The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
The arts on campuses seem to be entering a period of unprecedented investment and attention, with ‘arts districts’ and strategic initiatives and a new profile even at institutions famous for cultivating the other regions of the brain. Maybe it’s no coincidence that this comes at a time when the value and relevance of higher education and the value and relevance of the traditional arts (especially to young people) are being challenged from all directions.
Yesterday, Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art announced that its new building would be designed by busy art-world architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Nothing surprising there; campus art museums at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, University of Iowa, University of Wisconsin, Michigan State and many others are building or recently opened gleaming facilities, most of them designed by the same architects that have been creating all those new wings and renovations for larger, non-college museums around the country.
What caught my eye was the university’s positioning of the new Hood and other Dartmouth arts facilities as an “arts district.” This centralizing impulse — thinking about the arts at the level of the university rather than the level of individual organizations or programs — is being felt widely these days.
MIT just announced its new Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST) with a founding gift of $1.5 million from the Mellon Foundation and a vision of better integrating the arts into the rest of the curriculum. (That’s something Mellon has been interested in, and funding generously, for almost twenty years, with a particular focus on university art museums and their connections to other academic departments and disciplines.)
And new arts initiatives are underway at Stanford, the University of Chicago (including an interesting new center), Harvard, and many other universities, all promulgating the basic idea that the arts (doing them as well as seeing them) are good ways of learning about much more than the arts. Harvard describes the trend succinctly right on the cover of its 2008 “Report of the Task Force on the Arts” [summary here, full pdf here]: the arts must become
an integral part of the cognitive life of the university: for along with the sciences and the humanities, the arts—as they are both experienced and practiced—are irreplaceable instruments of knowledge.
Behind all this attention is a major shift in thinking about what the arts are and what they’re for. The language of these university arts plans visions puts notions like ‘creativity,’ ‘imagination,’ and ‘innovation’ front and center. It’s not about learning the arts, which was the dominant paradigm for several decades. In a sense, it’s not about music or dance or theater or painting and sculpture at all. It’s about cultivating the kind of capacities that we (nowadays) associate with artistic creativity and performance: the ability to start with a blank page and see what belongs there; to improvise; to make intuitive connections; to bring people and groups together; to bridge ideas and feelings in a spirit of playful challenge. ...
That shift is going to have deep ramifications, both for the arts and (as this piece by Steven Tepper and Elizabeth Long Lingo argues) for education. Of course, it’s not confined to universities. Increasingly, the arts are seen on a continuum with other kinds of creativity, invention, and learning — including the scientific kind, as evidenced by the ‘STEM to STEAM’ movement, which seeks to get the arts into the inner circle with science, technology, engineering, and math. But its earliest, clearest expression is in higher ed. Why is that? Isn’t there some irony, or at least miscalculation, if universities are looking to the arts, of all things, to help shore up their relevance and value in contemporary society?
Maybe not. The costs, outcomes, and ideals of a college education are being challenged in unprecedented ways, from new studies showing dismal data on how much undergraduates really learn, to increasing calls for accountability amid the spiraling costs of a four-year degree, to mockery from social conservatives like Republican ex-presidential candidate Rick Santorum. The most stinging criticism is that, while global society is changing fast, our colleges — including elite institutions like Harvard and Stanford — aren’t doing very well at teaching the skills most needed in the 21st century: creativity, imagination, innovation. We’re great at inculcating facts and formulas, not so good at passing on the spark of originality and discovery that leads to new facts and formulas in the first place.
Enter the arts, repackaged as engines of precisely those skills. By emphasizing the role of the arts not just in “campus life” but at the curricular and intellectual core of the college experience, universities can demonstrate their commitment to a more holistic, forward-looking form of education that positions students to solve the problems of a new era and (while we’re at it) help revive America’s hopes on the world-economic stage.
I don’t mean to sound skeptical; I like this framing of the arts much more than the modernist l’art pour l’art attitude that dominated when I was in school. I just don’t want to overburden the arts with the job of savior. The arts may have everything to do with creativity, but that doesn’t mean all creativity has to do with, or flows from, the arts. It’s a long way from staging a Hamlet flash-mob performance in the college library to developing cheap ways of purifying water in rural Africa; both can be acts of imagination. Education as a whole needs to become more imaginative, more collaborative, more focused on what isn’t yet understood or still needs to be solved. The arts can help by example, and universities should give them every opportunity to do so.
By the way, these thoughts are kicking around in part because I’m working with Tom Shapiro and the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago on a project exploring the roles that college and university art museums can play in the 21st century. If you have any ideas on that subject, or on the broader question of how the arts fit into higher education, jot a comment below.
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