernes"
Image courtesy of IU Art Museum

EMMA: I think people can expect to learn two things from these gallery tours. The first is how to analyze art. In these tours, unlike many others, we don't just throw facts at you. Instead, the tour is much more interactive. Questions are asked about what you see in the artwork and what this leads you to think. These tours help to grow the skill of looking at a piece of art and trying to decipher its meaning. The second thing people will learn is more about themselves. Throughout the tour we ask for opinions about whether you think a piece of art is showcasing good morals or bad morals. People will have the opportunity to reflect on their own personal morals and grow a stronger sense of self through the process.

ADAM: These gallery tours can teach a little about art history and expose you to what a unique art museum IU has. They also teach you a lot about yourself. You learn that you really are good at looking at art and most people find that they enjoy it. The confusing moral questions that the artworks pose teach you about how you really see the world, and the tours ultimately teach you the true value of art in philosophy, politics, and culture.  

How does the art chosen relate to good and bad behavior? What sorts of good or bad behavior are represented?
New Caledonian mask
Image courtesy of IU Art Museum

EMMA: The art chosen for our tours shows a variety of good behavior, bad behavior, as well as behavior that could go either way. One piece of artwork that could be considered good behavior is a Japanese series of prints about filial piety. It depicts different vignettes of children doing deeds for their parents. An example is a boy fanning his dad and wearing minimal clothing in order to sacrifice his own body to the mosquitoes that surround them. A piece of artwork that shows bad behavior is a print in the series called "Rakewells Progress." This print is one of my favorites because there is so much going on! It shows a wild 18th century party being thrown at the home of the newly rich Tom Rakewell, the hero of the story in the prints. This lavish party includes prostitutes, a woman setting fire to a painting, a woman stealing an intoxicated Tom's watch, and many appalled servants. Instead of saving the money he inherited, Tom spends it on partying where he ultimately catches syphilis (a death sentence in the 1700s) and dies. There are also pieces like "Judith and Holophernes," where the beautiful Judith decapitates the General (Holophernes) of the army that took over her city. In the painting you can see how torn Judith feels. She just saved her city, but she had to kill a man in the process. 

ADAM: Each piece of art relates to good and bad behavior in a unique way. In some pieces artists try to pass moral judgement on the subjects of the artwork. One such piece depicts, in profanity, the downfall of a man who spends all his inheritance on indulgence. In others it is the purpose of the artwork that raises questions of good and bad -- the ethics of propaganda. While, still, in others it is the tradition surrounding the piece of art that raises moral questions. The variety of pieces do well to address the depth of the good and bad behavior topic, and give us a chance to examine the diversity of manners through which the issue presents itself. 

In your opinion, which piece is the most representative of the theme of Good Behavior, Bad Behavior? Why?
African Esu figure
Image courtesy of IU Art Museum

EMMA: It's hard to choose just one! One of the most interesting pieces to me, morality wise, is the mask "Apouema." This mask comes from a native group of people form New Caledonia, which is just east of Australia. The mask is commonly worn by the chief (although at times there are exceptions to the rule) during mourning. When wearing the mask, the chief would often be armed with a dagger or a club and both threaten and attack various members of the community, including children. I find this so interesting because in modern western society we look at this as bad morality; a person shouldn't be hurting others for no apparent reason other than wearing a mask. But in the society where this mask comes from it is acceptable behavior. This behavior is used by the chief and other high up officials to demonstrate their power. Even more interesting, this is still being done today! 

ADAM: In my opinion the most representative piece of the "Good Behavior, Bad Behavior" theme is the "Staff for Esu." It is the head of a staff crafted by the Nigerian Yoruba people depicting their god Esu. Esu is a perfect example of a good behavior, bad behavior paradox. He is a spirit of chaos, a trickster, who leads people astray in order to teach them meaningful and powerful lessons about the world, others, and themselves. His behavior leads one to ask the central question that unites good and bad behavior: "Do the ends justify the means?"

For more information on the tours, visit

Rebecca Kimberly
Themester 2012 intern