The Power of Images | Director's Letter Fall 2017

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I was a student of both early modern European history and the history of the American South, particularly from Reconstruction to the early twentieth century. In a time when air conditioning had not come to student residence halls, walking in the evening was a happy relief from the stifling indoor air, and my walks took me from Jefferson’s Lawn to the squares of downtown Charlottesville, where the statues of Lee and Jackson stood guard in the dark. Courthouse Square then had not only one of the town’s best pubs but also a historic courthouse that seemed witness to the drama of American history, from the arrival of the British in the Revolutionary War to secession some ninety years later.

As I write, recent events in Charlottesville are fresh in my mind, and even as I recoil in horror at the evidence of hate and bigotry, my mind goes back to an earlier time when, growing up in Virginia, the legacy of the Civil War seemed very alive to the people around me, white and black. For me as a university student, the writings of William Faulkner—who had also spent time walking the Grounds of UVA—went to the heart of it when he wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Absalom, Absalom! is Faulkner’s novel to which I have most often returned, perhaps because in Quentin Compson, Faulkner created a character whose profound ambivalence about the South resonated with my own. I offer two quotes that seem apposite. Early in the novel, Faulkner writes of Quentin’s relationship to “a deep South dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts.” Much later, Quentin discusses the burden of Southern history with his friend Shreve: “‘The South,’ Shreve said. ‘The South. Jesus. No wonder you folks all outlive yourselves by years and years and years.’ . . . ‘I am older at twenty than a lot of people who have died,’ Quentin said.”

The prospective removal of Charlottesville’s monuments to the heroes of the Confederacy afforded a vocal minority the opportunity to exhibit their vitriol, and the images of neo-Nazis marching on Jefferson’s University with lit torches now offer another visual memory of our public life. I shall leave it to others and to other venues to consider more fully the meaning of these events. But I cannot help but comment here on the stunning reminder of how powerful images are—images that can be a rallying cry to white supremacy, images that can also remind us of the complexities of history and how alive that history remains.

I have long worked with public art and understand the challenges of “doing” public art successfully. In my view, the best public art is not simply pleasing but is also provocative and memorable, inviting us to consider our relationship to it even after we have left that space for another. Great public art should not always immediately satisfy. There is clearly art that is not suited to highly public and permeable spaces, as it may be too complex, require too much interpretation or too much context for such a space. Such work is often better suited to environments such as museums, to which we (hopefully) go prepared to be asked to think freshly, spaces in which we seek a rich and often complicated understanding of the past—even as we also go to them for pleasure or solace. I do not mean to argue that the monuments now coming down across the South should be understood as public art; the purposes for which they were erected were clearly often other, and that, too, is a much longer subject than I have room for here. But my hope is that even as we remove these vestiges of white supremacy—for the cause that fought to preserve the institution of slavery is surely that—from our public spaces we seek not to sweep away history but rather to foster a host of other venues and occasions in which to discuss and even argue about the past and its horrors, beauties, and complexities.

This fall, as in every season, this Museum will offer myriad opportunities to learn from the past. Our installation Making History Visible: Of American Myths and National Heroes was planned long ago but is now shockingly on point in revealing a few of the ways in which artists have grappled with slavery and its legacy, and the centrality of this issue to the American experience. A companion public art commission by Titus Kaphar makes history both local and universal and will, I hope, encourage discussion rather than resistance. But I would argue that even our less seemingly topical exhibitions, including Clarence H. White and His World: The Art and Craft of Photography, 1895–1925 and Rouge: Michael Kenna, speak to a past that’s not even past.

James Christen Steward
Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director