On Tuesday, November 15, 2016, my dear friend and colleague, Vera Zolberg, died. Her vast network of relatives, friends, colleagues and students are mourning a truly wonderful person. As a sociologist, she was a beloved teacher, mentor, author, scholar, colleague and friend, in the deep meaning of that underappreciated word. I have long thought that Vera’s gift for friendship is unsurpassed. Many have benefited from it, personally and professionally. A memorial service at The New School is being planned early next year.
In the meanwhile, here we are publishing my keynote address at a conference delivered on April 28, 2012. It was presented at the New School for Social Research Memory Conference, organized to honor Zolberg. The papers presented to the conference, “From the Art of Memory to the Memory and Art,” were in her special fields of inquiry, the sociology of culture and the arts, and the study of collective memory. It was a wonderful event, a long set of conversations with Vera and her work. The day’s proceedings revealed how her fields of inquiry have advanced in the past twenty years, how she has contributed to this advance, and how the fields can and do speak to general public concerns. J.G.
When I hear the word “reflection,” applied to the study of culture, I reach for my red pencil, if not my gun. My problem with the word is that it stops inquiry just when it should begin. While it may be generally true that the ruling ideas of the times are the ideas of the ruling class, I think our job as sociologists and students of culture is to actually explain how this happens, what are the specifics, and the exceptions, avoiding reductionism, understanding both the significance of cultural creativity and accomplishment, and the complexity of the social world.
I am thinking of this pet peeve of mine today for two reasons: because I think that the work of Vera Zolberg stands as a model of what can be learned when we move beyond sociological truism in thinking about the sociology of the arts and memory, and culture broadly understood, and also because I am, ironically, tempted in opening my presentation today with a “reflection note.” As in: the intellectual quality of Zolberg, as a sociologist of the arts, collective memory and culture, is a reflection of the quality of Vera, as a person. And, ironically, I am not sure I can, or should even try, to explain this connection between professional accomplishment and personal quality, but I know I should talk about both the quality of Zolberg’s work and about Vera as a person (our people would say a mensch) today.
Vera and I have been closely connected professionally for a long time, from the beginning of my career as a serious student of sociology. We both worked to specialize in the sociology of the arts at the University of Chicago. When I was preparing my special field exam in this area, I discovered that there were three students who focused in their studies on the arts before me, Mason Griff (who I had studied with as an undergraduate), Hugh Dalziel Duncan and Zolberg. This was when I first read Vera’s work, her dissertation on the Art Institute of Chicago (a work that I still refer to, as the students in this semester’s departmental dissertation seminar can confirm).
Vera and I studied with the same teachers, Morris Janowitz, Donald Levine, Terry Clark and Edward Shils. I would say they, particularly Janowitz (Vera’s chair), only tolerated our interests. But there is no doubt that Vera’s accomplishment in analyzing the sociological complexities of the Art Institute, made it so that they accepted my work on Polish theater more readily. She showed how significant a study of an art institution could be in understanding social structures and processes more generally. I had an easier time of it, because she preceded me by a few years. I think that in a similar way all who study the sociology of the arts have benefited from Zolberg’s writings, especially after her publication of Constructing a Sociology of the Arts.
As for many of you, I at first only knew Zolberg as an author, who showed in her dissertation on the Art Institute of Chicago how careful institutional analysis of the workings of a museum over time could start an inquiry into the big questions about the relationship between art and politics, culture and social life. As a student, I perceived this in her work. She has acted upon it in her research and writings ever since.
Only a bit later after I read her dissertation, we actually met. It was towards the end of my studies at the University of Chicago. I can’t remember who arranged the meeting (it may have been Janowitz), but I do remember the place we met and (vaguely) the reason why we met. It was in the cafeteria in Woodward Court, a building that no longer exists at the University of Chicago. We met on some business connected to the Social Theory and the Arts conference. This was the beginning of our life long conversations about the sociology of the arts and culture, with collective memory to be added as we both went along.
