We have a wonderful museum here in Nashville, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. The Frist is a non-collecting museum. Without a permanent collection, it curates exhibitions or provides a home for traveling exhibitions from around the country and the world throughout the year. This means that we get treated to everything from Carrie Mae Weems to Sylvia Hyman to German Expressionism.
The museum is housed in the old main post office that was built in the early 1930’s. Art deco in style, the Frist is itself a work of art. In a stroke of shear brilliance in my estimate, it recently curated the show, “Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles.” As someone who loves cars, this was a delight to the eye. Featuring autos and motorcycles from the 1930s and ‘40s, I visited the exhibit 4 times during its recently ended run. Compared to these cars, contemporary US automobiles pale (although I am sure that cars today get much better gas mileage). I loved the exhibit and found that in another life I was either a 1937 Delahaye Roadster or 1939 Bugatti.
However, on the last day of the show, I decided I needed to see the much smaller exhibition running at the same time and ending on the same day. It was only accessible by going through part of Sensuous Steel and the juxtaposition was striking. This exhibition, “Vik Muniz: Garbage Matters” features castoff materials, junk, to re-create such masterpieces as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Jacques Louis David’s The Death of Marat. As fascinating as these large works of art were with the junk framing the main figures and also placed in outline form on their bodies, I was much more drawn to the accompanying video. It featured the stories of some of the garbage pickers of one of the world’s largest garbage dumps, Jardim Gramacho, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The scenes of the dump, the stories of the pickers, and the living conditions of them and their families made the cars on the other side of the wall a harsh contrast between wealth and poverty. I know that this is part of the job of mounting good exhibits in museums that think about such things, but as I sat with the video and toured the exhibit, I was struck by the ways in which we can wall out the horrors of living in a rush to embrace beauty, comfort, safety or some combination of these.
Like all the times I had been to Sensuous Steel before, most of the folks wedged into that exhibit did not wander or walk into Garbage Matters. We can do that a lot in our lives and living. Here at Vanderbilt and the city of Nashville, a good bit of our conversations center on the unfolding case of the 4 young men and their accessories who are charged with raping an unconscious woman peer. One of our administrators has descripted it as evil—sodomy and publicizing it on a cell phone camera were a part of the violence that night. It continues to make headlines here as more of that evening in June begins to be made public through trials and testimonies. How much this is merely exposing the serious problem of date rape on our campus I do not know. But I do have to wonder if someone on our campus may have called for more serious measures based on the stories she or he was hearing from students and faculty peers before this happened. And I also have to take a serious look closer to home at how we educate our students here in the Divinity School about rape and violence. It’s not always someone else’s problem or acts. The horrors will come to visit us regardless of how much we try to walk past them for “beauty.”