A fairly typical art school event: Students submit two- or three-dimensional artwork to fulfill a class assignment, or for a school- or department-wide exhibition. Perhaps less typical: At a West Coast independent art college some years back, with no advance warning, a student killed a chicken in class as his project. As one might guess, this was not a class in animal slaughtering, and the school did its best not to criminalize the student’s action (“Why make a big deal out of it?” the school’s then-president said), but some faculty members did give the student a talking-to.
Tensions over the nature of classroom content can occur in many disciplines, and professors in science, business or humanities courses get little if any training, too, in how to handle difficult situations. But the problem is arguably greatest of all in the fine arts, where a culture of epater la bourgeoisie – shock the middle-class, afflict the comfortable – has existed for 150 or so years. Art is supposed to get people to see the world in new and different ways, but what if that awakening is rude or employs violence or obscenity or blasphemy or something else that may cause offense? It may be assumed that art schools and universities are bastions of free speech and experimentation but, Lord, not in my classroom!
Art instructors tend to plan for the typical, preparing lessons and critiques, but they sometimes get the atypical, because art students occasionally look to shock/provoke/offend/transgress. Few enough of these instructors receive any pedagogical training, and the little they do learn concerns classroom management, organizing a syllabus, how to grade students and lead discussions. This essay aims to explore the issues that can arise and to suggest ways that institutions and instructors can be better prepared for what can unfold in art classrooms.
In the thick student and faculty handbook at the Maryland Institute College of Art, for example, there are pages devoted to limiting certain types of art speech – graffiti art on public property is “vandalism,” animals must be treated “in a humane manner when used in/as art work,” no setting off fireworks, displaying or using weapons, possession or use of illegal drugs or alcohol, no exposing others to “blood, urine, feces, chemicals or other hazardous materials” – and the prohibitions were recently expanded to include the more nebulous “works that involve physical/emotional stress (potential or real) to the artist and/or audience.”
“You think you’ve covered all the bases and then someone comes up with something new,” said Ray Allen, the college’s provost. One student’s art project was to attach a commentary on sexual abuse by priests on a nearby church door, which led to another addition to the handbook, prohibiting the placement of “artwork” “on Corpus Christi Church or church property.”
The exposure to “blood, urine, feces…” section somewhat applies to the actions of the photography student who invited several men into the school so that she could take pictures of them at the moment of climax, but that prohibition covers only what Allen called the “ejaculants.” The fact that the student brought strange men onto school property was a separate matter. And, of course, where do you include a section on a student not locking himself in a box filled with snow (when he was finally pried out of the box, the student was unconscious and suffering from hypothermia)?
Walking a thin line between encouraging free artistic expression and what Ron Jones, president of the Memphis College of Art, calls “the rights of others not to be exposed to what they do not accept,” is a learned skill, and what one learns may apply only to a particular college, because each may have more or less tolerance of students with a desire to generate outrage. Artists, like so many others, are First Amendment absolutists when it comes to themselves, but in the context of a classroom or a college with a diverse student body or a publicly supported university where some state legislator may use a challenging art exhibit as the basis for a campaign to reduce governmental funding, they may question their moral footing.
At times, for example a student art project may involve, or suggest, violence, such as the performance piece staged at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2005 in which an MFA student pulled out of a bag what appeared to be a handgun, loaded it with a single bullet, spun the cylinder and aimed the pistol at his head, pulling the trigger. (The gun failed to discharge, and the student received a talking-to.) At other times, the issue is sexual content, such as the photograph of a male nude by a Savannah College of Art & Design student, which was removed by college administrators from the school’s Open Studio Exhibition in late 2010, because the image was “unacceptable” for a “family event.”
Politics in art also may make people uncomfortable, such as the pair of portraits of former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney framed with actual American flags exhibited at the student gallery by a graduate student at California’s Laguna College of Art & Design in in 2010. “A staff member took offense and complained to the president and development director, who were initially opposed to showing this work,” said Perin Mahler, chair of the college’s Master of Fine Arts program. (After a considerable amount of debate, the portraits were permitted to stay in the show.)
