Amherst Magazine

My Life: Joel Upton, Professor of Art and the History of Art

Connection and contradiction

Professor Joel Upton

Interview by Ania Wieckowski ’03 

Joel Upton graduated from Rutgers University in 1963 with a degree in American civilization; his path since then has led him from the U.S. Air Force to the Goethe Institute in Berlin and, in 1972, to Amherst. He offers courses on the history of medieval and Renaissance art and architecture and complements and interweaves these with courses in Japanese pre-modern architecture, for example, and the spiritual foundations of artistic aspiration. His current research concerns Ai-no-ma, a Japanese architectural and spatial concept. Amherst caught up with him days after his return from Japan, where he’d spent a semester teaching American students in the Associated Kyoto Program, a program at Doshisha University that is sponsored by a consortium of American colleges, including Amherst.

On the best part of his trip

I took the students to a temple named Entsu-ji overlooking Mount Hiei in Kyoto and asked them to simply meditate. Not to meditate the mountain but to meditate with the mountain. When we arrived, 14 of us, we came into the meditation area and knelt in the Japanese way. The students sat there for half an hour without moving. Japanese people came in, talking on cell phones, snapping pictures. But as they watched the American kids from our program, they put down their cell phones, they put down their cameras, they folded their knees and they meditated. They joined us in an awareness of the space we shared, and in that moment we were all in connection not just with the mountain but with one another and the world. It was huge.

On re-entry

I bring back a deeper sense of how important this truly is, this awareness of being separate beings but at the same time connected. This awareness has nothing to do with our everyday notions of success and progress. My goal is to bring back to us in the “West” a vivid awareness of the paradox of human separation and connection that is evident in much of Japanese architecture—for example, in the engawa, which is a space between the exterior garden and the interior of the house: it both separates and connects those spaces. Our exclusive fascination with ratiocinated reality—productivity and all of that—has made us forget about the need to hold the contradictory experience of separation and connection at the same time. In Japan, with their growing fascination with our system, they are forgetting as well. And so here in the Amherst classroom, we will learn anew to hold contradictory possibilities like these together. So, for example, we look at colors: red and green, and how they’re complementary colors in scientific terms, but then we discuss what happens when you mix the two together and get a range of new colors—all new possibilities.

On what travel can teach about home

I kept saying to my American students in Japan, I’m doing everything I can to bewilder you. I’m going to talk about unfamiliar concepts of human spirituality and longing using some Japanese terms for which English has no equivalent. We’ll go to temples that differ markedly from the architectural monuments of the West. They’re not skyscrapers, boasting of size and power; their architecture is informed by other values, such as consciousness of the interplay of natural light and dark, of contradictory possibilities. And, what’s more, here in Japan you’re living in unfamiliar circumstances—in homes where people don’t even speak your first language. But as daily life here, and the temples we visit, and my terms for how we understand them all become more familiar, I will be able to raise points about home. And you will see home as though for the first time. It doesn’t matter where you go in life, but go into difference. Find difference, define the difference, embrace the difference, and you will discover something that was always there.

On labyrinths
Entsu-ji, Japan
In Japan, Joel Upton took students to
Entsu-ji, overlooking Mount Hiei, and
asked them to meditate. 

My thoughts here are debatable, and I’m not saying that anyone’s going to take them up. But say, for example, that the real goal of an Amherst education is humanistic and poetic: to come all the way back “home” and discover for the first time who we are, and then, as full human beings, to go forth into the world. Then, architecturally, we have a quadrangle here where that coming-back could be made manifest. There have been times when I’ve imagined, for example, in the center of the quad, something like the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, which has been reproduced in many places in this country. And the purpose of doing that is not necessarily to be religious but to allow you to walk a labyrinth that separates you from all distractions, so that you ultimately find, at your core, who and what you are.

On living contradictions

In Erôs and Insight, the First-Year Seminar that I teach with Arthur Zajonc, we ask the students to find the contradictions in their own life and to define, experience and embrace them. One time when we were doing this with the class, a student said something like, “It’s just occurred to me that I have hidden all my life from the contradiction that I am.” We asked her what she meant. She said, “My father is Austrian, and my mother is Chinese, and whenever I go to China, I speak Chinese and do everything I can to be like my mother’s family, and I fail. And whenever I go to Austria, I speak German, and I try everything to be like my father and his family. And I fail. I have spent my life in a kind of schizophrenic tension—I don’t fit there, and I don’t fit there—and feeling that I am an empty person.” She actually said words like this: “I am neither this nor that.” Well, in our seminar we said, “Now go the next step. You are an infinitely complicated embrace of that contradiction. You are richer for it. You are not obliged to choose—you are this new thing.” And it was wonderful.

Wieckowski is a writer based in Boston. Her last piece for Amherst was an interview with William Pritchard ’53, the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English (Summer 2007).

Photos by Frank Ward and J.M. Upton.