Professors present micro-lectures for Artful Dodger series

The Artful Dodger lecture series merges the worlds of art and academia with an unusual approach: 30-minute Friday talks by professors revolving around new and unseen pieces at the Loeb. Photo By: Sam Pianello
The Artful Dodger lecture series merges the worlds of art and academia with an unusual approach: 30-minute Friday talks by professors revolving around new and unseen pieces at the Loeb. Photo By: Sam Pianello
The Artful Dodger lecture series merges the worlds of art and academia with an unusual approach: 30-minute Friday talks by professors revolving around new and unseen pieces at the Loeb. Photo By: Sam Pianello

Assistant Professor of Economics Ben Ho scored a spot in the Artful Dodger by chance—the opportunity practically fell into his lap.

“I was at some event, and happened to be seated next to Elizabeth Nogrady, who runs the series,” said Ho.

His presentation, held on Friday, Oct. 3, was entitled, “The Price of Beauty: A Behavioral Economist on Value in Art,” and discussed ideas of pricing and valuing the intangible art. He also touched on the inherently personal, interpretative qualities of both the worlds of economics and art, using Andy Warhol and Richard Prince pieces as a starting point for the exploration.

“For example, one student project in my class ran an experiment where they gave away coffee with different cards with stories printed on them. They found the story printed on the card (about fair trade or about shade grown) affected the subject’s perceived taste of the coffee. I also have done research on how the associations with the things we consume affect how we value something,” said Ho.

Prior to his talk, Ho, a behavioral economist with a concentration and interest in environmental economics, who teaches courses in behavioral economics, political economy and micro-economic theory, had no professional experience with art, despite his own personal interest in the subject.

“I’ve never actually talked publicly about art before, so it was a little intimidating…I based the talk on some of my discussions with a curator at the Museum of Modern Art and the vice president of Kickstarter, a Vassar alum. Both were interested in measuring their impact on the economy, and my work in environmental economics back at the White House happened to be relevant,” said Ho.

Held in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, each entry of the Artful Dodger series consists of a 30-minute talk by a person from the Vassar community—often a professor, but not necessarily. Administrators, experts, researchers or simply those passionate about a particular subject involving art are welcome to develop a concept for the series. Following the talk is a 15-minute period, during which the audience may ask questions and interact about the subject at hand with the speaker. The series appears to be more casually-styled than traditional lectures.

The Artful Dodger is often a forum for dissections, like Ho’s, involving interpretation and personal ownership or bias. Others, such as Associate Professor of History Michaela Pohl, gave a different kind of talk for the Artful Dodger on Friday, Oct. 10, with a historical slant rather than an economic one, stressing the centrality of interpretation in the study of photographs.

“I like using photos, but they always require a lot of narration about the point of view of who made them, why they made them…They need to be discussed and positioned and narrated in order to let the viewer make up their own mind, so that’s something I really liked to do with this talk; I gave a lot of background, but ultimately, I left it up to the viewer to interpret the photo with help from me. And then in the discussion afterward I asked [the audience] some questions too,” said Pohl.

This level of interpretive discourse was key to Pohl’s talk, “Three Photographs of Russian Soldiers,” which examined the eponymous trio of pictures by Jewish Red Army photographer Yevgeny Khaldei, taken in 1944-1945. Pohl explained their historical context, both in the modern and canonical sense, as she found many connections to the summer’s international conflicts between Russia and its bordering states, in addition to fertile ground involving the meaning of being a Red Army soldier at the time and the weight of the victory in Russian society.

Pohl, however, a 15-year veteran of the faculty whose teachings and studies focus on Russia and Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan and Chechnya, sees the loose way the Artful Dodger series is billed (described on Vassar’s website as “relaxed and informal discussions”) as somewhat misleading.

“It’s not really that casual for the speaker. It seems casual for the audience, but…you still have to prepare. It was actually unhelpful for me because I didn’t have a place to put my water and my lectern notes. There’s a reason why we have lecterns and things like that, so ‘casual’ makes it less comfortable for the speaker… [It’s a] pretty academic talk,” said Pohl, adding, “Maybe what makes it casual is that the professor who speaks isn’t always a specialist on that art or they may do something way out of their field. But that doesn’t make it casual. It’s in a unique setting…it gets people to the art museum.”

The speakers’ experiences giving the talks were on the whole positive, with receptive, enthusiastic audiences that attend in reliably large numbers. “It was a very sophisticated discussion and it was very nice to get that sort of public feedback rather than from a class, because they’re a self-selected audience. They pay a lot of attention and they really want to be there, not that students don’t…Since it was an adult audience, their memory is longer, so when I talked about the war and after that about Kruschev, who gave Crimea to Ukraine, a couple of people in the audience nodded because they actually remembered those events,” said Pohl.

Ho shared Pohl’s positive experience. “It was a lot of fun. The gallery was packed and the audience was very engaged and asked great questions; all the people that came to the talk were very enthusiastic about it. I think people interact with art in many different ways and it is neat to learn about how others perceive it,” said Ho.

The Artful Dodger series also acts as a reminder—or even an introduction—for audience and speaker alike to the tucked-away haven of endless resources and artistic density that is the Loeb. “I actually had never been in the Loeb Center until I was invited to speak at this event. It was a nice surprise to find such a well curated collection, and a nice refuge on campus,” said Ho.

In effect, the series unites the diverse members of the campus community with a sense of togetherness founded on intellectual and sensory discovery. “I think it brings people together—students, teachers, administrators, everyone involved. That is something unique to this event,” said Pohl.

Likewise, although this was Ho’s introduction to the Loeb, it was an experience that brought him closer to students. “I took a lot of art history classes in college and so I had a lot of fun preparing. It brought me back to my college days.”

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