Religion is no easier a subject, as the Brigham Young University alumnus Jon McNaughton found when his painting “One Nation Under God,” depicting Christ holding the U.S. constitution and standing among the nation’s founding fathers, was removed from an exhibition space at the BYU bookstore in the summer of 2010. (One faculty member complained that McNaughton’s artwork should not be displayed unless an alternative liberal painting was also hung, and one of the university’s vice presidents declared himself “uncomfortable” with the presence of “One Nation Under God.”)
There are no rules of the road to help art instructors and college administrators in this realm. History professors (I hope) would know that it would be reprehensible and illegal if a student in a Revolutionary War class brought in a musket and began firing it, but art faculty seem immobilized by the term “freedom of expression.” Maintaining standards and order is not reactionary ("the critics hated the impressionists, too!") but helps students learn larger lessons of propriety.
Throughout a long career, most college studio art instructors will have students who look to test limits of taste and propriety, and some faculty will have these students sooner than others. Some tricks of the trade of teaching are learned on the job, but instructors need to have a firm idea from day one not only about how to educate and guide their students, but how to explore their ideas and materials, “but also to understand that there is a responsibility that goes along with that freedom,” said Kevin Conlon, vice president of academic affairs at the Columbus College of Art and Design. “We have a cultural value at this school that respects tolerance and diversity, and artwork that borders on hate speech requires us as faculty to help students understand the context of what they’re doing.”
He recalled one student who produced a painting that was based on photographs from pornography magazines, “which I knew was going to make many of the women in the class uncomfortable. I sat down with this student and asked him, ‘Why are you doing this? What do you think the effect of these images will be on other people?’ He really hadn’t thought much about it and had nothing to say. I told him, ‘If you can come up with a reason for what you’re doing, we can go forward.’ ”
"Going forward” is a pretty vague concept, but there are ways that potentially offensive student (or faculty or non-faculty, for that matter) artwork may be exhibited in good conscience. There is usually more than one gallery space on campuses in which pieces may be displayed, some more open to the public than others, and school hallways also may be the site of temporary exhibits. Some exhibitions have advisory signs that warn prospective visitors of challenging content, giving them the choice – and making them party to the decision – not to see something. Finally, potentially offensive artwork may be edited out for reasons of space rather than content. Censorship (if we are allowed to use that word) may take place along a continuum.
One would assume that even the most novice instructor understands that cruelty to animals or humans should not be permitted and that use of bodily fluids or hazardous products creates safety issues that need to be checked, but that’s not a given. Schools look to hire young instructors, because they are expected to form strong connections to students to whom they are closer in age than older, more experienced teachers. “Very often, younger faculty pride themselves on getting their students excited about an art project, and they lose what you would think would be common sense,” Allen said. That photography student at the Maryland Institute College of Art received approval from her young faculty adviser for both allowing the men on campus and their production of semen (that instructor was later reprimanded by the school’s administration on both counts), and the instructor of the student who locked himself in a box of snow and was eventually pulled out unconscious “didn’t have the sense to call 911,” he noted. (Another talking-to.)
What to do about an artwork that is likely to produce strong reactions in those who experience it is a toss-up, which is why schools resort to the less accessible galleries or warning signs. When in doubt, according to William Barrett, executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, instructors should bring problems and situations to their department chairs in order to receive guidance and support, which may be necessary in the event that a student’s artwork becomes a matter of significant controversy. Talking-tos are O.K., but they tend to take place after the fact, whereas instructors need to be more alert to what might happen and be ready.
Student artwork that may seem in poor taste or just disgusting has often elicited solutions that are even less appetizing. Many school administrators and faculty will try to talk students out of exhibiting works that are likely to engender controversy. However, from the eyes of a 19- or 22-year-old, this meeting is unlikely to be seen as a value-free discussion; students will see it as a directive from the people who give them grades and on whom they may rely for recommendations to make some change or do something different. Faculty may be worried about their own job security, and administrators may be fearful of criticism from trustees or groups in the community or the press, and their part of the conversation is apt to show that stress.
