Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: money, marble, mass media, and more.

The editors

December 15, 2023

Where debt goes to die: Earlier this quarter we highlighted University of Chicago classics professor Clifford Ando’s grim assessment of the University’s finances and what he viewed as its disinvestment from the humanities, which, at the time of writing, is unavailable at its original source but is pending publication in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Senior Advisor to the President, and until recently Dean, John W. Boyer responds to Ando’s critiques in an op-ed for The Chicago Maroon. Yes, Boyer admits, “the progress of the last 20 years has been very costly.” He justifies this, however, by pointing to the rise in undergraduate enrollment and prestige as well as the world-class scholarship produced by nearly every university department. Pitting financial risk against these rewards, Boyer maintains that the “balance sheet on the recent decades is in my view remarkably positive.” Read for yourself, and remember that the future will weigh both the flourishing of investments and the interest on debts.

From pinches to polish: The Italian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova was renowned for his mastery of marble, a notably difficult stone to carve. But by the time Canova had emerged as one of Europe’s leading sculptors at the turn of the nineteenth century, his Rome workshop was dominated by apprentices and craftsmen helping to bring his sculptures to life. At the Art Institute of Chicago, Canova: Sketching in Clay brings together more than half of the surviving clay models—sketches—that Canova produced to secure contracts with his clients and, crucially, to guide his workshop in the production of finished sculptures. The phenomenally expressive sculptures reveal the raw emotion and immediacy of Canova’s expressive impulses. Through March 18, 2024, an artist renowned for his polish is presented in all his visceral, imperfect talent.

Out of one, many: 2023 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” In it, Wallace analyzes the television landscape of the 1990s and its relationship with sincerity, escapism, and loneliness in American culture. Far from the Luddite rage that marks many essays critical of mass media, Wallace approaches his subject with a blend of pensiveness, nuance, and humor. Since the essay’s publication, however, the entertainment available to Americans has changed dramatically. Streaming services, social media, and online content compete for the attention once firmly held by network television. This begs the question: how does the essay hold up? Have the cultural phenomena identified by Wallace faded into irrelevance alongside MTV and St. Elsewhere? Or do Wallace’s words seem prophetic, with irony and ridicule remaining “agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture”?