Themester 2016 explores vast role of beauty in the human experience

College of Arts and Sciences examines beauty's many facets through dozens of public programs and events

  • Aug. 29, 2016


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Beauty is the focus this fall of the Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ eighth annual Themester. Students and faculty are examining beauty as a core component of human experience through undergraduate courses and dozens of lectures, films, performances, exhibits and related events.

Philosophy has long tried to explain the tight grip beauty has on human consciousness. More recently, cognitive science has shown the way our neurons fire in response to stimuli that we associate with our concepts of beauty. Yet, in contemporary times, beauty's centrality as a serious topic of critical and intellectual engagement has been minimized by pressing social, political and economic matters that presumably exist outside its domain.

“Beauty is part of the claim all things and ideas have on us,” said Ellen MacKay, chair of the Themester 2016 advisory committee and associate professor of English. “Far from being trivial or superficial -- both attributes we sometimes assign to the aesthetic -- beauty is a concept that has motivated great works of philosophy and a supposedly universal quality that has fueled terrible prejudice.

“This year’s Themester will consider why beauty matters and how it shapes human consciousness, human history and the human effort to understand the world around us. For students choosing majors and thinking about future careers, engaging these questions will prove incredibly timely and rewarding.”

Themester 2016 offers a calendar filled with opportunities for the public to join in a wide-ranging exploration of beauty.

Why is an object perceived as beautiful by some, yet considered ugly by others? In “Beauty or the Beast: Debating the (de)Merits of Mathers Museum’s Architecture,” two IU historians take opposite positions on the Mathers Museum of World Cultures building. Built in the early 1980s, the structure is an example of Brutalist architecture, a modernist style reviled by some and revered by others. Professor Eric Sandweiss of the Department of History and professor Michael Dodson of the Dhar India Studies Program will square off Sept. 9 for a spirited debate on the relative beauty (or lack thereof) of the Mathers Museum building.

The Mathers Museum of World Cultures is also presenting three exhibitions exploring ideas of beauty and its social contributions in different world cultures: “Costume: Beauty, Meaning and Identity in Dress,” on view through Jan 29; “Hózhó: Navajo Beauty, Navajo Weavings,” on view through March 5; and “Siyazama: Traditional Arts, Education and AIDS in South Africa,” on view through Dec. 18.

“A Thing of Beauty,” Themester’s first-ever podcast series, features six College of Arts and Sciences faculty discussing a local example of material culture of their own choosing, a “thing of beauty” that provides the foundation for a conversation exploring the many intersections of aesthetics, art, discipline and passion with surprises along the way. The series is hosted by Claire Repsholdt, a senior majoring in English and history.

The political and cultural nuances of the idea of beauty form the basis for the exhibition "Framing Beauty," on view at the Grunwald Gallery through Oct. 7. Through video, performances, photographs and installations, guest curator Deborah Willis invites viewers to question ideas of beauty in terms of race, gender and cultural assumptions and perceptions.

Beauty seen through the eyes of the media, particularly during the Golden Age of Hollywood from the 1920s to 1940s, is the focus of the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s “Old Hollywood Glam,” on view now through Dec. 31.

The Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology is partnering with the Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma to present “The Beauty of Shawnee Pottery,” a new exhibit that explores Shawnee conceptions of beauty through ceramic traditions, on view through Dec. 31.

The beauty inherent in biodiversity is the theme of a fall lecture series, “Beauty and Science in the Biology of Where We Live.” Roger Hangarter, Distinguished Professor of Biology, and Betsy Stirratt, director of the Grunwald Gallery, will focus on the spectacular beauty and biodiversity of the local environment. The monthly lecture series will take place Sept. 7, Oct. 5, Nov. 2 and Dec. 7.

“The Storied Landscape of IUB: Walking Tours” celebrates the renowned beauty of the IU Bloomington campus through guided, small-group walking tours that illuminate architectural styles, landscape design, natural features, sustainability, and the history and folklore of the campus. Co-sponsored by the IU Bicentennial Office, the tours run from Sept. 5 to Oct. 29.

Themester explores the mysterious beauty of the universe in “Coloring the Universe: An Insider’s View of How Astronomical Images Are Made.” Astronomer Travis A. Rector of the University of Alaska Anchorage will share his stunning images of deep space as well as an insider’s perspective from the people who make them. The talk, sponsored by the Department of Astronomy, answers common questions about space images and describes how they are produced. The talk also marks the opening of a digital exhibition of Rector’s images, to be shown on the IQ Wall in the lobby of the Cyberinfrastructure Building. The IQ Wall, with nearly 50 million pixels, displays the images at full resolution.

The Black Film Center/Archive will present filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper’s documentary “Versailles ’73: African American Beauty and Design in the World’s Eye.” The award-winning film recounts Nov. 28, 1973, commemorated as one of the most explosive nights in contemporary fashion history. The screening Oct. 10 at IU Cinema will be followed by a discussion with Draper on the links between race, beauty, fashion, politics and advocacy.

“The Dark Side of Beauty” features a discussion by College of Arts and Sciences faculty and visiting faculty experts in gender studies, media and fashion design on the global effects of monolithic Western beauty and fashion ideals. The Sept. 12 program will include a screening of “The Illusionists,” a 2015 documentary that explores the spread of unattainable global standards of beauty.

Bloomington’s Cardinal Stage Company foregrounds the beauty of language through its production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” a courtroom tour de force. Cardinal Artistic Director Randy White’s version features an all-female cast. The show runs Oct. 28 to Nov. 13.

For a complete list of Themester 2016 “Beauty” events and details, visit Themester Upcoming Events. With the exception of Cardinal Stage Performances and IU Cinema’s screening of “The Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell,” Themester events are free and open to the public, but some require registration or tickets.

Themester is an initiative of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Related Links

This photo, taken in 2009 in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, shows women wearing Baiana dress, which combines elements of African and European clothing. It is part of the Mathers Museum exhibit ?Costume: Performing Identities through Dress.?

This photo, taken in 2009 in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, shows women wearing Baiana dress, which combines elements of African and European clothing. It is part of the Mathers Museum exhibit ?Costume: Performing Identities through Dress.?

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This photo of mating monarch butterflies illustrates the lecture ?Beauty and Science in the Biology of Where We Live.?

This photo of mating monarch butterflies illustrates the lecture ?Beauty and Science in the Biology of Where We Live.? | Photo by Roger Hangarter

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Tracy Bee

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