Buffeted by the calls for almost limitless free speech and the potential black eye that negative publicity over controversial artwork may create, schools and universities tend to establish few rules about what is unacceptable, but many are also reluctant to fully support their students and faculty in the event of complaints over the content of the art. Younger faculty especially may worry about promotions and tenure if their classroom work results in controversy that requires administrators to defend artwork that strikes the public as insulting to one group or another or as offensive to common standards of good taste.
Some schools are offering “artist as citizen” courses that view the role art plays in the general society. Artists must learn to be responsible to the community and culture they live in – so goes the thinking. Again, something is very troubling about this development: Were the purpose of this type of class to broaden the student’s intellectual outlook, there would be no complaint; however, half of the curriculum for art students already consists of liberal arts courses, which should provide that broadening experience. If schools want to offer an elective on art controversies in history or 20th-century art controversies or even art controversies of the past decade, that would be perfectly valid. Where it moves from an analysis of art in the social milieu to how artists are to behave and think about their audience and be sensitive to group members of that audience (which I think these courses are really about), then the educational component is left behind and the political correctness element enters in. In fact, it becomes a course in political correctness.
Then, there is the question of whether some groups are more acceptable to attack or parody than others. One art instructor at a state university proudly spoke to me of her efforts defending to school administrators a woman student whose artwork included a painting of Virgin Mary using a crucifix as a sex toy. I asked her if she would have made as strong a case if the student were male and the imagery was arguably misogynistic or Neo-Nazi. “Absolutely not!” she said. Political correctness meets comparative victimhood.
Other solutions are a toss-up. Making artwork less accessible by exhibiting it in a less public, harder-to-find space skirts the boundaries of censorship, and parental advisory signs about the content of works at the front of an exhibit removes the surprise element from art.
Publicly supported institutions, such as universities, and particularly those located in rural and traditionally conservative areas of the country, are more likely (but not always) the focus of controversy than private and more urban colleges and art schools. Private schools are answerable only to their trustees and immediate community, whereas public institutions additionally may be condemned by citizens’ groups and legislators for spending taxpayer money on blasphemy, homoeroticism, pornography, racism or something else to which they object. Obscenity laws, for which "community standards" establish a legal basis of judgment, have not been applied to schools, and it certainly is not clear who or what the community is: other students, the entire campus, the entire campus plus the surrounding community? For a state-supported institution, the community may be the entire state, plus out-of-state students (and parents), alumni, businesses, foundations and government agencies that provide the operating budget of the school.
Students are generally young, generally inexperienced about the world, and it may make sense not to put their work up for display so much. That is not censorship but based on pedagogical theory: Student work should be seen as part of their artistic development, a process and not a product to be exhibited and defended. The effort to get students to rework their pieces and rethink their ideas would be less fraught with anxiety if exhibitions were not part of the issue.
The student’s world is often a circumscribed, cloistered one, existing almost completely within the confines of the school, and the intellectual parameters are defined by teachers and fellow students. The work that is created tends to reflect the culture of the school, because students have a very limited sense of what actually is exhibited and sold in art galleries. It is a good thing for students to be “out of the market” and in an educational setting where they may develop artistic skills, ideas and a sense of process, but they should not become out of touch with how the real world works. Were art students more out in the world – directed there through internships, externships, mentoring relationships with full-time artists, employment in the art world and visits to galleries and museums – they might quickly recognize that simply being provocative carries no weight in the arena that they look to enter.
Daniel Grant is the author of several books published by Allworth Press, including The Business of Being an Artist and The Fine Artist's Career Guide. He has taught at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts and has a blog on the arts page of the Huffington Post.
“The banquet of my Wiley years was the tutelage of Tolson.” -- James Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart
Over the holidays, many may have gone to the theater to see The Great Debaters,the major motion picture from Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey. The film tells the extraordinary tale of the 1935 Wiley College debate team, its legendary coach Melvin B. Tolson and his most famous student, Dr. James L. Farmer Jr. One of the “Big Four” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, Farmer put his debate training to use as the architect of the movement’s strategy of non-violent protest and direct action.
