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Theories of relativity Interweaving time and space with art and science
Marriage of true minds Seminar probes the many meanings of weddings

 

Marriage of True Minds
by Barbara Melville

Hum the first four notes of “Here Comes the Bride” and almost anyone within earshot instantly conjures up wedding cakes and flowers, vows and kisses, champagne toasts, the whole nine yards. That’s how fast and deep a grip the wedding holds in our public culture and private hearts.

Recently the very idea of weddings—as law, ritual, metaphor, industry—sparked a happy marriage between art and academics when Skidmore’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program shaped its summer seminar around a Tang Museum show of wedding-related paintings by Julia Jacquette ’86.

The first class began with “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God…to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony,” read aloud from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The familiar words rolled out over a wildly diverse group of students—among them a surgeon, a Mormon schoolteacher, a coach, a baker, and a jazz singer. Through the flexible, nonresidential MALS program, they planned to pursue studies ranging from salmon conservation to multiple-intelligence educational theory, from Asian studies to Francophone culture in Haiti. Twice a year MALS students gather for seminars that attack a given topic—any topic—“laterally, from many different angles, leaping the hedgerows” between disciplines in a scholarly and imaginative way, according to program director Dan Coleman.

Why weddings? Because Sarah Goodwin, professor of English, wanted to try out object-based learning, a notion Skidmore and the Tang are exploring through a Luce Foundation grant. Goodwin says the Jacquette exhibition “embodied a nexus of ideas in an intensely compressed form. I just loved the thought of unpacking them bit by bit with a group of inquisitive minds, bringing to bear a wide range of disciplines in the process.”

Meeting in a Tang classroom, Goodwin and a dozen MALS students frequently used Jacquette’s lovely, ironic wedding paintings as a visual reference point. They also read widely, dipping into the Bible’s “Song of Songs,” Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, and works of social history, art criticism, and poetry.

Jacquette’s artworks, painted in lustrous white-on-white, are realistic depictions of wedding gowns, bouquets, and cakes presented in grids—multiple rows of tightly cropped images replicating bride-magazine ads and illustrations. Gathered in front of one magnificent canvas, the students peer at sixteen torsos of lavish wedding gowns. This painting is not about “dearly beloved,” but about dieting, someone jokes. It’s about youth, creamy flesh, tiny waistlines—unattainable perfection presented in regimented rows like supermarket merchandise. The longer they look, the less all that white seems to be about virginity, church ceremony, or “till death do us part” and the more it’s about…well, shopping.

Back in the classroom, discussion heats up: if Jacquette’s wedding-gown painting focuses fixedly on the “sexiest” parts of the female body, are they sexy? “Didn’t do it for me,” a male student says. “It looks like some agent told a model to put on this dress and pose.” Another finds the sumptuous regalia of the gowns (all that lace and satin, beading and furbelows) “more suited to royalty.” That prompts someone else to suggest that a wedding is the one time an average person gets to be treated like royalty. But then, you almost have to be royalty to pay for so-called spectacle weddings. “The $80,000 wedding—what is the attraction?” one student wonders. “And what does it say about us as a culture?” The wry response: “It says, ‘if this wedding is not perfect, I will never have another shot at perfection.’” Another student suggests that “weddings are seen as a happy ending, an entity unto themselves. I knew one bride who broke down and sobbed after the reception. She had dreamed about her wedding day all her life—now she had nothing to look forward to.”

How about weddings as a form of fine art? Goodwin suggests. After all, “there is something in the experience of art that connects us to others in magical, spiritual, deeply satisfying ways. Same with weddings: you feel that what you are doing is valuable, it is beautiful, it connects you with other people, and it takes you outside time.”

Throughout the week
, the students compare and contrast weddings across a wide range of readings. They start with Solomon’s love poetry from the Old Testament and then consider Pride and Prejudice’s cold-eyed definition of marriage as “the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and…their pleasantest preservative from want.” And they deal with Sharon Olds’s contemporary shocker, “I Go Back to May 1937,”
in which the poet imagines going back in time to tell her newly affianced parents, “Stop,/don’t do it, she’s the wrong woman/he’s the wrong man, you are going to do bad things to children,/you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of/you are going to want to die.”

An evening panel discussion brings artist Jacquette together with former Skidmore chaplain Tom Davis and sociologist Chrys Ingraham, whose White Weddings is an assigned reading and a searing indictment of America’s $32 billion “wedding-industrial complex.” The question is not what weddings do for us, claims Ingraham, but what they do to us: as powerful corporate and cultural mechanisms, weddings inculcate and perpetuate paternalistic, hierarchical, and heterosexual values. She describes a “My Size Bride” Barbie doll, clad in a white wedding gown that fits little girls age four to seven, as an example of how “our romantic feelings have been conflated with conspicuous consumerism.”

“You sociologists are going to kill romance!” jokes Davis, who rebuts with the poignant observation that weddings help us fend off loneliness. “There’s been a rise in consumerism at the same time as divorce rates rise,” contributes Jacquette. “Is a spectacle wedding a way of diverting oneself from anxiety?” She admits disarmingly that for her, painting all those luscious wedding icons is a way to control the anxiety prompted by so much choice in so materially abundant a society.

What might have struck some students initially as a frothy, easy topic for a graduate-school seminar is turning deep and dark. And that’s before the session on Freud, who blames marriage for forcing our naturally complex sexualities into an unnaturally permanent, monogamous construct. While he admits, in Civilization and Its Discontents, that mutual love can be a powerful source of human happiness, Freud also complains that “the requirement that there shall be a single kind of sexual life for everyone disregards the dissimilarities…in the sexual constitution of human beings; it cuts off a fair number of them from sexual enjoyment and so becomes the source of serious injustice.”

Not surprisingly, “leaping across hedgerows” happens; facts flirt with ideas, increase and multiply. Sparks fly too:
a heated discussion of same-sex marriage—the same day the US senate debates a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman—brings one student close to tears and leaves another yearning for more thorough debate.

The final nail-biter was that first grad-level term paper—twenty pages, multiple sources, focusing each student’s proposed area of study on an aspect of weddings. “I had never written a paper after living so much for so long,” one student suddenly realized. It was “the most challenging and frightening thing I’ve had to do in over thirty years,” admitted another, a Latin teacher whose paper described upper-class ancient Roman weddings that were so sumptuously excessive that Augustus tried to legislate against them. An artist in the class skillfully analyzed Jacquette’s paintings.

A historian’s study of wedding fabrics in nineteenth-century America contained actual swatches of bridal gowns (including plaids). Only the salmon conservationist threw up his hands: instead of relating weddings to fish, he contrasted extravagant “trophy weddings” with sober, practical Amish wedding rites.

The papers and course evaluations revealed how the museum component of the seminar awed and delighted students. They also described how some initially cynical attitudes evolved in spite of Ingraham’s criticisms. Wrote the baker, “I came to see weddings as much larger than a bride and groom…as community celebrations, promises of optimism.” After reading Freud, the educational consultant better understood his own wedding as the celebration of a partnership that endures “despite the full knowledge that things will change and we will suffer and die.”

In the final class, when Goodwin once again read “Dearly beloved,” it seemed clear that catching a garter or bouquet may never feel the same again for those listening. At the very least, the next wedding they attend might remind them of a Talmudic story that Tom Davis told: A group of rabbis are debating which invitations are most important. They decide it’s wedding invitations, because “when a man and a woman marry, they recreate the whole universe. So one must always put aside one’s books and go see the miracle.”