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There are some topics I save up because theyll be so much fun to write about. This is one of them: a list of my heroes.
Im not claiming this is a list of the n most admirable people. Who could make such a list, even if they wanted to?
Einstein isnt on the list, for example, even though he probably deserves to be on any shortlist of admirable people. I once asked a physicist friend if Einstein was really as smart as his fame implies, and she said that yes, he was. So why isnt he on the list? Because I had to ask. This is a list of people whove influenced me, not people who would have if I understood their work.
My test was to think of someone and ask “is this person my hero?” It often returned surprising answers. For example, it returned false for Montaigne, who was arguably the inventor of the essay. Why? When I thought about what it meant to call someone a hero, it meant Id decide what to do by asking what theyd do in the same situation. Thats a stricter standard than admiration.
After I made the list, I looked to see if there was a pattern, and there was, a very clear one. Everyone on the list had two qualities: they cared almost excessively about their work, and they were absolutely honest. By honest I dont mean trustworthy so much as that they never pander: they never say or do something because thats what the audience wants. They are all fundamentally subversive for this reason, though they conceal it to varying degrees.
I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s. Unless you were there its hard to imagine how that town felt about the Steelers. Locally, all the news was bad. The steel industry was dying. But the Steelers were the best team in footballвЂ”and moreover, in a way that seemed to reflect the personality of the city. They didnt do anything fancy. They just got the job done.
Other players were more famous: Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann. But they played offense, and you always get more attention for that. It seemed to me as a twelve year old football expert that the best of them all was Jack Lambert. And what made him so good was that he was utterly relentless. He didnt just care about playing well; he cared almost too much. He seemed to regard it as a personal insult when someone from the other team had possession of the ball on his side of the line of scrimmage.
The suburbs of Pittsburgh in the 1970s were a pretty dull place. School was boring. All the adults around were bored with their jobs working for big companies. Everything that came to us through the mass media was (a) blandly uniform and (b) produced elsewhere. Jack Lambert was the exception. He was like nothing else Id seen.
Kenneth Clark is the best nonfiction writer I know of, on any subject. Most people who write about art history dont really like art; you can tell from a thousand little signs. But Clark did, and not just intellectually, but the way one anticipates a delicious dinner.
What really makes him stand out, though, is the quality of his ideas. His style is deceptively casual, but there is more in his books than in a library of art monographs. Reading The Nude is like a ride in a Ferrari. Just as youre getting settled, youre slammed back in your seat by the acceleration. Before you can adjust, youre thrown sideways as the car screeches into the first turn. His brain throws off ideas almost too fast to grasp them. Finally at the end of the chapter you come to a halt, with your eyes wide and a big smile on your face.
Kenneth Clark was a star in his day, thanks to the documentary series Civilisation. And if you read only one book about art history, Civilisation is the one Id recommend. Its much better than the drab Sears Catalogs of art that undergraduates are forced to buy for Art History 101.
A lot of people have a great teacher at some point in their childhood. Larry Mihalko was mine. When I look back its like theres a line drawn between third and fourth grade. After Mr. Mihalko, everything was different.
Why? First of all, he was intellectually curious. I had a few other teachers who were smart, but I wouldnt describe them as intellectually curious. In retrospect, he was out of place as an elementary school teacher, and I think he knew it. That must have been hard for him, but it was wonderful for us, his students. His class was a constant adventure. I used to like going to school