Most of the attention lavished on the movie has focused on how it helps audiences reflect on the ways in which racism permeates society. But the film also creates an opportunity for – and poses a challenge to – colleges and universities to provide all students with the fundamental academic experience that is debate. In addition to offering audiences opportunities to reflect on the ways in which racism permeates human society, the film challenges colleges and universities to provide all students with the fundamental academic experience that is debate. At a time when higher education is simultaneously financially constrained and seemingly awash in projects to create centers of excellence (teaching, civic engagement, service learning, and deliberative democracy) The Great Debaters reminds us that academic debate is a proven investment in the core values of our institutional missions.
Washington, who both directs and stars in the film, has taken the lead by donating $1 million to reestablish the Wiley College team, which lapsed after Tolson’s departure from the school. Washington’s generosity is a testament to his belief in the power and virtue of a debate education and a wake-up call to institutions of higher education to make academic debate a part of any serious strategic plan.
We all value the skills of argument and critical thinking; intercollegiate debate teaches these – and much more. Indeed, there is no better vehicle for stimulating undergraduate research, fostering tolerance and open mindedness, instigating engagement with the issues of the day, promoting understanding of global connections and inculcating the method of interdisciplinarity. Debate constitutes a series of connected academic experiences and teaches students to ask questions and seek answers to serious academic questions. Participation in debate, at any level, is life altering and has real consequence for students and their institutions alike. The skills, knowledge and habits of mind nurtured through academic debate are on display every day in virtually every profession, not the least of which is higher education.
A few years ago, John E. Sexton, president of New York University, said that his four years in high school debate “were the educational foundation of everything I did.” “I'm saying the finest education I got from any of the institutions I attended, the foundation of my mind that I got during those four years of competitive policy debate; that is, 90 percent of the intellectual capacity that I operate with today -- Fordham [University] for college, Fordham for the Ph.D., Harvard for law school -- all of that is the other 10 percent." But debate skills are not reserved only for exceptional students like Farmer and Sexton. All students should have the benefits of a debate education.
Because audiences around the globe will see The Great Debaters, it gives higher education a rare opportunity to promote this fundamental activity and garner support for it. How can we in higher education see this film, understand its message, and not return to our campuses to make those opportunities available to students? College administrators should be rushing to build strong debate programs in institutions where none presently exist. Meanwhile, universities that already have such programs should exercise a leadership role by committing to reinforce and showcase existing programs.
Compared to intercollegiate athletics and other costly endeavors, debate is, dollar for dollar, an efficient use of institutional resources. It requires no multimillion dollar complexes, playing fields, stadiums or expensive equipment. All that is necessary are classrooms, coaches, office supplies and support for travel and research. Debate is an inexpensive, educational and effective way to both promote schools and enhance the quality of the academic experience.
The movement to rediscover debate has already begun. Urban debate leagues at the middle and high school level are flourishing under the leadership of the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues and The Great Debaters will undoubtedly cause demand for debate to surge in the coming years. However, these leagues cannot shoulder the burden of a nationwide debate renaissance alone. They need colleges and universities to take a leadership role. Specifically, higher education must do three things.
First, we need to create viable opportunities for high school graduates who seek to continue their debate education after high school. Creating new programs and reinforcing existing programs is essential.
Second, and equally important, we must recruit, train and produce a new generation of professional debate educators. There are many middle and high schools around the country eager to offer debate opportunities to students, but they are unable to find qualified teachers with debate experience because the demand for quality coaches far outstrips the supply. To meet this shortfall, our institutions must generate capacity by fielding debate programs that give students opportunities to learn the coaching craft through rich individual learning experiences. In addition, thoughtful consideration should be given to the ways in which such a commitment spurs curricular innovation at both the undergraduate and graduate level as well as educational partnerships of local, regional and state constituencies. Finally, the creation of new opportunities to join the debate teaching fraternity must move in lockstep with efforts to retain, reward, and renew our best debate teachers.
