Relevance | Director's Letter Spring 2017
For many years, while working as a curator and then a museum director, I resisted the term “relevance.” This may seem odd for someone who self-describes as a social historian of art and who has often worked to reinscribe works of art into the sociopolitical contexts that shaped and gave rise to them. Not for nothing was one of my first curatorial projects a deep investigation into the representation of childhood both in early modern Europe and in contemporary life. It was the early 1990s, as the culture wars raged, and photographer Sally Mann was under heavy fire for photographing her young children naked in a kind of late twentieth-century Eden. I wanted to understand why such images held so much power (specifically the power to anger and offend) and how they might relate to images made two hundred years or more earlier, when modern-day notions of the child and of childhood were formed.
But “relevance” struck me as putting too much emphasis on the viewer alone, running the risk of subjugating the work of art entirely to the needs of that viewer. To make something relevant might also be to not absorb the deeper meanings of the work of art itself—to impose our own ideas on it, rather than to see the act of looking as a dialogue between object and viewer, past and present.
My feelings about the word “relevance” probably started to shift around the same time that my sense of the museum’s purpose began to open out. I have always loved images and understood them as conveyors of meaning as well as (often) things of great beauty. As the American social fabric began to seem more and more frayed, and the evidence of shared American ideals more fractured, I began to feel that the museum ought, in its best form, to be a kind of living room for the communities it serves, a place that might arouse us to consider more deeply—and safely—our responsibilities to each other. And I made peace with “relevance” as a kind of code for engagement, for the possibility of wedding scholarship to accessibility in ways that might reach more visitors.
I am specifically considering relevance as we prepare to open the exhibition The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C. It would be easy enough—but ultimately incorrect, in my view—to question how a large and scholarly exhibition devoted to a single artist of ancient Athens could possibly be relevant in 2017. I can here only offer a few quick suggestions about why such an exhibition demands our attention. To begin with, it resurrects the talents and humanity of an artist dead some 2,500 years whose precise identity remains unknown but who is recognized for his virtuosity as a painter and is named for one of his most famous works (now in Berlin). As the exhibition and its catalogue have evolved, I have been profoundly moved by what close looking and a lifetime’s study can reveal. It becomes clear that the Berlin Painter was no average artisan, but rather someone of exceptional ability who marshaled that talent to make something new, something that must have evoked wonder in its day. Perhaps like many new things it also evoked jealousy, even perplexity. I am reminded of the commonality of suffering then and now, my imagination provoked by what it meant to make such remarkable works of art against the backdrop of the Persian Wars and the existential threat posed by those conflicts. And ever more as recent events have unfolded, I am drawn by art made during the time of the world’s first democracy (however flawed) and what that art and that democratic experiment can still tell us today.
While I probably remain more comfortable using the language of engagement, I am delighted to invite you to discover the ways in which The Berlin Painter and His World—and indeed all the centuries of extraordinary art in our galleries—is still relevant today, and to be open to its capacity to move, delight, and inform.
James Christen Steward
Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director