Robbie Short

The utility of art remains a thorny question. Is art purely aesthetic, or should it interact with the world beyond the colonnaded confines of marble museums? Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote, “Beauty is its own excuse for being.” Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, would likely disagree. At a talk given at the Yale Law School on September 28, Pasternak discussed the ability of art to affect actual change in the modern world.

Over the course of the discussion, Pasternak enumerated several functions of art: it tells us where we come from and where we can go, it expands empathy and, perhaps most importantly, it leads to real social change. “I believe in the power of objects to tell stories,” Pasternak said.

This power, she thinks, can be especially realized in museums. The idea of the museum as a focal point of change is particularly relevant to the Brooklyn Museum, the perpetually under-attended, underfunded foundling of the New York museum circuit. Its Beaux-Arts facade of fluted columns stands amidst the vibrant squalor of central Brooklyn, an area plagued by foreclosures, gentrification and the like. This contrasts severely with the wide avenues and sybaritic apartments surrounding the Met in Manhattan’s plush Upper East Side. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Museum possesses a paltry $100 million endowment (compared to the Met’s $3 billion) and struggles to employ 300 workers (the Met enlists 2,500 staff members).

Pasternak is painfully aware of these iniquities. But art beckons hope. “Museums,” Pasternak explains, “can be safe spaces to learn, to challenge, to debate.” Her vision consists of revolutionizing the Brooklyn Museum into a dynamic, diverse fulcrum of the community. From rearranging the American art wing so it reflects the true progression of our national history — beginning the exhibit with indigenous art, acknowledging the terrors of slavery — to displaying pieces by protesters who picketed a real estate convention hosted at the museum, Pasternak has embraced artistic heterodoxy.

She speaks of her efforts as an experiment. Perhaps she will succeed, and the Brooklyn Museum will be the centerpiece of a community linked by art, unafraid to discuss its dilemmas and their myriad representations in the museum’s pieces. Or perhaps she will fail, and the Brooklyn Museum will continue as a magnificent, if often unappreciated, cultural repository.

Although this situation seems somewhat tenuous, Pasternak offers several examples of artists who have actually affected social change with their work. Laurie Jo Reynolds helped close the Tamms Correctional Center, a supermax prison in Illinois, through her work on the art collaborative “Tamms Year Ten.” Reynolds calls her work “legislative art,” focused almost single-mindedly on achieving political results.

All this begs the question of whether art truly ought to aspire, or perhaps stoop, to political and social ends. It remains unclear if art is even capable of creating lasting change within the public sphere. Reynolds certainly stands as an example of an artist succeeding in this regard, but she seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” for example, did not end the Spanish Civil War nor has it halted the waging of wars since. What public reform can we attribute to Georgia O’Keeffe or Mark Rothko? Our greatest artists are not activists, or at least not successful ones.

But perhaps politics tinges all art. O’Keeffe’s role as a prominent, female artist challenged the misogyny of the contemporary art realm, and Rothko’s brooding, ethereal color fields emerged from the smoking hull of a postwar world. Even Norman Rockwell, the most wholesome of American painters, limned a political declaration in his anti-segregation piece, “The Problem We All Live With.”

However, the power of such paintings derives not from their connection to the external world or from legislation they inspired but rather from their connection to the universal, the insurmountable and ineffable whirlwind of existence. “Guernica” cries out to us because of the wailing mother bearing her lantern searching in the night, the screaming horse flashing its fearful teeth and the malformed and ruined reaching hands, grasping for something that is not there. The context of a work is nearly always political, but its essence need not be.

The problem with political art aimed solely at current issues and injustices, is that it is necessarily temporal. In a century, the problems it addresses will almost surely be irrelevant, and it along with them. Art must exist on a plane higher than politics. “Guernica” remains a potent artwork not because we are still simmering over the Spanish Civil War, but because it unravels a terrible image of violence and suffering. “Guernica” is not a painting of that particular conflict, though its context might dictate that it is. Rather, it is a painting of all wars. Here lies its beauty.

Will the museum, then, if Pasternak’s vision succeeds, sink into a political space? Not necessarily. The museum would, instead, foster dialogue and act as a confluence of ideas and viewpoints. It would present the art’s appropriate context, indeed political, but allow the viewer to appreciate the art either as a part of today’s vicissitudes or as speaking to a higher consciousness. “There is no singular way to tell history,” Pasternak asserts, and she intends to allow us to tell the story and understand the art, in whatsoever way we choose. Her experiment may fail, but we, the interpreters, should hope it succeeds.