CASVA gives innovative art thinkers room to think outside box

Members of the National Gallery's Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA), amongst bookshelves in the office and reasearch area of the National Gallery.
Members of the National Gallery's Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA), amongst bookshelves in the office and reasearch area of the National Gallery. (Bill O'leary - Washington Post)
By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, April 11, 2010

We Washingtonians know the acronyms that give people behind-the-scenes power.

We know about the villains of SPECTRE -- the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. And we've heard of the men from UNCLE -- the United Network Command for Law Enforcement. But how many of us recognize the secret force that is CASVA?

The Central Authority for Spite, Venality and Aggression? The Council for Abstinence, Self-control, Vigilance and Altruism? No. More important than either could be: the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts.

Toiling in the bowels of the National Gallery, CASVA's intrepid scholars shape what all the rest of us will someday believe about art.

We may think we come at pictures with fresh eyes and ideas, but our everyday insights are likely to echo the thoughts, once esoteric and radical, of some long-dead expert. If we look ahead to an art scene 15 or 20 years in the future, we'll find that its exhibitions, its wall texts, its college primers, its PBS specials -- even its newspaper reviews -- are likely to depend on research being done now by the unsung heroes of CASVA.

At any given time there are something like 35 of these operatives, based in Washington or scattered overseas. They work in the shadows to find new insights into art -- so the rest of us don't have to.

One CASVA scholar has shown that Renaissance patrons had such flexible ideas of time that they could know a bronze of Jesus was brand-new, yet still count it as dating to the time of Christ. A CASVA lecturer made the convincing case that a tame seascape by Edward Hopper -- nothing more than a boat, Sunday sailors, water and sky -- was in fact all about World War II and radio newscasts.

Glorying in the difficult

These CASVAnauts are led by their own version of Judi Dench's "M."

Elizabeth Cropper, a British scholar who has lived in the States for decades, is entering her 10th year as CASVA's dean. She is a petite 65-year-old and a power dresser -- crisp brown pantsuit, brown silk scarf, chunky beads. Her genteel manner is known to hide ambition and a will of iron.

"We do look for the most outstanding scholars to do the most demanding, intense work they can," Cropper says matter-of-factly. She is sitting in her corner office on the fourth floor of the gallery's East Building, with views onto the blooming trees of the Mall and the Capitol a couple of blocks off.

Cropper rattles off an impressive list of people and projects hosted by her center. She names a posse of brand-name art historians, here for six months or a year or two of distraction-free research and writing. They in turn mentor a band of younger scholars finishing their doctorates, or just moving beyond them. (CASVA doesn't do its own teaching, but it accepts and funds PhD students registered elsewhere.) And then there's the supply of visiting scholars, old and young, who show up for CASVA seminars and lectures.

Some of what gets worked on at CASVA may seem a touch obscure. Cropper touts the center's ongoing digitization of the records of the Accademia di San Luca, founded in Rome in 1593 as one of Europe's first art academies. Senior scholar Suzanne Preston Blier, a Harvard professor on research leave at CASVA, has been working on a project titled "Imaging Amazons: Dahomey Women Warriors In and Out of Africa." One of the doctoral students is bashing away at a thesis titled "Mediating the Third Culture at Tlatelolco, Mexico City." This is CASVA as a center for pure research and esoterica, on the model of an astrophysics lab.

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