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Morillo Reveals the Color Field of History

Ibn Khaldun was a 14th century historian whose analysis of patterns in history was ahead of its time. 

Jules Olitsky was a 20th century abstract painter whose “color field” paintings defiantly resist attempts to find pattern or narrative within them.

An historian and painter, Professor Stephen Morillo finds inspiration in both.

During Friday’s 31st LaFollette Lecture he led his audience through disciplines ranging from anthropology to zoology, then employed Olitsky’s paintings to vividly explain his own model for understanding and portraying world history.

Recently appointed LaFollette Professor of the Humanities Dwight Watson introduced Morillo—whose specialty is military history—as “an academic warrior” who, like the crossbow he brandished in a recent SPIKE TV program, “is accurate and bursting with kinetic energy.” Watson noted Morillo’s musical and culinary skills, adding that “he’s also a wicked cartoonist, and as a reader, he is fiercely attentive.”

After a humorous introduction featuring his own cartoons, Morillo turned that fierce attention o ibn Khaldun, whom he called the greatest historian the world knew between classical times and the great Enlightenment.

“At the conceptual heart of his history of the world is the creative tension between nomads and civilization,” Morillo explained. “This specific tension may not succeed as a model outside of the medieval Islamic world, but if we take his nomads as representing the operations of networks, then the great Islamic historian’s model is again on target.  For the central creative tension running through world history sits at the intersection between networks and hierarchies.

“Like ibn Khaldun I see patterns, this time in the history of human cultural dynamics. This has led me to portray culture itself as a structure, or set of structures, that links up with the two other structures of my model, networks and hierarchies, to form a dynamic, evolving, self-reflective whole.

“Every society projects a set of pictures of itself and its place in the world onto a screen that’s visible to the whole society; part of this projection is the cultural frame, which represents the cultural values so basic to society’s understanding of itself that they are assumed, usually unspoken, and practically invisible to the members of that society”.

Morillo puts this model to work in his forthcoming book from Pearson Publishing, Structures and Patterns: Conceptual Frameworks of World History.

In the visual highlight of the lecture, the historian/artist projected Olitsky’s 1968 painting “Instant Loveland” onto the Salter Hall screen. It seemed to hang in the air like a purple-to-gray/yellow mist with a multi-colored bottom edge—the sort of painting the eye scans furiously for recognizable shapes or patterns, more emotion than meaning.

Morillo explained his metaphor: “I see an Olitsky painting, in all its glorious subjective color and it’s non-narrative, non-representational indeterminacy, as what we can see of the past. It presents itself to us only in scattered material remains, in fragmentary stories that have survived for us to read, or hear, or see. The past is a vast canvas—and yet very little is clearly delineated for us. The past is a subtle color field, not a figurative narrative.”

So what does Morillo, a pattern-seeker like ibn Khaldun, see in history’s vast color field?

“If we look carefully, Olitski presents us with more than just a color field. At the edges of the canvas are straight edged intrusions called ‘edge calligraphy.’ Edge calligraphy represents the creative, revelatory margins — of societies, biomes, disciplines — that [Wabash Professor] Bob Petty explored in the second LaFollette lecture.  Here are the margins and the marginalized that social and cultural historians mine for rich insights into societies that at first glance present a simple, dominant, monochromatic story.  Here is the startling reminder to look again: the color field is more complex than it first appears.

“The past presents us with a vast color field,” Morillo concluded. “World history is an ongoing creative interpretation of that color field in all its subtle variation. It can’t tell its own story. We listen, we find parts of the story compelling, we want to retell other parts.  And in a final complication, our tellings become part of the color field that future ibn Khalduns will view.  We are ibn Khaldun, we are Olitski.  We view ourselves.

“My own narration of world history uses structures as characters in a story that tries to tell us who we are and what our world means.  Which is what history and the liberal arts are all about. And stories invite counter-stories.  Which is good.” Morillo smiled. “Because, of course, I could be mistaken.”