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In thinking about how universities can take a more ambitious approach to the arts, we can find a useful model in how society approaches science. The rise of what is often called “Big Science” during and after World War II changed how science was done – and changed human knowledge with it. Ambitious new machines and tools, international collaboration among teams of scientists, and the urgency of problem-solving led to the development of new creative paradigms in research. Big science was marked by big staffs, big budgets, big priorities, and a big place within the intellectual and fiscal economy of the university.
Art, too, is poised for this kind of change. Art today is often collaborative, costly, and ambitious. Whether for an installation, a film, a theater or dance production, or some combination of these, art requires large and flexible spaces, and large and flexible budgets. There is more need than ever for connections, global and local, and for expensive, delicate, and complicated tools and equipment. When the need for high-end equipment and money is combined with the need for more space and the acknowledgment of the importance of collaborative work, the result is a blueprint for something I will call “Big Art.”
Big Art would create a home for artistic work on campus on a scale now rarely possible. Universities would create open spaces for art-making, with natural light, high ceilings, flexible flooring (for dance and other performance activities), and acoustic sophistication, furnished with state-of-the-art technology, staffed by skilled technicians, and providing spaces for encounters and improvisation across art practices. With augmented funding and a new vision of art’s centrality, universities might set up endowed centers that bring together international practitioners, begin directing major donations toward art centers, and recruit major working artists and give them a home during the prime of their careers.
Working in teams, improvising and experimenting round the clock, creative artists could undertake large, world-changing projects, from architecture to environmental and public art. And like Big Science, Big Art would be international, bringing together key players from all over the globe. But I should underscore here that by “Big Art” I mean to propose an institutional vision. Artists who work alone, who do not require large spaces or expensive tools and materials, could benefit as much from this change as those who work collaboratively or on a large scale.
Universities already possess many of the capabilities they’d need to set up such programs. They are accustomed to managing grants from government, industry, and private sources. With relatively little adjustment, federal and state funding for the arts, and funding offered by foundations and private individuals, could be channeled – still competitively – through the university, just as with funding in the sciences. Professors, administrators, and curators already assess proposals in the creative and performing arts competitively. So routing outside arts funding through institutions of higher learning is making use of the evaluative systems that are already in place: the same people, the same kinds of reports, and in many cases, presumably, the same outcomes.
The universities can, and should, become patrons not only of art but also of that far more problematic and volatile category, artists. All too often public funding agencies have found it more comfortable to underwrite arts institutions than individuals, whose projects have sometimes been subject to political as well as aesthetic review. The university, the home of academic freedom, is a natural partner for artistic experimentation on the part of both students and teachers. It is only in an atmosphere of freedom that the best work – in research, scholarship, and the arts – can be produced and tested.
The idea that universities should house makers of art is as reasonable, natural, and logical as the idea that the university should contain and nurture other makers: engineers, or chemists, or applied mathematicians. And like those other makers, artists, no matter what arts they practice, need space, materials, training, and assessment, as well as a tolerance of imagination, “genius,” stubborn dedication, or eccentricity.
A number of academic institutions, spurred by inventive leaders, committed faculty, and farsighted donors, have already moved in visionary new directions in their approach to the arts. Yale, with graduate schools in art, drama, music, and architecture, has long been a visible player. The University of Michigan has brought the Royal Shakespeare Company to Ann Arbor for three-week residencies in which members of the company not only perform, but also work with the university community and the wider Detroit area.
At Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, new energies – and funding – are making a difference. Princeton and Stanford both have major universitywide initiatives to create new homes for creative arts and bring them closer into the curriculum. At Harvard, president Drew Faust appointed a universitywide task force to undertake “an expansive inquiry into the role of the arts in liberal education and in the life of the University.” The task force is expected to report its recommendations this fall.
Throughout history, the arts have depended on committed patrons. And all the forces that have gone into the story of arts patronage through the ages – wealthy individuals, passionately concerned mentors, national pride, rising arts consciousness among the middle class and across ethnic, social, and gender lines – find a natural and powerful home in the university, where freedom of expression, the toleration of difference, and the high value placed on originality and imagination have defined the very purpose and essence of the institution.
A university is not a paradise devoid of influence from donors, political factions, and prejudicial or interested beliefs. But the lively debates of the art world are really not so very different from those that animate discussion in other lively and contestatory fields, from government to economics to science. These fields too have non-academic institutions with which the university is in constant dialogue. The commerce between and among such institutions (museums and galleries; government agencies and NGOs; laboratories and think tanks) strengthens the university, while also allowing for theorizing and fact-finding in the context of academic freedom.
The world sometimes known as “academia” has rules, practices, expectations, and standards that make it hospitable to experimentation and risk-taking in the service of intellectual, scientific, and artistic progress. Artists have, in fact, been thinking outside the box – the white box of the museum gallery, the black box of the cinema – for a long time now. Perhaps it’s time for universities to meet them there.
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 three of a three part posting adapted from her new book, “Patronizing the Arts”.
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.
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”.
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.
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”.