Friday, January 30, 2009
Rose Art Museum Closing: Student Art Responses
I suppose all of us involved in the arts at Brandeis are still in a state of shock over the announced closing of the Rose Art Museum and the planned sale of its extraordinary collection of modern and contemporary art. There is much to say about this, but for the moment, I'd like to concentrate on how Brandeis students, especially those in the Cultural Production program, have been creatively responding to this crisis. Last night, graduate students and faculty in the program gathered for a "teach in" on the situation. We discussed, among other things, the fiscal calculations that apparently underlay the Board of Trustees' decision; the faculty resolution passed earlier that day calling for the Senate to set up committee to explore the future of the museum; how the decision is being discursively framed in various quarters; and what impact the Rose closing is likely to have on the professional plans of the Cultural Production students, many of whom are embarking on careers in museums and public art. There was some eloquent dismissal of the claim made by some (for instance on the general faculty ListServ) that the Rose, and art more broadly, are somehow distinct from the 'core mission' of a university. As my colleague Dirck Roosevelt put it (and here I paraphrase), so much of our lives, especially in this era, is banal and predictable; but art is anything but predictable; it disrupts, disturbs, compells us into directions we never would have expected. And a great museum of contemporary art such as the Rose does this in especially provocative and profound ways. In that sense, the Rose has been central to the real mission of this educational institution, to generate new ways of seeing the world and to disrupt conventional habits of thought.
To my mind, the most exciting and thought provoking parts of our discussion revolved around how students are themselves deploying art in response to the news, as a form of dissent and disquiet, and as celebrations of life and hope in the face of this cultural tragedy. Some of my colleagues wondered aloud: will protest-inspired art show up in unexpected places, in classrooms for instance? Will there be popular community theater responses or performance pieces, perhaps even coming into classroom sessions?
That afternoon, over 100 undergraduates and graduate students had gathered for a sit-in at the Rose, to make protest art and talk at the mic about their reactions. The protest is chronicled in an interesting YouTube video by CP student Brian Friedberg, who visually links the Rose sit-in to a recent protest march he attended in downtown Boston protesting the recent Israeli military actions in Gaza:
The Rose closing is also commented upon by video posts by CP student Sarah Stephenson
and undergraduate Emily Leifer, who like Brian are in my Museums and Public Memory class this semester. In turn, another grad student in the class, Noam, has suggested a YouTube challenge for video postings on Rose situation:
Claire Mauro and Brian Friedberg have made a striking collaborative YouTube video denouncing the "Looting of the Rose", sampling the Nuremberg Rally scene of The Lion King:
Tonight (Friday, January 30) from 6:00-8:00 p.m. the Cultural Production students are organizing an interesting art/protest happening in the Shapiro Campus Center, "ComeSeeArt". This event is described in the Boston online art journal Big, Red and Shiny at:
The happening will, I understand, include a really interesting work of projected art as well.
In her posting Emily touches on a theme that also occupied us during last night's teach in, a student plan next Thursday to hold some kind of funerary march through campus to mourn the passing of the Rose. Like a number of faculty and students, Emily is conflicted on this action. To what extent, some wonder, might a symbolic funeral march be read as acquiescing to the death of the museum? My own sense is that funerary symbolism is sufficiently complex that if handled right, such a march could be a powerful polyvalent form of signifying practice that would far transcend the limited frame of 'acceptance' or 'acquiescence.' Funeral marches after all move us into liminal space/time that is often enigmatically generative, allowing for subtle meta-commentaries on conventional categories of experience. I can't help but think of the famous case in April 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina, in which hundreds of newly liberated African-Americans marched in mourning attire through the city streets bearing an enormous coffin on which was written the word "Slavery." They weren't bewailing the passage of slavery of course; rather they needed to perform its death, on their own terms, to make it real and in effect free themselves from its continuing specter. To be sure, a symbolic funeral march for the Rose would be quite different, but the point is that one can't easily tell just how mortuary symbolism will play out in such performances.
But I'm very curious to hear others' thoughts on this, and eager to see how this and other artistic engagements with the crisis will develop.