By Jilly Cronin
Indy Arts and Morris B. Abram, Jr.
By JILLY R. CRONIN
D’ Ou’ venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou’ allons-nous?
Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts boasts a painting asking these questions that we are afraid and desperate to ask ourselves, for all who view the Tahiti canvas painting by Paul Gauguin understand the power both their asking and their answering can unlock. In searching for ourselves and a vision, we find greater meaning in all things.
To Morris B. Abram, Jr. ’71, founding President of The Harvard Independent, it is “art of enduring interest,” that addresses these questions.
The Harvard Independent strives both to be and to celebrate art of enduring interest. So at this, the 50th anniversary of the Indy, Gauguin’s questions loom large. Integrity, legacy, and perpetuity: let us define them.
Where do we come from?
Today, Morris B. Abram, Jr. is an attorney-turned-arts-dealer who operates his own art gallery, MB Abram Galleries. In the fall of 1969, Abram arrived at Harvard as a sophomore transfer from Wesleyan College. Harvard as he found it was, like much of the country, “engulfed in protest over the Vietnam War.” It was out of this turbulent time and the turmoil of brilliant and seeking minds that the Indy was born. Abram himself gravitated towards such change-making, and with a family history of involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, he made his way to a group of individuals who would one day be called the founders of the nation’s oldest student run weekly, quite naturally.
At that time, Abram felt his passion for art and his discipline for spearheading great endeavors not completely at ease with one another. Though he had been interested in art from a young age – Abram even described being moved by the “the refinement and artistry of [arrowhead] stone points” he would collect from the banks of the Chattahoochee River as a boy – the “campus seemed to pulse around politics and student activism” during his first year at Harvard. And so, his love for the arts took a back seat as he, instead, spent his time legitimizing the Indy through fundraising and legal work. This work needed to be done. But he never lost his passion for the arts.
While the “news and editorial staff maintained their role, separate and apart from the publishing side,” Abram worked as the liaison in his role as president. Working as a writer, an editor, and a fundraiser, Abram learned that “it was the brilliance and dedication of our business side that gave those writing the stories, including the arts, sports, and entertainment sections, the space and freedom to create.” He described how without the hard work of the publishers and business board members, “we could not have continued.” In managing these tasks, Abram learned a valuable lesson: “art and business need one another.” It is a symbiosis, not a dichotomy.
What are we?
After passing the baton of Indy presidency onto Todd Jennings and working on the Indy more remotely, Abram spent the year following his Junior year to organize the National Movement for the Student Vote, Inc. However, “On returning to Harvard,” Abram recalled being “torn between an interest in politics, this influenced by a strong family connection through [his] father, a civil rights attorney and later diplomat, and a deepening feeling for the arts.” And so, for his Senior year Abram decided to forgo writing a thesis and instead pursue both of his passions in the form of two one-on-one seminars.
Abram’s seminars were with Paul Freund, Professor at the Law School, and John Coolidge, Professor of Art History. Abram described how he learned much from his two professors, stating, “Coolidge viewed art as a gateway to joy and happiness rather than as the struggle with personal demons felt by many artists. And from Paul Freund, the eminent constitutional scholar of his day… I saw how ability and genius could be accompanied by great modesty and humility.”
These two seminars were just the beginning of Abram’s formal pursuit of the arts and social sciences in tandem. After Harvard, he traveled to Oxford and studied art history, but rather than pursue a degree at Oxford he left school for Paris. He is not the only student of life to find Paris “more engaging and personally satisfying than academe.”
In the following years, Abram worked as a mixed-media artist, produced experimental dance music in California, and even earned a law degree at the age of 38 – after which he worked as a public interest attorney. In describing these years of his life Abram recalled that, “Through it all, I always returned to my interest in the arts, eventually becoming an art dealer.”
Where are we going?
Abram’s career (both during his term as President of the Indy and in his post-grad life) illustrates how art is not above the minutiae of day-to-day operations, but integral to them. When asked about which particular artists have had a significant impact on his life, Abram pointed to June Wayne, an artist whose work is displayed in MB Abram Art Gallery. Abram describes Wayne’s work as refusing to be bound by a “signature style,” but “seeking always to explore and experiment rather than duplicate her past successes.”
Abram’s appreciation for the arts stems from an understanding of the transformative nature of specific pieces. Abram stated that, “The riches in art are beyond the measure, and often beyond the reach of financial reward…. Visual art has no satisfactory verbal explanation and would not exist if it could be just as easily expressed in word symbols. Art in all its forms is a gateway, and – if successful – reaches beyond all the logic and manifestation of the mind.”
Very similarly to his own journey through the arts – one in which pursuing arts was not an end in itself, but rather a passion from which he could hardly escape – Abram concluded that all great artists are “seekers.” Specifically referring to the work of photographer Walker Evans (another artist for whom Abram has particularly strong feelings), he wrote that, “He thought for himself and would never allow himself to be captive of any fixed ideology.”
In the same way that the arts have been an undercurrent in Morris Abram’s life, the arts have always been celebrated in the The Harvard Independent. Art, in the Indy, is a celebration of the many ways people find meaning in their lives. Whether it be in the “Work of the Week,” poetry, or a review of the latest performances on campus, the Indy strives to preserves artists’ integrity and identity.
To Harvard students with a passion for the arts, Abram gives this sage advice: “[Do not] attempt to place art or its pursuit in a neat box. We are all working towards a more integrated life, the ultimate art…. The search for the answers to Gauguin’s questions are not contained in a career path, but in our dedication and passion to relentlessly discarding the unnecessary and seeking the truth and essence in all things.”
D’ Ou’ venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou’ allons-nous?
Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
Jilly Cronin ‘21 (email@example.com) came from Winthrop, is President of the Indy, and is going to love the Indy for another 50 years.