At that time, I was struck by the personal qualities of Vera. She was elegant, warm and respectful, reaching out to me, taking me more seriously than I took myself. She had broad and interesting experience and knowledge. She seemed to know many accomplished scholars and cultural figures. And most strikingly, she was friendly. It was, in fact, at this time that I noticed her most special quality, her gift for friendship. She cares about the person she is talking to. She makes human connection.
Vera and her husband Ary, are perfect hosts. An invitation to their loft for dinner is an invitation to a world of fine food, fine conversation and fine art (art which is drawn from their travels and reveals their unorthodox taste). Vera’s gift for friendship clearly has contributed to a rich and warm personal life. It also has contributed to scholarship. Over the years, the sociology, liberal studies and the politics departments of the New School, and our Graduate Faculty more generally, have been enriched by occasions at the Zolberg’s.
In a similar way, Vera’s sincere social embrace, I think, helped develop the circle of scholars who institutionalized the sociology of culture in American sociology and beyond.
We sociologists have concepts to describe such developments: social capital and social networks. The inadequacy of the concepts, their thin coolness, is revealed in Vera’s life. As I said, I first saw this at the Woodward Court cafeteria, and because we both moved from Chicago to The New School, I have regularly enjoyed her friendship ever since. And this has not been separate from scholarly exchange and learning. Rather, friendship and scholarship have been intimately connected. Today’s conference vividly reveals this. The issues and problems we have been discussing grow out of our conversations with Vera’s work and with her person.
Thus, we have been talking about the institutional practices of art and around art. Zolberg returned to the topic in an important article published in Theory and Society, “Conflicting Visions in Art Museums.” From my point of view, the most upsetting move in the piece is her summary of it. In her abstract, she maintained: “the macro-trends in society which are most germane to museum formation are professionalization of occupations, bureaucratization, elite formation, democratization of education, and market rationalization. These are reflected at the micro-level in institutions founded and developed in their context.” Reflection once again: yet, in the article itself what Zolberg studies is not an automatic process of reflection, but the social actions that constitute both the macro and the micro. She shows how the move from pre-professional laymen’s, to art professional curators’ to post professional managerial executives’ leadership has shaped the development of American museums, but also that this leadership has always met with a variety of different forms of resistance in museums and from the greater society, that push and pull them in different directions. She describes and analyzes the professionalization of the leadership and the staff of museums and then, the rise of bureaucratic managerial control as a challenge to art standards. The big story is of the developing autonomy of the art world in opposition to the control by gilded wealth (the founders and original administrators of American art museums) and then the re-colonization of the art world by corporate powers. But she also highlights resistance.
We could observe that the museum does imperfectly “reflect” developments in the greater society. But the real interest, as Goffman would say, “where the action is,” is how this imperfection works, which Vera nicely explains. The macro and the micro are constituted by action.
For example, Zolberg gives an account for how émigré German Jewish scholars influenced professional developments and the refinement of critical art historical standards, but she also shows how that influence was limited by elite anti-Semitism. More significantly, she analyzes the continued tensions between wealthy collectors and museum benefactors, with artists, art professionals and managerial experts: understanding how artistic values, and cultural judgment and cultural capital are at stake, taking us far beyond the confines of museum walls. What I especially like about her analysis is that she gives account of the tensions in the art world, its rich qualities, rather than provide an easy formula for its central values or ideological functions. Her theoretical contribution is in the details.
This textured account of art museums informs Zolberg’s approach to collective memory, another theme we have been talking about today, a conversation which has also been one of her major contributions to sociology, as was most nicely revealed in Zolberg’s great study of collective memory, “Contested Remembrance: The Hiroshima Exhibit Controversy.” I remember thinking this was a particularly wonderful piece when Vera first presented it to General Seminar here at The New School, in which it stimulated a very interesting discussion, and have continued to think so when I first read it, and now re-reading it in my preparation for giving this talk. What I think is particularly exciting about her analysis is how she extends her themes that she developed concerning the institutional workings of art museums, and shows how they illuminate the sociological study of collective memory. Her analysis is of the sociological texture of contestation in institutional life.
