Bruce Jackson (b. 1936), Tony Bannon, 1974; photograph; Courtesy of the artist

Bruce Jackson (b. 1936), Tony Bannon, 1974; photograph; Courtesy of the artist

Tony Bannon on Being There. What do you think?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Public Scholar by Tony Bannon

For a few academics– just a few – the classroom is not big enough. Full rank scholars all, these several scholars have broken through their ivy covered walls and scaled the ramparts on behalf of those on the other side - the people across town. Some use words for their canon, others use pictures. Either way, and sometimes both, these full and distinguished professors have another life – one of advocacy and argument on behalf of causes held dear.

Bruce Jackson, the James Agee professor at the University at Buffalo, began his advanced education in the Marine Corp from 1953 to 1956. After the Corps, Jackson followed on for the next ten years in a variety of halls for higher education, ending at Harvard, where he was a Junior Fellow in the University’s Society of Fellows.

Jackson also is a man of the streets, but without yielding his knack for titles. He is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Folklore Fellow, a Chevalier in l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, President of the American Folklore Society, Chairman of the Board of the American Folklore Center in the Library of Congress, and Trustee and then Director and then a Trustee again of the Newport Folk Foundation. It says all of these things in Wickipedia, which identifies him as “Bruce Jackson (scholar).”

This is the irony, where the scholar lies down with the citizen, and civics is the winner. The Jackson vitae is an egalitarian landscape, locating a juried essay in Qualitative Sociology next to a freelance photo in the local newspaper and a lecture for Pedagogische Hochschule in Freiburg lists out next to a sermon in the Buffalo AME Zion Church.

Perhaps it is about avarice – about being intellectually greedy. There is good lineage in this compulsive disorder: Bedfellows include Bertrand Russell, George Wald, Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, Richard Rhorty, Cornell West, even Leonard Bernstein and Norman Mailer - most of whom held distinguished chairs and carried them into the community. Bruce Jackson is the photographer in this wild bunch, while doubling up in other media and good old fashioned speechifying.

Perhaps because they are such an anomaly, these public scholars are the darlings of the media, and that spotlight fuels their fires. They each have used the media masterfully.

Jackson also is a film-maker – seven at last count. He is a photographer – 20 solo exhibitions before this one at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. And a book-maker – more than 30 titles, the count is difficult because some are booklets and many are made from his own press, though each with words from his hand and mind. He makes recordings – eight albums and CD of words and music. He makes speeches and does articles and curates shows and manages a film festival and serves on panels and juries and advises television networks and the federal government and more and does it all to high honors. Underneath all of this he teaches, popularly.

Thus, it makes sense that with his wife and collaborator - also famously accomplished, Diane Christian - Jackson stages a really good party, every year on Bastille Day. Public intellectuals are people persons.

The range of Jackson’s subjects is as breathless as his media and moveable feasts. His collection of ideas challenge any attempt to connect the dots. Like a crow soaring on the wind, looking to dive hard for whatever catches the bird’s eye, Jackson dives hard for his mind’s eye: Prison life and its reform, death row, the campaign to build a great bridge between Buffalo and Canada, folk art and music, deaccession of art at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the practice and theory of work, existential views of the desert, the Structure of Narrative, the Practice of Portraiture, the tension between Palestine and Israel, the iconic grain elevators in the urban landscape of Buffalo. Post-secondary education, the Western movie….Shared is the promise of rational discussion with the promise of interpreting and creating culture, self-consciously – and with a sharply honed edge. He does enjoy the discourse – the back and forth. But each of these efforts is invested with high stakes purpose. None is seen neutrally. All are with ardor, passion, zeal. There appears little middle ground. This is an end game.

As with those public intellectuals who came before him, Jackson feeds on street life and its celebrity. He collects contacts, grows friends and harvests their networked produce. It is a phenomenon to behold. Drop an idea into this Alhambra and watch it multiply.

We hope that this exhibition, beginning at the Burchfield Penney Art Center and continuing online, will make connections that will extend Jackson’s feeding frenzy for ideas.

We look for conversation about styles of learning and ways of being learned.

  • How do photographs work in discourse?
  • Any different if the conversation is one of advocacy or one of scholarship? Do photographs require words?
  • Why don’t more professors play in the street?

Blog us back. We are interested in hearing your thoughts about Professor Jackson’s work, his practice and ideas – and of course about the exhibition we have created.

Anthony Bannon
Executive Director
Burchfield Penney Art Center