Friday, November 14, 2008

How Marjorie garbles the issue of art in the academy

A few weeks ago an article in the Globe's "Ideas" section by Harvard's Marjorie Garber (looking nobly far-sighted at left) caught my eye - and I'm sure a few others in the Boston area; yet I've read little discussion of it since. Titled "Higher Art," the piece dealt with the question of how universities could, or should, integrate the arts into their curricula - and thus, at a slight rhetorical remove, with the local question of how Harvard might further address this issue in its own curriculum, by even, perhaps, finally establishing a School for the Arts (a need that's often been discussed in this blog). Thus the piece was probably scanned with interest by those Bostonians wondering if and how Harvard might make its big move.

But alas, the article gave at least this reader great cause for concern. I've read Professor Garber's writing with interest before (and even attended a class or two of hers), but I have to say on this question she exhibited little of the intelligence or insight she has routinely displayed in her field of expertise. One wonders, based at least on these few tea leaves, what rude beast might even now be slouching toward Allston/Brighton to be born.

For while I think it's only appropriate to expect that an article subtitled "Universities should become society's great patrons of the arts" might present some sort of argument backing up said claim, Garber offers really nothing in the way of argument, but only a series of gently pretentious proclamations. She begins with the observation that today it's the "visual intellectuals" like Jeff Koons (self-portrait with former wife, above left) who are the big draws at Harvard, rather than dead literary has-beens like Jacques Derrida and boring old T.S. Eliot (at right). Yet the work of these new celebrities, Garber notes, "has not reached a comparable importance in the curriculum," an apparent injustice which leads her to wonder aloud, "what should the role of art be in the modern university?"

A heady question, surely - and it's at least possible that the answer might be that the role of the arts should be reduced in the university. But Garber doesn't ponder her query too long; only a short paragraph later, she's suggesting that "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] integrating the arts into the main intellectual mission of the school."

Yeah, but maybe that time hasn't come, Professor. Maybe instead the time has come to make such a case rather than blithely assume it. But why bother with a knotty debate when one can breathlessly opine that "the making of art . . . belongs in the university . . . nothing could be more central to the life of the university"? Indeed, Garber's not even fazed by the fact that what she's proposing is "a rethinking of what constitutes academic work."

In the tired old traditional definition, of course, "academic work" had to do with something called "truth," and was generally construed as research into an empirically defined subject, to reveal something physically verifiable, or historically valid, or at least logically sound. Of course a school for the arts can meet most of those criteria via instruction in technique or repertoire, with contemporary artists prominently featured as visiting or adjunct professors. That's pretty much the conservatory model. But that's not what Garber has in mind.

And here's where things get interesting, because Garber begins to balance a project of truly epic scale on thin, or even non-existent, pretexts. She tiptoes around the issue of actual tenure for practicing artists - mentioning that "the arts do not lend themselves easily to tenurable standards" - yet also suggests that universities should bring to bear on the arts their "institutional traditions of judgment, peer review, and freedom of ideas" and should give artists "a home during the prime of their careers." To me, that says something a lot like "tenure," but Garber never quite utters the fateful word. In an artful dodge, she instead asserts that "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."

Yes, Garber is calling for a "Big Art" establishment to match the "Big Science" establishment, with its "big staffs, big budgets, big priorities, and big place within the intellectual and fiscal economy of the university." Surely such a false analogy between art and science could only be proposed by someone who doesn't, really, understand science, and sure enough, Garber is soon babbling that "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." Re-reading that, I don't know whether to laugh or cry - "the imaginative as well as actual configuration of time and space"! Could this woman sound more silly?