“Contested Remembrance” is a study of the controversies surrounding an exhibit at the National Air And Space Museum in Washington DC. The primary artifact was the “Enola Gay” B -29 bomber from which the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Vera presents an analysis of the exhibit as key interested parties debated about the dropping of the bomb and how they learned to hate and love it. WWII veterans, professional historians and museum curators, the Japanese government, peace organizations and anti-war activists and crucially official Washington, especially Congress, battled over the exhibit. Zolberg shows how the exhibit provided a public space for a debate about the bomb and American identity. She shows that the exhibit does not present a clearly articulated institutionalized collective memory, but a domain for debate about the connection between past, present and future at the sacred center of American public life. Collective memory is understood as contested public remembering. This is the insight I drew from the work, it’s great accomplishment to my mind beyond the specifics of the case.
It is an important study, which contributed to the renewed interest in collective memory in sociology, and in the social sciences and psychology more generally. Yet, I must admit, I have some concerns about this intellectual movement. I wonder: Why is it that so many of us, including Zolberg and many of you here, have become interested in collective memory? Why is it that the student-sponsored conference on memory, which this special conference honoring Zolberg is an extension of, is probably the single most successful interdisciplinary project in the history of The New School for Social Research? I think there are both positive and critical answers to these questions.
The positive side is obvious. A new domain of interdisciplinary inquiry has been opened, and its exploration helps address difficult and important problems. I myself was working on this topic when Vera and I first met. I published my one and only article in the American Journal of Sociology, using collective memory to account for the existence of critical expression in Communist societies. Later the Czech writer, Milan Kundera summarized my argument in his novel, A Book on Laughter and Forgetting, more succinctly than I could: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Yet, I think there is something troubling about the collective memory renaissance. At one of the earlier meetings of the conference, I expressed my concern, from the audience. As I recall, I wondered out loud whether our interest in the topic was a sign of a major cultural problem: resignation and an absence of imagination – careful study of memory of the past, with little investigation of forward looking projects. The next year I gave a paper, entitled. “Against Memory.” My point was that forgetting was every bit as significant as remembering.
Emphasizing this point, I have recently been playing with the concept of “the wisdom of youth,” thinking about how the ignorance of the young about the past, or at least their sense that it is really passed, is a significant ground for creativity. This explained my own journey to Poland, willing to go to a country from which my grandparents fled, because the horrors of the first part of the 20th century seemed to me to be over, in a way that wasn’t possible for my parents or grandparents. It also explains how the young before their elders took it as being quite possible that a black man could become President of the United States, and now, most significantly, the new “new social movements” from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street seem to be manifestations of this special forgetful wisdom. I am struck by the fact that a sociology of generations is necessary to understand the new movement wave and believe that collective forgetting is part of the force behind this generational push.
I am not questioning the importance of studying memory, least of all am I questioning Vera’s work on the subject, rather what I am trying to do is highlight the importance of continuing to study the imagination as it works against memory, as it is unconstrained by established practices. And I see two ways that Zolberg has addressed this in her writings.
First, there is her ongoing concern with how museums work, particularly relevant is her concern with how museums confront and are pushed by contemporary artists, and second, of course, her continuing interest in “outsider art.” The creativity of those who work outside of the collective memory structures of official art institutions, even against them, are a significant part of the liveliness of the art world, which Vera recognizes both in her work and in her life.
Significantly, she and Ary early on studied and collected African Art, stimulated by their work and shared adventures in the Ivory Coast. I suspect those experiences were important in how she studied both the center and the peripheries of the art world, to use the language of Edward Shils. Significantly the hierarchy that Shils maintained was crucial for understanding the relationship between center and periphery, Vera has questioned in much of her work.
