Monday, March 23, 2009

The Rose Museum and the Souls of the Dead

At the recent symposium at the Rose Art Museum, "Preserving Trust: Art and the Art Museum amidst Financial Crisis," (March 16, 2009) I was moved and surprised that repeated references were made to the souls of the dead. Poet-laureate Robert Pinsky introduced the theme in his allusions to Keat's poem on the nightingale: only we, who are born to death (that is to say, to the knowledge of our deaths) are compelled to engage in creative aesthetic practice. We do not simply repeat the songs which have been handed down from previous generations, we are compelled to seek forms of symbolic immortality through innovation, through rupture, through alteration. This impulse is embedded in the practices of contemporary art and celebrated in the contemporary art museum as an institution. Paradoxically, in entering into a contemporary art museum such as the Rose, we simultaneously celebrate novelty and the past, the promise of new life amidst reverence for those who have come before us and who are no longer present.

We deny the lingering presence of the dead at our peril. Graduate student Brian Friedberg argued in his commentary that if those of us in the university community do not attend to our responsibilities vis a vis the museum, the building will be "haunted" by the uncanny presences of those who have been neglected, be they benefactors or artists.

This theme was developed in a most remarkable way by Ms. Joyce Perkin, a great-niece of Edward and Bertha Rose about what the Rose Museum has meant to her. She noted that Edward and Bertha did not leave children behind, and thus there were none to see Kaddish, the prayer of life, for them. Yet she has felt that each time a visitor to the museum engages with a great work of art, that is a meaningful act of Kaddish, a prayer of life, a kind of Yahrzeit (annual memorial for the dead.) See her remarkable two and a half minute commentary at the start of:

followed a little later by an exploration of this theme by Robert Pinsky.

It occurs to me that these dynamics of ancestral presence (and absence) are especially true for an institution such as the Rose, which emerges primarily out of Jewish collections in the postwar period. Inevitably, such collections are assembled in the shadow of the Holocaust and memories of the violent expropriation of Jewish art collections in Nazi-occupied Europe. To be sure, contemporary art is not an exclusively Jewish phenomenon, but one can argue that Jews, as collectors, dealers and artists have played a profound (perhaps even leading) role in the history of contemporary art. This particular art collection is thus, for many, a kind of enduring memorial to the survival of Jewish philanthropy and Jewish aesthetic impulses. Hence, in part, the intense physical and spiritual anguish experienced by many as they ponder the impending close of the institution as a public art museum and the threatened sale of its major works.

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