Third, as the nation’s longstanding incubators of free expression, innovative thinking, democratic deliberation and social change, college and universities must do more to promote the role of debate as a necessary component of a well functioning society. Strong debate programs are essential because they showcase best practices. Debate programs are and should be key players in efforts to foster civic engagement and democratic responsibility.
The Great Debaters reminds us that the values of debate are the values of the academy itself. Even critics will admit that debate’s insufficiencies are due as much as anything to insufficient institutional commitment to a debate education. To be true to our core values, we need to promote the activities that create better students and better citizens. Debate does this. An America where academic debate becomes a prominent fixture on every campus would be a better America. Every college and university has many James Farmers strolling the hallways and quadrangles of its campuses; but we must lay the foundation for achievement. There will be no better opportunity to bring this to fruition than the one that now lies before us . The time for debate is now.
Timothy M. O'Donnell
Timothy M. O’Donnell is chair of the National Debate Tournament Committee and director of debate at the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Va.
With American society divided for and against the war, returning veterans tend to be viewed more as issues than as individuals. Recent news media coverage has focused on stories about soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who have become violent criminals and on the trials of wounded vets who receive substandard medical treatment. Unquestionably, these are important issues. However, with the Iraq War entering its sixth year and the White House indicating that troop levels will remain at 130,000 for an indeterminate time, facilitating the return of the “average Joe” soldier is an increasingly pressing issue that remains largely ignored.
Since the adoption of the GI Bill during the Second World War, colleges and universities, like the one where I teach, have served as primary gateways through which many vets have found a path back into civilian life. Yet campuses today tend to have visible and vocal anti-war segments among their faculty and students. Ironically, in the post-Vietnam era the GI Bill, a tool designed to facilitate reintegration, places student-vets in environments that many find unwelcoming at best, exclusionary at worst.
As a pacifist, I want to see an end to the Iraq War, the sooner the better. As a citizen, I feel guilty that this desire is my sole contribution.As a result, I don’t know how to engage, how to approach the increasing number of returning vets I encounter in my day-to-day life, inside the classroom and out. When a friend, the University of Oregon administrator Jonathan Wei, told me about an innovative play being performed by student-veterans there, I was immediately intrigued.
Eugene, often referred to as the “Berkeley of Oregon,” has been described as “famously anti-war.” Bumper stickers denouncing the war are ubiquitous, and the words “the War” are commonly graffitied onto stop signs. For Oregon student-vets, feelings of estrangement and isolation were common. Many described to Wei feeling “invisible” and being “unable to connect with friends” upon their return from service. One, a Korean-American woman who had been deployed to Guantanamo, summed up her experience this way: “I just had to keep to myself, keep my head down, go to class, come home. Honest to god, it was like me having to pretend I wasn’t Asian.”
To confront the disconnection that so many felt, first the UO student-vets organized, forming the Veterans and Family Student Association (VFSA). Next, they created a play.
The project began after Wei, in his capacity as coordinator of nontraditional student programs, staged several panel discussions with the 20-odd members of the newly formed veteran students’ group during the 2006-7 academic year. From the meetings, Wei began to see the limits inherent in approaching veterans as a demographic or political issue. He encouraged the association to help the university’s Women's Center (another group he worked with) stage a production of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues.” Inspired by the experience, Wei and the veterans’ group began work on their own original play.
From the start, “Telling” was about the communal process of creation as much as it was about the eventual product itself. Wei and Max Rayneard, a South African Fulbright scholar and Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature, interviewed 21 VFSA members during the summer and fall of 2007. Wei and Rayneard used the transcripts to write the text. John Schmor, the head of Oregon’s department of theatre arts and a self-described “Prius-driving Obama sticker guy,” signed on to direct as soon as Wei approached him with the idea. For most of the student-vets, “Telling” would be their first time on stage. To prepare them, Schmor offered a performance class during the fall semester geared especially toward the production.
Two hundred eighty-five people crammed into the Veterans Memorial Building auditorium near the campus on February 7 for opening night of the three-show run. This was 45 more than expected; another 40 had to be turned away. Three hundred attended the second performance, 245 the third. Among them were current military personnel and veterans, young men with close-cropped hair and “old timers,” grizzled and graying; UO students, some even younger; a spattering of university faculty; university, city and state officials, including representatives from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s and Rep. Peter DeFazio’s offices; and townsfolk of all stripes.