Zolberg’s most influential work, I imagine, is her 1990 book, Constructing a Sociology of the Arts. It has been translated into Italian, Korean, Spanish and Portuguese. It provides a comprehensive overview of the field, which recognized and summarized new research and theory, the various currents and central problems up to the moment of its publication, and, more significantly, the book suggested problems that the field needed to address. It pointed to the kinds of research and debates, the kinds of scholarly conversations, that should be done, which, by now, have been done, strikingly by Vera and her students. For Vera, I think, it is a pivotal work. It summarized where she was then and suggested where she would be going.
I have to admit. She took seriously research that I questioned, perhaps too quickly, with the foolish assertiveness of youth. To my mind, too much of this work took the arts to be like any other social institution, to be examined in the same way, without any special concern with their specific aesthetic and normative value. Our different judgments of the value and limitations of Bourdieu’s sociology of the arts can be found here.
During the decade before the writing of her book, roughly dating back to the time Vera and I first met, there was a rapid development in the sociology of the arts. It entered the sociological mainstream. Perhaps the key figure was Howard S. Becker. He published his book, Art Worlds, and mentored a significant group of sociologists who were informed by his explorations, including Chandra Mukerji if I am not mistaken. (And by the way, Becker served on my dissertation committee) There was also much work being done on the social organization of art, the production of culture, the socialization of artists, among other themes. Zolberg seriously and deliberately considered all these inquiries. She highlighted two sociological approaches, ones that systematically studies how artwork comes to be art, and the other which examines what are the effects of these things and performances called art on the greater society. Informed as I was by critical theory, I found much of this problematic. Studies of the production and reception of the arts, with no art, it seemed to me.
A hint at the quality of our conversations about these things is revealed in how she thanked me in her acknowledgements. She wrote: “I have profited as well from contact with my colleague Jeffrey Goldfarb, whose serious commitment to the goals of cultural excellence and democracy have stimulated me to probe more deeply the implication for sociology of the disciplinary cleavages in academic life.”
The fact is that I believed the new sociology of art was turning away from the art, not thinking sufficiently about its critical role in social, political and cultural life, as was explored by Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Lowenthal, my teachers in this regard. Zolberg, on the other hand, who never turned away from the art, appreciated, more than I did, how the study of the context and reception of art helped shape the quality of art, and its critical potential. I felt sociologists didn’t go far enough. Vera was more patient. She understood and appreciated what I was after, but she also understood how more limited studies could help get us there. This she has done in her subsequent work, on outsider art and on collective memory.
Sometimes patience is a virtue, as Vera’s long and distinguished career reveals. The wisdom of youth, including mine back then, has its limits. And what I especially appreciate was that as she took seriously pretty conventional studies of the art institutions as institutions like others in the social world, she knew that something distinctive was involved.
Vera and I have had many conversations over the years on the topics discussed at this special conference in her honor, indeed, on topics we first started talking about in Woodward Court many years ago. Perhaps the most interesting ones were mediated by our students and colleagues, who have been informed by our critical and empirical interests, drawing from the sociology of culture that was developing in the first decade after Vera and I met, and who have extended Zolberg’s contributions in scholarly discussion with her and in conversations of their own, as has been revealed in the papers presented in this conference and in the remarkable work of her students.
Her students have had long and fruitful conversations with Vera, culminating in their serious contributions to intellectual life: Lisa Aslanian, Catherine Bliss, Anne Bowler, Hui-tun Chuang, Karen Coleman, Irit Dekel, Lindsey Freeman, Yifat Gutman, Nancy Hanrahan, Siobhan Murphy Kattago, Despina Lalaki, Susan Pearce, Donna Marie Peters, Jackie Skiles, Amy Sodaro, Hakan Topal, and Sophia Vackimes. Their work ranges from the historical analysis of the futurists, to a high theoretical critical analysis of the sociology of music, to an ethnography of tap dancing, to a critical analysis of the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, to studies of collective memorials of the murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, and of the African American burial grounds in lower Manhattan, and of the presence of the Palestinian absence in Israeli collective memory.
These “conversations with Vera,” between Zolberg and her colleagues and students, and on a personal note, I add, between Vera and me, are testaments to her and their shared accomplishments, as they have defined the sociology of the arts, the sociology of collective memory and the sociology of culture.