Great Books Chicago Online 2021 

Participants drove the success of this first-ever online event!

We held Great Books Chicago: Exploring Beauty online the weekend of February 26–28, 2021, and reviews were overwhelmingly positive. As participant Karen Hough said:

“Great Books Chicago is such a unique experience. I participate in many other classes and groups. Nothing else measures up.”

Dave Shafer (a participant and presenter) said:

“The entire weekend was a stimulating three days while we wait for summer. I wondered, Why do this in February?, and now see that the timing was perfect.”

We hosted 31 Great Books enthusiasts over three days, discussing novels, stories, and poems centering on the concept of beauty. Readings we considered in depth included:

  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  • Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
  • Appalachian Elegy by bell hooks
  • “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” by William Shakespeare
  • “An Essay on Aesthetics” by Roger Fry

Experienced Great Books trainers led all of the discussions, facilitating deep, thoughtful exchanges among participants. Eden Pearson remarked:

“Both my discussion leaders were fantastic!”

The weekend also featured three presenters, who spoke to aspects of beauty in different media:

  • Dave Shafer, on Euclid and mathematical concepts
  • Richard Cahan, on photography and perception
  • Catherine Craft, on modern artists’ responses to the idea of beauty

These presentations added new layers of meaning for participants to consider, and connected in multiple ways with the weekend’s readings. Participants worked together in both the discussions and presentations to ask questions and entertain multiple perspectives.

Participant Alissa Simon highlighted the importance of events like Great Books Chicago at this time:

“These kinds of discussions are what America needs most right now. They provide a sort of cohesion and balance even when everyone is so different. Listening to a variety of ideas about a shared text is a simple way of forming respect for others. I look forward to the next one.”

Mining the Museum by Fred Wilson, a slide from Catherine Craft’s powerful presentation on beauty in art

Event Speakers

Three dynamic speakers led sessions on different aspects of beauty, inviting participant response and discussion.

Beauty in Photography

Richard Cahan, Cofounder, CityFiles Press

Richard Cahan estimates he has studied millions of photographs during his career as a journalist and photo historian. CityFiles Press, a small publishing company that believes in the power of words and pictures, strives to produce meaningful projects that have emotional and artistic impact. In the past 10 years, Cahan and coauthor Michael Williams have created more than 12 books—each of which has won critical acclaim and attention. Recent titles include Aftershock: The Human Toll of War; River of Blood: American Slavery from the People Who Lived It; Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II; and Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows.

Richard Cahan was born in Chicago and raised in the city and northern suburbs. He graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in journalism. He worked as the picture editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and directed CITY 2000, a project that documented Chicago in the year 2000. In addition to writing books, he helps run CityFiles Press, and he curates exhibits, including one currently at the Chicago History Museum.

The Beauty of Geometry

Dave Shafer, PhD, Electrical Engineering, Stanford University

Dave Shafer has long admired the beauty in the physical, human, and intellectual worlds, and in the things that humans create as we move around and between these worlds. Shafer studied Earth’s upper atmosphere during a winter-over in Antarctica and has worked to develop medical cameras, displays, and robotics. He became reacquainted with the intellectual side of life through his son’s enthusiasm for Great Books events.

Beauty in Art

Catherine Craft, Curator, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas

For much of 20th-century art, definitions of beauty were continuous points of challenge and redefinition. Among the most experimental artists of the period, the refusal of traditional standards of beauty was understood as a necessary starting point for making a new art suited to a new era. As a result, many faced accusations of making disturbing, even dangerous artworks. What artists and their audiences have found beautiful, and what they have rejected, provide insights not only into the rich variety of ways that concepts of beauty in art have been critiqued and expanded over the past century but also into shifts in the political and social convictions informing them as well.

Catherine Craft is curator at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas, and a scholar of Dada, surrealism, abstract expressionism, and Neo-Dada. She is curator of The Nature of Arp, which debuted at the Nasher in 2018 and traveled to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice in 2019. Dr. Craft curated the Nasher’s 2015 touring retrospective Melvin Edwards: Five Decades and the group exhibition Paper into Sculpture, and she has contributed to Nasher publications on the works of Katharina Grosse, Rachel Harrison, Ann Veronica Janssens, and Isamu Noguchi, among others. She holds a PhD in art history from the University of Texas at Austin and is the author of An Audience of Artists: Dada, Neo-Dada, and the Emergence of Abstract Expressionism and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as numerous articles and reviews. She joined the Nasher Sculpture Center in 2011.