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Brandeis' Artistic Early Days

By Juliette Martin

Section: Arts, Top Stories

August 31, 2012

Throughout the past 60 years, Brandeis has indisputably been a hotbed of protest and other significant political activity. As political movements have come and gone through the university, so have the artistic and cultural ones, going hand in hand with these fresh political leanings. Brandeis has always had a role in the cultural history of modern America as a home for protest and politics. The art provides a gateway into the cultural movements of the past and Brandeis University’s long-held traditional history of being at the forefront of liberal and artistic movements, demonstrated and established in the generational and artistic movements that characterized the first two decades of its existence.

Though the campus today remains a bastion of liberalism, some of the well-known stories of its past highlight that trend. Though arguably the most well-known golden age of liberal thought and protest occurred in the ’60s, as the civil rights movement roared forward on the shoulders of the hippie generation, the campus had already been established as a liberal and artistic community by the beat generation which came before it in the 1950s, emerging shortly after Brandeis’ founding in 1948.

The beat movement was a heavily artistic and literary-minded progression, pioneered by the writings of Jack Kerouac, a writer of poetry and prose iconic to the 1950s. Brandeis’ place in that particular cultural movement, and an early statement of Brandeis’ dedication to playing a role in such artistic movements, is illustrated in a 1959 debate that took place at the Brandeis University Club of New York. It asked a simple question: What is the beatnik generation? Then-Dean of Students Joseph Kaufman presided over the debate, and Kerouac himself was featured as the opening speaker. This early example of artistic discourse from Brandeis’ history serves to demonstrate the fact that, from its earliest days, the university has been a center for the many tides of artistic expression and the academic discourse that surrounds it. The 1950s also saw the opening of Slosberg Music Center in 1957.

The final speaker of this particular debate, Ashley Montagu, was an academic and anthropologist who listed the defining characteristics of the beat generation as “fatalism, cultural rootlessness, detachment from traditional values, alienation from themselves and extreme individualism.” Though not an exact measure of modernity, these characteristics, which defined the first artistic movement of Brandeis University’s relatively short history, continue to echo in the modern era.

The idea of “extreme individualism” certainly rings true with regard to many liberal movements, and the modern one is no different. The hipster movement, which is alive and well here at Brandeis, places emphasis on the often cynical individualism that is reflected in the artwork it has produced, both within and outside of the university. The often detached and disillusioned aspects of modern youth culture seem to reflect this early cultural idea of “alienation from themselves.” At the time, Brandeis was considered a bohemian intellectual center, and that historical tradition is present in the modern way that art is discussed and presented on campus.

The era of the beatniks, in addition to being one of the many artistic movements that played an important role at Brandeis, has given us another permanent artistic gift: the Leonard Bernstein Festival for the Arts. The festival, which provides one of the most artistically relevant and active weekends of the year, was established in 1952. The festival was founded on the principle of showcasing art that demonstrates the principles of the era in which it was produced. The art of generations from the beatniks of the ’50s to the present day have always demonstrated and debated here.

Though the first major cultural, artistic and political movement of Brandeis’ history occurred in the time of the beatnik generation, the ’60s are arguably the most significantly renowned. The hippies who spearheaded that decade’s artistic direction were the political force that created the often-discussed Ford Hall takeover, in which Brandeis students did their part in the fight for civil rights. That same student generation also played a major role in shaping Brandeis’ history of dedication to the arts when work began on the building that became The Rose Art Museum in 1960. Though Brandeis had been home to a significant art collection before the official founding of The Rose, the museum’s opening demonstrated a commitment to the arts and to the risk-taking that such a dedication requires. It was considered a foolish idea at the time, when the money that went into the museum was needed in so many other places.

In the 1960s, Brandeis was symbolic of all the things that that decade had espoused, and became truly emblematic of major college cultural trends in both politics and art. In fact, Brandeis played host to a major artistic show at that time, when Bob Dylan performed on the campus in a concert that is still available on vinyl recordings.

In its first two decades, Brandeis established itself as a center for both artistic production and debate. As a key component of culture as a whole, the arts are a reflection of the time in which they are produced, and Brandeisian culture has long reflected the cultural trends of the era.

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