The university will not completely die: Horace’s Rome, MoMA and the Weight of Value

Over the past few days, several things have occurred that have set me to worrying (somewhat more than usual) about the future of the university. I am not only thinking about some immediate and disturbing developments at my own specific institution (Ohio State University), but also about the very survival of the university as an institution in contemporary corporate and hypercapitalist culture.

The ever expanding administration, the incursion of the offices of student life and development into the work of the classroom, the erosion of faculty governance, tenure and academic freedom and the diluting of general education requirements, all leave me unsure as to what kind of future the university as we know it has. The institution has moved so far away from anything resembling a public good, that gestures towards access and affordability (not to mention so-called excellence) seem more and more like platitudes. Now seems like a time more than ever that the core values of the university need to be rediscovered, even if they are taking place beyond the walls and structures of the institution.

Yesterday I found some solace in these gloomy musings by returning to the small, black book On Value published by Triple Canopy last year. The book comprises a series of essays based on a series of events called “Value Talks” organized at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2013 and 2014 by choreographer Ralph Lemon. Lemon invited artists, writers, scholars and curators to consider the question of value in terms of more ephemeral artworks, such as performance, music and dance.

I had previously posted about Nari Ward’s work Ultra, a discussion of which was included in the book and I am sure that there will be future posts that engage with other aspects of the work that includes a range of artists, choreographers, poets (including Kevin Beasley, Adam Pendleton, Ralph Lemon, Yvonne Rainer and Fred Moten). For now, I want to record the fact that my reading of On Value resonates with two separate occasions – one at the Liquid Antiquity: A New Fold workshop I attended in Athens a week or so ago and one yesterday in a conversation with an Ohio State graduate student – in which my despair about the future of the university as an institution and the question of value became apparent in terms of Horace’s poem Odes 3.30 – exegi monumentum aere perennius (“I have completed a monument more lasting than bronze”).

Back in Athens, when classicist Dan-El Padilla Peralta had presented a revised account of the lexeme “Waste” (in an exchange with fellow classicist Joy Connolly’s revision of her lexeme “Dialogue”) written for the book Liquid Antiquity, he made a passing reference to Horace’s famous poem (I now am failing to recall the precise context, although if you are interested you can find a video recording of the session here).

In the ensuing discussion, when asked to explain an artwork I was using to make a somewhat convoluted observation on Padilla Peralta and Connolly’s exchange, I reacted to this request for description by saying that not everyone assembled at the workshop would instantly know what “Horace Odes 3:30″ was either as we were a group not solely comprised of classicists, but of artists as well.

On occasions like this, I continued, comparing a seminar I had taught at OSU in the spring that combined artists and classicists, we have an opportunity to revisit afresh the deeply valued and well-worn tropes of our respective fields with the less initiated and that had a promising potential for a different kind of dialogue and exchange than if we were all from the same discipline.

The other appearance of Horace Odes 3.30 happened in a one-to-one conversation with one of the students from that same OSU seminar. This semester we are working on an independent study together on the topic of Plato and Roman satire, when the conversation turned to Horace 3.30. The student, who is Russian, told me about the long history in Russia literature where the task of translating Horace Odes 3.30 was a test of one’s poetic credentials. She described Pushkin’s version and we proceeded to watch this video of Nabokov reciting it (listen to it here).

I was excited by both of these moments of exchange – between classicists and artists and between a student and her professor – as offering models of value beyond the immediate confines of the university institution. Sure, the workshop in Athens was made possible by Princeton university and my own exchange with the student was part of our roles at OSU, but still, there was some sense in which both experiences (and both appearances of Horace’s poem) were somewhat smuggled into the institution rather than operating at its core.

Now, yesterday evening, when reading On Value on a bench in Schiller Park in German Village, while my son was at soccer practice, I came across the following exchange as part of the chapter On Poetry and the Turntable by artist Kevin Beasley and poet Fred Moten. After their initial discussion, the other participants and members of the audience started asking questions and making comments, including choreographer Ralph Lemon and MoMA curator Kathy Halbreich:

Fred Moten: I have a question for everybody. In the past few days I’ve been feeling utterly convinced that the university is dead or dying. I love the university, insofar as it has exposed me to things I wouldn’t otherwise have encountered, but now I feel like the university is collapsing under the weight of its own accumulation. Do people feel similarly about the museum? Or is MoMA going to last forever?

Kathy Halbreich: No way.

Ralph Lemon: Why not, Kathy?

Kathy Halbreich: Nothing lasts forever. This institution will die like other institutions do.

Ralph Lemon: What does it mean that MoMA will “die”?

