Publication Date

April 9, 2013



Walking into the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts always lends an event a kind of grandeur that can’t be borrowed. The long walk down the capacious Hall of Nations empties out into the Grand Foyer where the giant bust of Kennedy presides, and from there the gleaming Carrara marble of the River Terrace reflects expansive views overlooking the Potomac. In truth, the cavernous Edward Durrell Stone building has had its ups and downs in public opinion, but it can still lend a sense of significance to any occasion, and it remains one of the prime locations for any prestigious Washington, DC, event.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Kennedy Center was the site of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ (NEH) 42nd Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, given by filmmaker and preservationist Martin Scorsese. The lecture, which is described by the NEH as the “Most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities,” sold out the 2,465 seats of the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, and is the NEH’s best-attended event.

The Jefferson Lecture was established in 1972, and it is intended to provide an opportunity for an established artist or cultural critic to talk about the humanities and its influence on their development and work. Within this broad framework, a wide variety writers, and particularly historians, have talked about their vocation. According to James A. Leach, the chairman of the NEH, who introduced the speaker, Martin Scorsese is the first recipient whose work is primarily visual, rather than literary. And while film is hardly a new medium, it would be impossible to dismiss this choice as an unintentional one, given our increasingly visual age of communication. But historians can take heart: Scorsese’s film work, as Leach noted, is “grounded in time and place.” In films such as Gangs of New York, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and The Age of Innocence, Scorsese brings a careful attention to the experience, as much as the accuracy, of particular historical moments that are grounded in his own past or that of his family.

But personal history, it turned out, was not what Martin Scorsese really wanted to talk about. Taking the podium, he charmed the audience with a series of film clips and stills and gave them a short history of the birth of the film medium. Particularly delightful was Thomas Edison’s little-known 1894 masterwork, “Boxing Cats,” which was shown as part of disquisition on the early visual language of film. Scorsese’s talk ranged over a variety of films, pioneers, and projects, but his ultimate point was that the preservation of film was of vital importance to American culture. It is a medium, he noted, that is particularly American in its achievements. Although many other nations have contributed to its history, he continued, it is in many ways a body of work that is particularly reflective of our character.

Scorsese argued convincingly that our current cultural tastes and criteria cannot be relied upon to identify what is worth preserving and, because of this, we must try to preserve everything. He used as an example Alfred Hitchcock’s extraordinary Vertigo, a film that was overlooked at the time of release and ultimately lost and unseen for a time, only to arrive on the top of most critics’ lists 50 years later. The work of Scorsese’s Film Foundation, which he described and showed in film clips, underscored the complexity and expense of preserving this highly fragile medium. The foundation also works on education and has produced middle school curricula that extend Scorsese’s belief that visual literacy should be taught in the schools. In this digital and visual age, he noted, we need to understand how to parse what we see.

The lecture was capped by an onstage conversation with film critic Kent Jones that allowed Scorsese to talk about his own work, a topic that was largely absent from his prepared remarks. As we filed out of the monumental building afterward, some to the reception and others into the brisk night, it was hard not to think about the implications of Scorsese’s exhortation that everything must be preserved, because we cannot be trusted in the present to know what will have meaning or value in the future. The Kennedy Center itself, a sometime victim of changing tastes, seemed to concur.

The Film Foundation:

Thomas Edison’s “Boxing Cats”:

42nd Jefferson Lecture Live Stream:

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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