“It was a mix of people like I’ve never seen at a production in Eugene,” said Schmor, who has been involved with theater in the city since his time as a graduate student here, in 1988.
I attended the first show. The play’s success stemmed from the connection it created between performer and audience. We, in the audience, sat close to the bare stage and close to one another. “Telling” mixed monologues and blocked scenes that described enlistment and boot camp, deployment, and return to civilian life, giving the student-vets a voice they would not typically otherwise have. The multi-racial cast of 11 included three women and eight men. Nine were former soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, one a recruit, and one a military wife. They played themselves as well as the recruiters, drill sergeants and fellow soldiers that characterized their various experiences in the armed forces.
Watching the student-vets act out their experiences allowed me to reconsider my oftentimes sensational and conflicted impressions of the military. For me, the performance transformed the people on stage from “veterans” to individuals with goals and dreams not so unlike those of nearly every student I teach. They were boyfriends and girlfriends, brothers and sisters, history majors and student-teachers, wanna-be musicians and Peace Corps aspirants. Yet they were also young men and women who have had extraordinary experiences in the name of service, young people whose stories we, as a community, need to hear, no matter how difficult it is to do so.
Watching, I felt energized, edified and also entertained, as the performers were really funny. I, along with those around me, frequently burst into explosive laughter. There were also many audible sighs. When it was done, we all gave the vets a standing ovation.
I wasn’t alone in being moved. Activists from the peace vigil that has held weekly protests outside Eugene’s Federal Building since the Iraq War began attended opening night. Exiting the auditorium, one enthusiastically said to another, “By the end I really came to love them.”
For the VFSA, a significant goal, beyond initiating community dialogue, was outreach -- to make other vets aware of the organization. On that score, the play was also successful, as membership in the organization continues to grow at an unusually high rate, from the original 20 to over 75 since the play’s February run. (The university estimates there to be about 400 veterans on campus, though the actual number is impossible to verify, as only those on the GI Bill have to identify themselves.)
Another goal of the veteran students’ group was to strive for greater exposure, and beyond Eugene, “Telling” has generated immediate buzz. Since the play’s opening, several colleges and universities around the state have contacted the association to have “Telling” performed on their campuses, as have a handful of veterans’ organizations. This has resulted in a scheduled five-venue tour for this coming summer. Likewise, at the Student Veterans of America Conference, hosted by Vetjobs and the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs in Chicago, the VFSA was adopted as a national model for organizations across the country looking into the issue of veterans on campuses.
Wei, who now lives in Austin, Texas, has begun working to make the project formula portable so that student-veteran groups nationwide can adapt “Telling” to their own memberships and communities. The process of interviews/script/performance requires specific local application to be most beneficial. While Eugene’s version might resonate with Austin audiences, for instance, it will only truly do the work of reconnecting vets and communities if a University of Texas version is produced, with UT student-vets speaking to individuals from their own community.
Given the UO success, this is an outcome worth aspiring to.
David Wright, author of Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers (Scribner 2001), teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In 2001 I donated my collection of prints by sculptors to the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern, though some of the prints still adorn the walls of my house and won’t get to Evanston until after my death. You can assume -- and you would be right -- that a collector of such works has been a lifetime “consumer” and supporter of the arts.
And yet, I said to myself “good for them” when reports first surfaced last winter that Brandeis intended to sell its collection of modern art, so that the considerable (envisaged) proceeds could support functions closer to the central goals of the university.
Understand that my print collection went to Northwestern because I had been dean of arts and sciences there for thirteen years. Understand also that regarding this issue, my experience as dean trumps my love of art and that is why I disagree with the views expressed in numerous articles in The New York Times and one this month in Inside Higher Ed called “Avoiding the Next Brandeis."
