- When Art Takes Hold
Every now and then an exhibition of art works in a museum or a gallery manages to offer images so rich and potent, so highly charged with affect, that they stimulate an upsurge of memories and feelings in their beholders. While never precisely the same as those that inspired the creation of the original works, such memories and perceptions relate to the works in a variety of ways as they stimulate fantasy and recollection. When this happens, we walk through the gallery more slowly, caught up in a contemplative state of mind, captured by what we see as though the objects were speaking directly to us, reanimating buried aspects of our personal pasts, reattaching us to lost percepts. At such times, I want to claim, the art works in question take hold of us, grasp us, and teach us, although precisely what they teach us is elusive and hard to name: they alter something in the way a therapist does, perhaps. Ernst Kris writes persuasively about such phenomena in his justly celebrated essay on aesthetic ambiguity (1948). There he speaks about the communicative function of art and offers the notion of the potential of a symbol to set mental processes in motion. Artistic communication, he holds, entails the active participation of beholders who actually re-create works for themselves in their own terms in the presence of the works rather than react passively to them. Similar ideas have been previously articulated by John Dewey (1934).
Standing in the Feldman Gallery of the Jewish Museum of Maryland on Lloyd Street in Baltimore, once the old Jewish quarter, eerily lit this afternoon, I am watching the gallery undergo a transformation. Two men with workmen's aprons and movable spotlights are setting up an exhibit called "Weaving Women's Words,"1 a show of art works in diverse media based [End Page 291] on the oral histories of thirty Jewish women born in the early twentieth century. Not all the pieces have been installed. I hear the whining sound of a drill, the men conferring sotto voce about what to touch up, what to do first. But already, my eyes have misted, and the works on the walls are blurred.
German-Jewish, born in America, just like the women being honored in this exhibit, my mother was of their vintage. Unexpectedly, her ghost haunts every image, word, and object surrounding me on all the walls of this gallery—swatches of worn fabric, scuffed alligator pumps, a leather-bound Langenscheidt German-English dictionary, valises, strung pearls, a typewriter, a page from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women—the very page, in fact, that tells how Marmie March had to go far away and leave her daughters, Meg and Jo and Beth and Amy, and how each fought back her sorrow. Another page displayed is from a Beethoven score, and nearby I see faded sepia photographs with faces that stare wistfully into an unknown future. Every detail returns her to me. Through these art works, she comes back into focus after so many years, years during which I had lost the ability to conjure at will the details of her face.
The workmen wear gloves; one fellow is hand-brushing an exhibition sign. Pungent odors of paint pervade the gallery. At my feet are power tools, a saw, a hammer, a bag of sheetrock, an industrial vacuum cleaner, a plank of raw wood pierced unevenly by nails and protruding screws. Stepping gingerly around them, I am suddenly dazzled by a wall of windows.
Seven collaged window frames of unequal size and shape are suspended from above; it is an installation by an artist named Harriete Berman. Nothing but window frames. Yet I am imagining mothers. They look out of these windows in my fantasy, calling to one another in greeting but also watching protectively over their children playing in streets below. Mothers (I can see them) are standing there looking out of those windows at worlds they were often forbidden to enter, or afraid to venture into, worlds they longed to see close-hand, new and amazing worlds into which they sometimes did dare to wander, even in...