From the Curator's Desk

The Role of Museums in Democracies

Rusty Freeman - Friday, July 03, 2020

Regarding democracies, according to Pew Research, “Concern has been growing for the past several years about the future of democracy, and there is considerable dissatisfaction in many countries with how democracy is working in practice. But public support for democratic ideals remains strong, and by one measure, global democracy is at or near a modern-day high.”  Maintaining a democracy means more than staying informed and voting.  Civic research and participation are necessary and practical ways of ensuring that as many voices as possible are heard and thoughtfully considered. Democracies since Athens are known to be fragile and stand or fall with civil participation.

Museums have a role to play in democracies. Art works are historical artifacts that document the past’s social and cultural values. The best of these objects resonate for future generations. (Museums are not perfect and like society itself, constantly working to understand and embrace the evolution of cultural values.) 

Significant historical visual art works add depth and weight to the conversion, and may join with other important modes of culture in conversations on social and moral values.

Such modes of culture include the writers of novels and movies, but also television and comedians. Consider movies like The Black Panther and the 1977 television series Roots. I am thinking of writers and comedians who have impacted culture like Jonathan Swift to Ambrose Bierce to Will Rogers to Lenny Bruce.

Writers, comedians, movies, and television speak in a language easily understood. The best grapple with serious issues and more often than not open complex social issues from differing points of view. 

O. Henry wrote short stories about ordinary people bringing a certain juxtaposition of ironic fate and affection for his cast of characters — tramps, shop girls, the lowly and humble — who were often overlooked in society. Henry’s subjects echo his contemporary the Ashcan School leader Robert Henri. Recognizing the ordinary man and woman is something Henri, Cassatt, and O. Henry shared.

Short-story writer and satirist Ambrose Bierce specialized in critiques of frauds of all sorts and stories revealing the accidents and coincidences of life.  Bierce was a contemporary of the painter and teacher Thomas Eakins. Eakins likely read Bierce and appreciated Bierce’s perspectives on life.  During his time, Eakins was forced to hide his love of Samuel Murray.

The visual arts joins these various modes of culture offering differing perspectives on a host of important issues.  In Cedarhurst’s own collections, Mary Cassatt, Henri, Eakins, George Bellows, Paul Strand and others from time to time have pointed out the social inequalities in life.

In 2015 I wrote an essay for the exhibition Representing Labor which examined how the visual arts play a role in representing civic discourse and museums functioning as a democratic forum. Some excerpts follow below.

"This essay explores how images establish identity in social and cultural contexts by examining art’s functions with Representation, Democracy, Empathy, and the Museum as Public Forum.

Through our cultural processes we create, perhaps the most important meaning, Identity, both for individual selves and the communities we live in. How culture creates identity is a process that can be studied through the visual arts.

What museums do best is present and evaluate how the signs and symbols found in paintings, sculptures and other works of fine art accrue meaning, value, and social significance. Examining these social mechanisms by which art works become imbued with meaning may be useful for examining how meaning accrues elsewhere in culture [such as memes in social media].

Democracy is the quintessential civic forum where the meanings socially constructed in Representation can be negotiated. The raison d’être of a democracy is to have collective rule by the people who consider, weigh, negotiate, and finally compromise on differing viewpoints. The synonym for democracy is compromise.

Empathy is the moral engine that drives social relationships and keeps democracy vibrant.  Empathy is less about “wearing the other person’s shoes,” or feeling sorry for the disenfranchised, and more about recognizing the value one has for oneself and in turn seeing that self same value in every other human life.

It is within these social apparatuses—Representation, Democracy, Empathy—that museums may strive as public forums for discussion of the social issues of the day.

One of the ways museums address cultural understanding is through the art exhibition.  The exhibition is the presentation of voices through the visual arts.

By encouraging visitors to regard any exhibition as a public forum, the power begins of the visual arts as catalyst.

Museums have long been functioning as micro-forums of democracy.

Because museums have historically shown [the] art dedicated to social change, it may be that in the early 21st century with the shift towards the needs of the audience, that museums become more involved as social agents of change.”  

Sue Shrode and Eastern Leanings

Rusty Freeman - Friday, June 26, 2020

In several important ways, the conservation of Eastern Leanings preserves not only Eastman's contribution to our Goldman-Kuenz Sculpture Park, but also the legacy of Mt. Vernon native Marejon Sue Shrode.

As part of Cedarhurst's Kimball's Habitat conservation initiative, we are painting Eastern Leanings. We have a new concrete platform to place it on and keep it out of water. The paint color, a dark blue, was chosen based on some of Eastman's panel having a similar color.

John Patrick "Rico" Eastman (1952-2012) created Eastern Leanings in 2000. Eastman was known for his architectural abstractions made form interlocking sheets of steel. A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design and Arizona State University, Eastman was an accomplished metalsmith. Eastman was also a musician who played in several bands. His work is found today in many collections.

Eastern Leanings was a favorite sculpture of Cedarhurst benefactor Sue Shrode (1924-2017) who gifted the sculpture to Cedarhurst in 2009.

Sue Shrode's fondness for Eastern Leanings reaches back to her days in Santa Monica where as a young clay phenom, she was surrounded by Southern California rich in Asian American culture. Sue had met and worked with the Japanese master ceramic artist Shoji Hamada. Sue and her friend Jane Heald were chosen by Bernard Leach to be Hamada's assistants in the 1952 workshop at Mills College in Oakland, California. One can see the influence in her art.

Sue created a photographic digital collage in 2003 that featured the entire sculpture of Eastern Leanings. Prominent is the signature upturned roof of Chinese/Japanese architecture. Sue puzzled together several layers of Asian images. In the background is what appears to be a late Shang Chinese bronze vessel. On the left side of the sculpture Sue placed an image of the artist Sharaku's 1794 woodblock print, Otani, a Kabuki actor. On the right side's curving wall, Shrode skillfully counterpoised an image of a woman reading in Utamaro's 18th c. woodblock, Flower Fan. Below the sculpture, a curious pair of as yet unidentified braided cords loop in symmetry. Most haunting of all is the mysterious and ghostly image of a modern day Guy Fawkes mask-- a contemporary symbol of social protest. Sue's title "shogun" refers to the military governor and de facto ruler in feudal Japan.

What, blog readers, are we to make of this thoughtful work of art by the most important artist to ever come from Mount Vernon?

Welcome to My Blog

Rusty Freeman - Monday, June 15, 2020

Dear Reader: 

This is a blog for you, and by that I mean, I want this new initiative to be a two-way street. I will blog on current events in the art world that I think will resonate in southern Illinois, and I will write about the Cedarhurst museum's permanent collections, the Goldman-Kuenz Sculpture Park, our exhibitions, and more. I invite you to write back commenting, sharing, discussing art-world topics that you find interesting and worth our time to explore and share. Mostly, I’d like to hear from you about what you find important and relevant about Art. Art is nothing if not a two-way conversation opening onto multi-lane vistas. Let's get started! 

Cordially yours,
Rusty