Skip to main content

Comments at the Harvard University Art Museums’ Degas Event

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Let me just start by saying what I know all of you think. We are very fortunate to have Tom Lentz in his position. Provost Hyman and Associate Provost for the Arts Sean Buffington have done many great things for Harvard University. One of the most important was finding and recruiting Tom Lentz. Thank you, Steve and Sean, for a job extremely well done.

Tom’s got a terrific team here. I had the great privilege yesterday of spending an hour or so with Tom and Jerry Cohn getting my own introduction to the Degas exhibit at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum and it is just a remarkable, remarkable exhibit. We are so grateful to Stephan Wolohojian and Edward Saywell for their hard work in curating the exhibition. Thank you very much.

I too want to second Tom’s thanks and express the University’s gratitude to the many people who’ve contributed art works and support to this exhibition: Jerry and Marty Cohn, Jeannine and Tom Hill, David Leventhal, Emmy Pulitzer and Mrs. Arthur Solomon. And I want to say a special word of acknowledgement to Emmy Pulitzer. Emmy has been the chair of the Visiting Committee here for quite some time. Her good cheer, her good spirit, her cheerful encouragement pushing us forward have made Harvard’s efforts in the arts far greater than they otherwise would be. Thank you, Emmy Pulitzer.

Degas said many things in his life. I’m told that he said that drawing is not what one sees but what one can make others see.

He said something else – the less fashionable, I suspect. He said – he asked actually – “Art critic, is that a profession? Should we even accept that they talk about our work?”

I’m not sure he was a great friend of universities either, because at another time he said of my current profession, “Education, what a crime!”

From what I can tell, the guy did not have any great respect for criticism, scholarship, and formal training. So, I’m not sure that he would agree with anything that I’m about to say. In fact, Jerry Cohn tells me that if Degas’ permission had been sought for Harvard’s first ever exhibit of Degas in 1911, it would surely not have been granted.

So, I quote Degas without invoking him.

The sentiment that art is what one can make others see seems a very fitting motto for this exhibition and perhaps also for the Harvard Art Museums. When I visited the exhibition, I confess that I did not know very much about Degas. I knew he was associated with impressionism – rather more clearly in my mind than in fact. I knew about ballet dancers and gauzy tutus in hazy light.

But this exhibition, to paraphrase him, makes us see Degas very differently; and I suspect that’s true even for people who know much more than I. We see Degas the student copying works from the Renaissance. We see Degas late in his career, losing his sight, as a prophet of modernism in two evocative landscapes.

Then there’s Degas the photographer with that wonderful image of an alley of trees apparently being blown by a stiff wind. We see the ballet dancers and opera singers of course – bravura explorations of form and composition. But it was striking, too – at least for a neophyte like me – to see many penetrating and affecting portraits, human emotion rendered subtly but unmistakably in intricately penciled lines and also in rapid, rough brush strokes.

I suspect we all will leave this show having seen something unexpected, and this surprise gives us a more complicated, and thus, paradoxically, a clearer notion of who Degas was as an artist. And it is results of this kind that I believe are what especially make a university art museum, and the Harvard Art Museums in particular, so special.

What we saw in the Sackler Museum challenged us all to look again, to consider again. The Harvard Art Museums do not give us what we may think we want – a roomful of ballerinas and opera singers, perhaps – but somehow they leave us wanting more.

To be sure, public museums do this, too. But university museums have a peculiar way of forcing us to slow down, to reconsider, to ask new questions and to unsettle settled opinion.

Unsettle settled opinion. That is much the work of a great university.

The Art Museums introduce us to the new and the unexpected in art, and in ideas. The Harvard Museums were doing this 94 years ago by taking the radical step of introducing the Harvard community to the work of a modern living artist – a very surprising thing to do then. Jerry Cohn’s excellent catalog quotes then-Museum Director Edward Forbes. He wrote: “In the past, the policy of the Fogg Museum has been to exhibit the work of men” – that also doesn’t ring quite right today – “who are dead. This year we have recently held an exhibition of works by Degas. The artists of today speak in language the students readily understand. We should be alive to the tendency of our age.”

Of course, Director Forbes also had misgivings. He worried that “in having exhibitions of the work of living men we may subject ourselves to various embarrassments.” But despite this, the Harvard Art Museums have continued to speak to generations of students in a language they can understand. They have continued and they must continue to show us what is new in art – both to collect and exhibit contemporary work and to reintroduce us to artists we thought we already knew. All of this is what makes this institution so extraordinary and so important to the lives of students and to the life of this university.

We have no greater imperative than to preserve the Art Museums’ ability to make us see as they have done since 1911. Provost Hyman, myself, the Harvard Corporation recognize clearly the unique value of these resources for Harvard University and we are committed to enabling the Art Museums to achieve their full potential.

First and foremost, that requires renovating and expanding the Fogg, a project Steve and I have promised to help realize. Then, as we look towards Allston, we can envision new galleries for the exhibition of modern and contemporary art, so that we might do for future generations what Harvard did for us in 1911.

The University is fortunate at this key juncture to have remarkable leaders like Tom Lentz and Emmy Pulitzer, and we are fortunate to have such a wonderful group of friends and allies as are gathered here tonight. I thank you all for your good will and your support.