I see a significant role for art museums on higher education campuses. But, with quite special exceptions, I see a very small pedagogic function for colleges and universities to own works of art, especially given the current cost and value of so many of them. I’d rather those museums were reclassified as galleries. To be sure, the provisions of deeds of gift must be scrupulously observed; but assuming that to be the case, let them sell their works of art if the funds thus gained will better serve the institutions’ educational mission.
The premise here is that the roles of museums on campuses are not like those of museums downtown, since the former exist to serve the specific needs and interests of a campus’s students and faculty.
This month’s article in Inside Higher Ed quotes a task force formed by arts groups to figure out ways to avoid the next Brandeis as saying that campus museums should be regarded as “essential to the academic experience and to the entire educational enterprise.”
But why should they be so regarded when, by my admittedly not systematic observations, most of those museums do nothing or very little to deserve to be so regarded? As dean, I had to bludgeon the Block Gallery to present an exhibit of the work of Northwestern’s prize painters, William Conger, Ed Paschke and James Valerio. (This was before the Gallery was transformed into a Museum and long before its current director, David Robertson, came to Northwestern.) Art history departments are mostly held at arm's length by campus museums who prize their (inappropriate) autonomy. Mostly, the museums don’t even know how to communicate with other than art faculty on campus.
It is excellent, therefore, that this cluster of issues is being looked at. In my view, however, the goals sought by the task force for campus art museums are not likely to be realized by means of works of arts owned by museums, but rather by means of exhibits brought in and often locally curated for specific pedagogic purposes.
Members of the task force, make sure, therefore, that you are not just talking to yourselves. You are looking for ways to relate A to B; there must thus be strong representation from both poles. As announced, the organizations participating in the task force are mostly from the Category A: the art museum community.
I strongly recommend that it also include not only representation from the art history and studio art departments, but knowledgeable people who have thoughts about how to involve art museums in educating students who are not primarily concerned with the arts. Indeed, given the way in which so many campus museums lead existences so separate from their campus surroundings, it might even be necessary to initiate reflection about about their possible wider functions. The task force might want to consider forming a committee consisting of a couple of department chairperson, a couple of deans or associate deans, perhaps some interested students assigning them the task of reporting to the museum-powers-that-be how those museums might serve a broad campus constituency.
Accordingly, if the just-formed task force keeps its eye on the ball (as I see it), that Brandeis bomb will have very positive, if unintended, consequences.
Rudolph H. Weingartner
Rudolph H. Weingartner is former dean of arts and sciences at Northwestern University.
When I first learned last winter that the Brandeis University trustees had voted to sell the collections of the Rose Art Museum and close the museum, my reactions were many: concern for Brandeis students who were losing an important learning tool; sadness that a great university was breaking trust with many benefactors; annoyance that the museum industry would be yet again living the trauma of defending our collections as other than semi-liquid assets.
To these were added a suspicion that somehow the Rose must have failed in its campus-wide engagement and in its outreach to key campus constituencies (including its trustees), or those very trustees would never have felt they could make that particular decision, no matter how great the budget gap facing them. Even as I recognized the right of any university to shutter any program no longer deemed sufficiently important, I shuddered at such a reactive decision.
Nowhere in my response did I consider the “good for them” proclamation made by Rudolph Weingartner in his Views column of October 23 for Inside Higher Ed, arguing against both the pedagogic value of owning works of art and the effectiveness of university museums generally. Most troublingly, in reading of the view of a panel of experts arguing that university museums should be regarded as “essential to the academic experience," Dean Weingartner observes “by my admittedly not systematic observations, most of those museums do nothing or very little to deserve to be so regarded…. Mostly, the museums don’t even know how to communicate with other than art faculty on campus.”
Drawing such conclusions -- and a kind of pleasure in the demise of a fine museum -- on the basis of random evidence seems not to represent the rigors of academic policy making at its best.
More dangerously, this view fails to note either the sheer range and variety of campus museums in the United States or the extent to which many have worked mightily in recent decades to make themselves central to their parent institutions. Long gone are the days when most university museums could be seen as, at best, the laboratory addendum to a department of art or art history. Seeking not merely (although importantly) to shape future art historians and museum professionals, the nation’s best university museums have long been engaged in the practice of fostering critical thinking and visual literacy, the understanding of times and cultures dramatically distinct from our own, the awareness of a common humanity, and thus, ultimately, the shaping of good citizenship.