Still, it's worth noting that despite its big staffs and big budgets, "Big Art" is apparently supposed to be institutionalized sans tenure. And here perhaps is Garber's one bow to the the actual intellectual justifications of "Big Science." Because the salient difference between art and science, of course, is that artistic "experiments" aren't really experiments in any rigorous sense at all; they have no hypotheses, and there are no externally verifiable results. The fact that we call so much art "experimental" is simply in deference to artists' desire for the prestige that long ago attached to science as its methods proved so fruitful. But there is no corresponding "method" to art, and thus no chain of discovery or systemic theoretical development - and hence any "knowledge" derived from artistic "experiments" is essentially chimerical (or at least political). Therefore while pretensions to tenure for purely artistic work may satisfy postmodern literary and critical desires, they simultaneously undermine the very arguments for academic freedom on which the concept of tenure rests. And in practical terms, it seems unlikely that tenure would benefit the arts, given that the vast majority of tenured professors, as surveys routinely show, actually produce little controversial or cutting-edge work, and the tenure process itself leads to paralyzing group-think. (Certainly in Harvard's case, its recent record in new architecture and public art gives one little faith in its ability as a patron.) In short, tenure would probably be bad for both the university and the arts. Artists should not - and must not - be tenured, at least if you want the arts to remain at least as interesting and free as they currently are.

But that still leaves open the question of "Big Art" - or at least what exactly makes "Big Art" different from what universities do already. Sometimes, in fact, Garber's proposals sound surprisingly modest - at one point she says, "Universities would create open spaces for art-making, with natural light, high ceilings, flexible flooring (for dance and other performance activities), and acoustic sophistication." Uh - does she mean a studio? This is about Harvard building some studios?

Elsewhere, however, Garber makes it clear that the facilities of a mere "conservatory" just won't do; instead, she announces that "Big Art" should involve "world-changing projects" that are "international in scope" and depend on "expensive, delicate and complicated tools and equipment." Really, I'm not making this up; Garber is actually calling for tens, or maybe hundreds, of millions of dollars to be invested in huge, international projects that will result in - well, who knows, but whatever it is, it will be BIG, and the artists will no doubt agree that it's great, and that it constitutes "progress." Celebrities will no doubt be involved, and perhaps the professors who mix with them will even become celebrities themselves! (Above left, more from Garber's favorite "visual intellectual," just because I get a kick out of thinking how big his "art" could get with a few million from Harvard.)

Most of this, of course, is simply the same kind of air-headed rhetoric used to promote movies and TV shows. But beneath the afflatus, the kernel of Garber's proposal seems to be something like this: universities should hire artists to produce sponsored work on a grand scale. She argues for this proposal by vague, and often false, analogy: art is like science (wrong), or at least like applied science (wrong again), or at the very least "gives pleasure, and provokes thought" (okay) and is "cross-disciplinary" and "advanced" and "collaborative" and other good stuff.

But Garber never honestly tackles the real questions at the heart of her proposal. If, for example, artists aren't really "tenurable," if their work actually cannot be evaluated by academic standards, then under what rubric should they become "academics" anyhow? And if they are not hired as academics, but as applied practitioners, like, say, the employees of MIT's Lincoln Lab, or the Broad Institute, or other redoubts of "Big Science," then how, precisely, should their work be rewarded, or evaluated? The investment in these institutions was justified practically, by actual technological and economic advance. Art has no such standards, and Garber offers no blueprint for developing them. And she never begins to ponder the circular aspects of an academy which studies a culture which it itself is producing. It's likewise hard to believe that vague prophesies of "progress" will cut the mustard in a funding environment facing the restrictions of the coming recession. Put all these issues together, and somehow I think the proponents of "Big Art" will need a more thoughtful spokesperson than Marjorie Garber.

1 comment:

  1. I think I know what's going on, here -- a thirst for the massive corporate and governmental grants that Big Science justifies its prominent position on campus, something the arts will no longer achieve without substantial university buy-in. Also, her proposal, natch, ignores all the other conservatories, studios and organizations that support the arts in MA alone.... the arts won't really be important until Harvard says they are.
    I suspect another motive might be the lack of prominent donations from arts superstars -- if there's not a building naming opportunity, why select HU for one's bequests or papers? How can you attract those loaded first-year students, when Mom or Dad smirks at HU leaving performing arts as mostly an amateur concern?

    I don't know why they even worry about this -- isn't getting the high-wealth students they do recruit, enough?