Jeff Koons, who has been called, by turns, brilliant, notorious, subversive, egotistical, opportunistic, hilarious, cynical, hollow, revolutionary, and ‘chillingly puerile,’ speaks at the Carpenter Center. Staff photo Matt Craig/Harvard News Office

When the sculptor and pop artist Jeff Koons came to Harvard University’s Carpenter Center last semester for an advertised lecture, the hall where he spoke was jammed to overflowing, and people had to be turned away at the door. When Spanish cinema director Pedro Almodóvar spoke at Harvard a few years ago, a crowding crisis was averted by the decision to hold the event twice. Similar turnouts have greeted the artist Ed Ruscha and architect Maya Lin.

A decade or two ago, it might have been the celebrity philosopher Jacques Derrida who was the big draw on campus, and before that, say, a poet like T. S. Eliot. Today it is more likely to be someone like Almodóvar, or choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude, or Art Spiegelman.

This is an era of what could be called the “visual intellectual.” Students on college campuses and members of the general public flock to hear – and see – addresses by filmmakers, artists, and performers. Cultural attention, and cultural primacy, have shifted to encompass art installations, the moving image, technology, and performance. Phrases like “visual literacy,” “aural literacy,” “digital literacy,” and “media literacy” are increasingly common.

But although artists and performers are highly prized as visitors to colleges and universities, the kind of work they do has not reached a comparable importance in the curriculum.

Art and higher education might seem a natural fit in many ways, but they have a long and uneasy relationship. The arts are often still consigned to a secondary role within universities, sometimes viewed as not intrinsically intellectual, or not intrinsically academic. Even when a university invests significantly in the creative arts, and offers an array of courses in painting, sculpture, creative writing, and performance, many scholars and academic administrators remain unconvinced: Arts do not seem to lend themselves easily to the “tenurable” standards of other university subjects.

What should the role of art be in the modern university? Today, art often serves as what business calls a “loss leader” – an appealing product offered at a nonprofit-making price in order to attract buyers. A college or university can advertise its dance or theater or musical groups, or its art classes and galleries, with handsome photos on the website and in the brochure, while at the same time reserving its major fund-raising efforts – and major donors – for science laboratories, international affairs, or sports teams.

It may be that the time has come for the university to become a patron of the arts, embracing and funding the actual making of art on a new scale, and bringing to bear all its institutional traditions of judgment, peer review, and freedom of ideas. An open-minded patronage, providing courses taught by the most talented artists – in the same way that the university seeks the most talented philosophers, psychologists, and physicists – could change both the way we learn, and the way we encounter the world.

Boston Globe

Marjorie Garber is chair of the department of visual and environmental Studies at Harvard University, and director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. This three part posting is adapted from her new book, “Patronizing the Arts”.

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