Here at Princeton University, we have long crossed boundaries to partner our museum with disciplines and departments from the humanities to creative writing to architecture to civil engineering. The Yale Center for British Art routinely connects with fields ranging from natural history to cultural studies; their exhibition this year on the impact of Darwin’s theory of evolution on subsequent creative practice was a model for cutting-edge investigation of value to us all.
The Wolfsonian Museum at Florida International University offered an almost shockingly timely exhibition looking at the art of propaganda during last year’s presidential campaign. The new wing opened this year at the University of Michigan Museum of Art -- which I led until recently -- was designed to architecturally embody and make possible a commitment to deep campus-wide engagement, providing a second home for programming in performance, creative writing, film, and the humanistic disciplines generally.
And many universities increasingly use their art museums in medical curriculums, having discovered that sustained close looking makes their doctors-in-training better diagnosticians. From Dartmouth, to Emory, to Wisconsin, to UCLA, great university museums have shown themselves deeply capable of being essential to the lives of their universities, even as they also often function as enormously beneficial gateways to those universities for the general public.
The argument that academic museums can do these things is no mere abstraction. They are doing these things, and are increasingly recognized as playing an essential role in a time of bottom-line driven programming at many of even our greatest civic museums. With less at stake in the battle for attendance, the university museum can often take on difficult projects whose popularity cannot be assured, advancing the cause of new knowledge presented in accessible ways that yet seek to avoid pandering or the much dreaded “dumbing down." Many of the first thematic exhibitions -- sometimes operating in the sphere of a social history of art, the so-called “new art history” -- took place in our university museums. Increasingly, and happily, the special role of the university museum is recognized by the media: Writing in The New York Times this year, the art critic Holland Cotter observed “The august public museum gave us fabulousness. The tucked away university gallery gave us life: organic, intimate and as fresh as news.”
And why do we university museums so annoyingly feel the need to collect artworks, creating the inevitable drain on resources caused by those pesky stewardship requirements? I offer in answer a fundamental article of faith, that even in the digital age, the sustained engagement with original works of art necessary for teaching, research, and layered learning would be difficult if not impossible if we ceased to be collecting institutions and instead taught only from objects temporarily made available for exhibition.
In the way that great texts live in our libraries, available for revisiting and sustained scholarly investigation, the works of art in our museums offer the possibility of deep critical engagement, close looking, and technical analysis -- made all the deeper when brought together as collections in which dialogues arise through the conversation of objects with each other and with their scholarly interlocutors. Surely a key role of the academy -- the advancement of new knowledge and the challenging of past knowledge -- is that fruit of curatorial, faculty, and student research made possible by the sustained presence of great works of art, whose survival for the future is also thus (and not incidentally) guaranteed.
Like libraries that often also find themselves embattled in times of budget cuts (since typically neither museums nor libraries directly generate tuition streams), great university art museums are a “public good," offering value and possibility to the whole of our university communities as well as to users from outside the walls of the ivory tower. That all university museums do not achieve this centrality of purpose -- often, I suspect, for lack of adequate resourcing by their parent institutions in the perpetual fight against the perception that art represents a “luxury” in the logo-and data-centric university -- is to be regretted. Without question much work remains to be done to make our museums central to the academic experience.
But just as any academic department desires a certain autonomy to define its foci and particular strengths within the university curriculum, no academic museum should be “bludgeoned” into showing the work of particular artists or serving as the handmaiden of narrow administrative modishness. The academic model has never, thank heavens, been one of pure utility, even as we seek to be responsible, effective, and impactful.
For me, the lesson of the Brandeis debacle is the reminder that the fight for the central role of our museums is not won. Contrary to Dean Weingartner’s views, however, that fight has long and often successfully been underway.
James Christen Steward
James Christen Steward is director of the Princeton University Art Museum.