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Harvard’s Arts Task Force

This past Wednesday a Harvard task force appointed by president Drew Gilpin Faust released a report advocating an expanded role for the arts there.  The report is interesting in large part because it calls attention to a circumstance common on many campuses, where the arts are ubiquitous – theatrical productions and exhibitions running all the time – but also marginalized to the work of the modern research university to the extracurricular and programmatic sidelines.  While Harvard’s circumstances are obviously not generalizable everywhere given its tremendous wealth and status as the nation’s leading private university, the Task Force led by the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt makes a compelling claim for artistic centrality.

To those who regularly teach the creative arts none of the main arguments will seem new, but they are eloquently put and I think well suited to the audiences for claims on the collective resources of comprehensive universities who tend, even if only subliminally, to discount the arts (and for that matter the humanities) as mainly doing peripheral or service work while the real useful knowledge emerging from college campuses is being made in science laboratories and in the professional schools.  In addressing such a worldview, and it is pervasive, the report defends the intellectual practices of artistic invention as wholly necessary to intellectual work.  As the report argues:

The quarantining of arts practice in the sphere of the extra-curricular creates a false dichotomy.  It leads students (and, on occasion, their teachers) to assume falsely that the qualities of successful art-making – the breaking apart of the carapace of routine, the empowerment of the imagination, the careful selection and organization of elements that contribute to an overarching, coherent design, the rigorous elimination of all that does not contribute to this design, the achievement of a deepened intelligibility in the external and internal world – do not belong in the work they are assigned to undertake in the curriculum…  On the contrary, the forms of thinking inculcated in art training are valuable both in themselves and in what they help to enhance elsewhere in the curriculum.  These include the development of craft, the sharpening of focus and concentration, and the empowerment of the imagination.  Art-making is an expressive practice:  it nurtures intense alertness to the intellectual and emotional resources of the human means of communication, in all their complexity.  It requires both acute observation and critical reflection.  This self-reflection – the drive to interrogate conventions, displace genres, challenge inherited codes of meaning – encourages risk-taking and an ability to endure repeated failures.  It fosters both intelligent imitation and a desire to conceive and bring forth what has hitherto been unimaginable.

The report also evokes the increasingly accepted claims that the most demanding intellectual problems demand interdisciplinary approaches, and the pedagogical insistence that students learn best by making rather than by hearing, both arguments mobilized to make the case that training in the arts is not just a luxurious supplement but a necessary ingredient to serious scholarly endeavor.  Although the examples are of necessity anecdotal (and for obvious reason limited to Harvard alumni), cases are brought forward where distinguished work was enabled by exposure to the arts:  T.S. Eliot, W.E.B. Du Bois and others are mentioned as having challenged dominant paradigms because of their involvement with a range of disciplines including the arts.

When the arts are mainly championed as extracurricular events in which well rounded individuals will participate but not specialize, another danger is aroused, and “a quite specific view of the arts” is encouraged:  “Art, in this view, is a thing entirely bound up with pleasure.  Purely voluntary, it stands apart from the sphere of obligation, high seriousness, and professional training.”  And when the arts are “deemed… to be extracurricular, many students remain oblivious to the hard work – the careful training, perception, and intelligence – that the arts require.  They know that writing essays is a skilled and time-consuming labor.  They recognize that problem sets in math and science are meant to be difficult.  But ask them to photograph a landscape, compose a short story, or direct a scene rather than write an analytical essay and they will almost universally assume that the exercise will be quickly and easily dispatched.  The problem is not that they believe art-making is trivial but rather that they believe that talent alone, and not thought or diligence, will determine the outcome.”

And yet the report also makes a sustained case for the role the arts can play in nurturing happiness, by which is meant not the fleeting delight that comes from a moving sonata or an entertaining comedy, “something more than the acquisition of technical mastery, something beyond the amassing and exchange of information necessary for the advancement of human learning” – it “entails an intensified participation in the natural and human realms, a vital union of spirit and matter at once facilitated and symbolized by works of art.”

The report obviously moves rather quickly to make Harvard-specific recommendations, including a call for an expanded arts presence on their new Allston campus, concretized support for artists-in-residence, and new graduate programs in the arts.  Some of these will work elsewhere and some won’t.  But even at the level of the specifics, it is hard to imagine that the Harvard Task Force call for such initiatives as using graduate arts programs (especially new MFA degree programs) as a way to leverage artistic excellence, creating an interdisciplinary artistic Hothouse where new collaborations might be nurtured, and thinking of all campus spaces as potential places for exhibition and attention to aesthetic practice would not be well justified on any comprehensive research or liberal arts campus.

These arguments are made with some rhetorical sensitivity, offered in a way I think unlikely either to offend artists who might be inclined to see such a case as slighting their hard work or non-artists whose academic positions would less typically have them thinking seriously about the role art might play.  All the more reason that it should be widely read and its central claims broadly deployed.


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