What would it mean for the university to be a “patron of the arts”? For one thing, it would mean raising and channeling funds, from individual donors as well as from national and independent foundations, to enable creative artists to teach and work within the context of the university. It would mean providing appropriate spaces, budgets, and materials. It would mean building instructional staffs with the rank and clout of professors (whether their appointments are renewable or tenured), rather than largely adjuncts or visitors. And it would mean having the institutional confidence to assess creative work as work: admirable, difficult, challenging, controversial, field-changing.

To make the arts a significant part of the standard university and college curriculum would require new and expensive spaces and materials, and – equally challenging – a rethinking of what constitutes academic work. But of course, this was once true also of training in the applied sciences, which were relegated to specialized institutions. Many “applied” fields, from computer science to applied math, were once not thought of as part of a general education. Today, excellence in the sciences is the proudest boast of many liberal arts institutions – and backed by substantial funding for professors, laboratories, space, and graduate students. Whether art practice is considered as “pure” or as “applied,” its relevance to a broad general culture will depend, as do all other fields, upon how well, and how seriously, it is taught and learned.

The making of art, as well as its history and criticism, belongs in the university. Art gives pleasure, and it provokes thought. It is both sensory and intellectual; it intersects with history and with culture. Nothing could be more central to the life of the university. If universities become art patrons, boosting their spending and integrating the arts into the main intellectual mission of the school, they would dramatically improve the educational experience for all students. The cross-disciplinary collaboration embodied in much contemporary art is good preparation for the interlinked world of knowledge and work that they are about to enter. And unlike some other kinds of work produced in and by the university – scholarly monographs, databases, certain kinds of experiments or equations – works of art can be seen and heard, experienced and discussed, and sometimes even joined or inhabited by all students, faculty, and members of the public.

In the “arts and sciences” that form the basis of a broad general education, the word “arts” is a shortening of “liberal arts,” the traditional academic curriculum that includes literature, philosophy, history, languages, mathematics, and art history. Art-making, by contrast, was long considered a craft, or recreation, rather than part of the intellectual core of instruction. Creative and performing arts were studied in liberal arts colleges and universities as part of history and culture, but not as practices that in and of themselves opened up the mind to new ideas.

Students interested in training as professional artists often elect to attend conservatories and art schools, like Juilliard, Berklee, CalArts, and the Rhode Island School of Design. Increasingly, universities and colleges have developed partnerships with conservatory programs, as both Tufts and Harvard have done with the New England Conservatory of Music, offering programs that combine dedicated training in the arts with some elements of a broad general education. While terrific for those students who choose them, in effect these programs still outsource advanced work in the arts, rather than integrating it into the central life of the university.

Creative arts deserve a central place in the university curriculum, along with the traditional humanities and sciences. Like liberal arts scholars, artists are deeply engaged in the world of ideas, in breaking new ground, presenting, disputing, and vivifying new ideas in visual, aural, and tactile form. And as with scientists, artists’ work is theory in practice, marked by repetition, experiment, the exploration and testing of materials and technology, and the imaginative as well as the actual configuration of time and space. Because of the kind of work they produce, artists today often know, and need to know, a good deal about the full spectrum of the academic work done at universities, fields from physics and chemistry to history, philosophy, and literary theory.

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 is part two of a three part posting adapted from her new book, “Patronizing the Arts”.

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