Kathy Halbreich: I came back once from Rome and I said to Glenn [Lowry, MoMA director], “What are we making now that will last as long as those things from a more ancient time?” But in fact, I don’t actually think there’s great value in something lasting forever.

Fred Moten: What I’m trying to ask is: Can an institution like MoMA bear the weight of its own value?

Audience Member 3: Fred went to the same school as Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emerson had the same concerns in the 1830s. Rather than rely on great books, he thought we should mine our own experiences, write our own sentences. I think we all feel like collapsing under the weight of what we’ve accumulated as we get older. This is not about institutions; this is about who we are as people.

Fred Moten: It’s hard for me to believe that Emerson could have ever felt as sure that he was right as I feel that I am right. I don’t say this out of despair; I just mean to preface a practical question, which Emerson also asked: If you had a particular experience at a university, which feels unlikely to be possible in the future, how do you smuggle that experience into the world so that it continues to develop? I’m not so much despairing as asking a question about making plans.

Audience Member 3: Look at what you just did! Additionally, you’re publishing essays and writing poetry.

Reading this exchange yesterday evening encouraged me to reflect not only on my own despair about the future of the university (shared with Moten), but also on the experience I had in Athens and earlier that day with the OSU student in terms of Horace’s iconic poem. In this context, I felt that Halbreich’s reference to her experience in Rome and the question of MoMA lasting forever could be understood as an indirect reworking of a key tension within Horace’s poem.

On the one hand, Horace makes an analogy between his poetic art and the longevity of the institutions of Roman culture (e.g. the procession of the Vestal Virgins and the Pontifex Maximus to the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill) as opposed to any monument of bronze or other material works (e.g. the Egyptian pyramids).

On the other hand, however, when the poet says that he will not completely die and that part of him will escape death, that part being his poetic self, he is precisely thinking of that part of him that he has ‘smuggled’ into the world along with all the rest of his all-too-human experiences. When the audience member calls out Moten for overlooking the significance of his own creative smuggling acts (in the conversation he just had and through his writings), it is this aspect of Horace’s poem that still resonates.

Perhaps the same could be said of the moments of dialogue and exchange that I experienced in Athens between classicists and artists and with the student here in Ohio. Like Moten I despair for the university as an institution and worry about its future, but at the same time I know that there are experiences within that institution that transcend the weight of its value as an institution. So long as we devote our energies to new exchange strategies, whereby Classics professors can dialogue with artists, professors can learn from their students and groups of creative people can debate human value in a prestigious museum space, then institutions like the university will not completely die. To borrow, appropriate and rework the words of artist Adam Pendleton, also writing in On Value and who will be visiting OSU this November:

The question of value lies behind each of these exchange strategies just as the question of weight lies behind the exchange of goods: in the abstract…Unlike weight, however, value is not a natural property, but a social one. The Museum of Modern Art, for example, does not collect Tony Smith by the ton. The value of each work – up or down – cannot be determined by weight, but the works can be bought for a price…There is nothing natural about the casual destruction of black life: It is social all the way; it’s a decision we make together…The connection between black life, price, and value goes back very far…Again and again, what ruling institutions claim were simply assets turn out to have been human all along, a pattern that repeats like the sunrise throughout history…The road from chattel to citizen is a long one, and we are still traveling it…When we refuse to be reduced to carrying an assigned value (I must be respected), we become part of the reason value exists in the first place. (I must be protected). So say it loud

[The photographs that accompany this post were taken during the exhibition I curated last spring called Come Along With Me. At the time I didn’t know why I had juxtaposed these artworks with the On Value book, but today I think I understand why I did it. The exhibition that explored how a group of 18 Ohio-based artists transformed their personal experiences into lessons for their communities, using their art as their medium, seems to offer a parallel project to the way the university and its value functions beyond its institutional framework. I dedicate this post to the work of artist and educator Donald Black Jr, whose work The Black Canon made me think harder about my own institutionalization and offered me tools to break free of it.]

One thought on “The university will not completely die: Horace’s Rome, MoMA and the Weight of Value

  1. Rick Livingston

    Richard– I missed this post earlier, and just ran across it after seeing your more recent one.

    Two responses spring to mind: one is “Ozymandias,” which we might consider in dialogue with Horace’s line.

    The other is the anti-formalist strand in American poetry that extends from Emerson through (at least) Olson’s “What does not change//Is the will to change” and A.R. Ammons’ “Corson’s Inlet.”

    All three of these ascribe a significance to ruins and transience that cut across the “classic” concept of institutions. They’re no cure for melancholy, alas, although you might see them as speaking up for fresh air from the winds of change.

    I’d love to follow up with you some time, especially about an idea I’m hatching around “curatorial practices.”

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