Remembering David Martin Bernstein:
Art, Justice, & Civil Rights
I am writing to tell you of the passing of David M. Bernstein, noted photographer, Aesthetic Realism associate, and my dear husband for 53 years.
David was central to the coming-to-be, in 2005, of the AEA. His technical and creative contributions to the Alliance include thousands of photos and videos vital to AEA's mission: to preserve civil rights history and to join with others in the fight against racism, seeking solutions
based on principles of Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by the great educator Eli Siegel. (He is shown, at right, with Civil Rights photographer Cecil Williams.)
In May, David succumbed to pancreatic cancer, but he was one of the enormously fortunate people in history, because he met the knowledge people everywhere are yearning for: the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel, from which he learned to see truly—the world, the art he cared for, the people he knew, and his own feelings and thoughts. He loved this Aesthetic Realism principle, stated by Mr. Siegel: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."
Love of Photography Came Early
David was born into a Jewish family in the Bronx, and early came to have a love for the art of photography. By age 24 he had traveled to all of the then-49 states, photographing America's cities, rivers, deserts, mountains, and people representing humanity's diversity: Asians and Mexicans in California, Mescalero Apaches in New Mexico; clam diggers on Long Island, Aleutians and Inuits in Alaska, Southern farmers and teachers; Jews, Latinos, and African Americans in New York (at right, his photograph of an African American boy fron New York's Lower East Side; below, a Puerto Rican grandmother). His feeling for people of different faiths and skin colors was evident in his photography. But his desire to find meaning and beauty with his camera was painfully in conflict with another desire: to feel that people and the world itself were against him and had to be fought. Then, in 1962, he met the knowledge he was yearning for: Aesthetic Realism, and began studying this principle in classes with Eli Siegel: "The resolution of conflict in self is like the making one of opposites in art."
Human Relationships: Exciting
as Fine Art
On his 80th birthday, David Bernstein said: "Eli Siegel taught me that my anger was in the same world where beauty is, and the more I honestly liked the world, the less tormented I would be. I learned that I, and every person, want to be like art, to put opposites together: self and world, fierceness and tenderness, wildness and order, strength and delicacy. Mr. Siegel met the very beginnings of me with the composition I had looked for over many years and that is why I love him and said in the first class I attended: 'I want to thank you for making human relationships as exciting as fine art'." And, at 80, David gratefully said of his lifelong study: "It means so much to me to continue learning all these years in the thrillingly honest and kind classes taught by the Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss."
What Every Person Needs to Study
In time, I plan to write a biography of David Bernstein which will tell how he and I and many others came to the conviction that for the world and the people in it to be kind instead of cruel, every person needs to study what Eli Siegel explained: there is a fight in every person, every moment of our lives, between the hope to respect the world, to know and be fair to the people in it, and the hope to have contempt for the world and feel big by making other things and people into nothing. The latter desire, we learned from Aesthetic Realism, is the enemy of all art and is the source of all injustice including racism. Contempt can be understood, criticized, opposed, and changed through the study of this vital education.
David Bernstein's Documentary Photography and Videography
David's photojournalism of news events, as well as his photographs of AEA productions of "The People of Clarendon County"--A Play by Ossie Davis, & the Answer to Racism, appear nationwide in newspapers, magazines, books, exhibitions, and websites. He was the cameraman for 200 interviews with unsung pioneers around the country in AEA's "The Force of Ethics in Civil Rights" oral history project, recognized by the Library of Congress as significant in preserving the American memory.
African Burial Ground National Monument, NYC,
& Reinternment Ceremony
In 2003, people from around the world attended a memorial ceremony in lower Manhattan at a site once lost to history: the burial ground which, during the years 1612-1794, became the final resting place for thousands of enslaved African men, women, and children. In 1991, excavation for a Federal building unearthed the remains of 419 of them, revealing forensic evidence of the brutality of slavery, along with treasured objects from their African legacy.
Among David Bernstein's photographs are those from that 2003 reinternment ceremony. Performed according to sacred African traditions, these remains were returned to earth with dignity and compassion denied to them for centuries.
The outdoor African Burial Ground National Monument was soon established by the National Park Service, with an indoor Visitors Center.
The permanent exhibition at the Visitors Center includes David's photo of Alvin Ailey Dancers performing at the ceremony (detail shown).
A Video That Went Viral
David's videos on YouTube from "The Force of Ethics in Civil Rights" oral history project include an interview with Tuskegee Airman Dabney Montgomery, which can be seen at the top of the right column. Mr. Montgomery powerfully tells of indignities he suffered returning home to Selma, Alabama after distinguished service in World War II. Black servicemen in uniform were forced to ride on segregated trains in the South, the same trains on which Nazi prisoners of war were served better food, and were treated with respect denied to these American patriots. In an article David wrote about his work as cameraman, he expressed gratitude for what he learned from Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism, enabling him to see the suffering of other people as real, and to become kinder. And in the article, he quoted what Dabney Montgomery himself said about the racism he endured: "What I learned from Aesthetic Realism, helped me to understand what happened." When Mr. Montgomery died in 2016, David's video went viral on social media, major news and TV outlets.
A Prayer for David Bernstein
I close for now by saying that David’s wish was to be buried according to Jewish custom. The gravesite service took place on a lovely sunny day, conducted by Rabbi Charles Rudansky. The rabbi began with a moving recital of the immortal Kaddish (Hebrew Prayer for the Dead), and he was joined by family and friends reflecting on David’s life, work, and the education he loved.
I’ll conclude with a prayer for David Bernstein by retired A.M.E. Bishop Frederick C. James of South Carolina, the distinguished religious leader and civil rights pioneer. His friendship and ongoing work with AEA began with an interview in 2008. This prayer was read by our friend and colleague Allan Michael, shown to the left of Rabbi Rudansky in the photo, and begins:
Thank you God Almighty,
For bringing into my life,
The gift of David M. Bernstein;...
Provide by your gift of memory,
Consolation that shall never end.
Lord, what a life reflection of the reality
Of Aesthetic Realism and its founder--Eli Siegel,
With gratitude. Amen.
We welcome reflections or memories of David you may wish to share by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or writing to AEA at 2 Charlton Street, Suite 6K, New York, NY 10014.
Alice Bernstein, Director