Universities in the Service of the Imagination

Member News

August 3, 2018

Universities in the Service of the Imagination
President Shirley M. Tilghman
May 4, 2011
Presented at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Good evening, and thank you, Mary Sue, for your warm welcome. It is a great pleasure to be here with my sister president and friend, Mary Sue Coleman, whose leadership at Michigan and in higher education I have greatly admired. She is one of this nation’s most visionary and effective leaders. And of course I attribute some fraction of those qualities to the fact that she is a biochemist!

Joining you tonight also allows me to salute the University of Michigan’s commitment to the arts and, especially, ArtsEngine, under the leadership of Theresa Reid. Needless to say, I am delighted that you have chosen to make “the role of art-making and the arts in the research university” the theme of a Michigan Meeting, not only with an eye to exploring this role but also to enhancing it. Indeed, as Dr. Reid has noted, the ultimate goal of this meeting is “to drive national momentum to develop better ways to integrate art-making and the arts into the research university,” something that is critically important for the health of the arts, our institutions, and American society.

I expect that many in Ann Arbor would agree with this assertion, but there are more than a few Americans, including members of our university communities, who are unpersuaded that what occurs in our studios and on our stages is as central to our mission as what takes place in our lecture halls and laboratories. Why, they ask, should the creation of art be as much a concern to universities as the study of art? After all, what can an acting class teach us about Shakespeare that a world authority on Elizabethan drama cannot? And even if these skeptics do concede some benefit in exposing students to art-making, how, they demand, does this activity relate to the serious intellectual pursuits of a great university? In fact, would it not be better to leave instruction in the arts to autonomous professional schools or independent conservatories, much as we do other forms of specialized technical training?

Tonight, I would like to challenge this point of view by reflecting on the benefits that flow in all directions when universities embrace art-making. In doing so, I will draw on Princeton’s own experience in the past five years as we have moved the arts from the margins to the center of the undergraduate experience. Specifically, this has meant strengthening the ties that link our programs in creative writing, dance, music, theater, and visual arts with one another and with other disciplines in order to foster relationships that are “collaborative, synergistic, and deeply embedded in the life of the University.” Our view is that the arts are at their strongest when they are closely allied with other fields; when students are able to situate their artistic endeavors within a multidimensional body of knowledge, just as the arts themselves are intertwined with social, economic, and political forces, as well as scientific and technological ones. We are also determined to develop the artistic awareness and talents of all students, not just those of future professional artists, creating an environment “in which every Princeton undergraduate has an opportunity for meaningful and significant experience with the arts.” Our goal, in short, is to develop what a recent American Assembly on the arts in higher education described as a “creative campus,” a place where the creation and study of art walk hand in hand and make their presence felt throughout the curriculum.

Although our renewed commitment to the arts is still a work in progress, we have made great strides in placing Princeton in the service of the imagination, to borrow a phrase from Paul Muldoon, the distinguished poet and founding chair of our new center for the creative and performing arts, which is named in honor of University alumnus and benefactor Peter Lewis. Under the aegis of the Lewis Center, courses have multiplied, filling long-standing voids in everything from musical theater to chamber dance; the faculty has been strengthened; and the visibility of the arts on campus has dramatically increased. Last year, for example, the Lewis Center sponsored no fewer than 116 events—from the musical, My Fair Lady, to a ballet choreographed by former American Ballet Theatre star Susan Jaffe; from a conference on “women in the theater” to a symposium on “the arts and the economic crisis”; from dozens of senior thesis productions and exhibitions to readings, lectures, and performances by accomplished artists. This florescence of the arts has taxed Princeton’s infrastructure, but it is what I would call a high-class problem, which we intend to address as soon as possible through the creation of additional space for rehearsal and performances.

All of this is immensely exciting, but it still begs the questions I enumerated earlier, which boil down to why we as universities should be making this investment. For me, the first and foremost reason for cultivating art-making on our campuses is the impetus it gives to a discrete—and crucial—way of interacting with the world. Just as disciplines like mathematics and philosophy demand that we both think and express ourselves in specific languages, the arts engender a unique creativity and sensibility. As Paul Klee famously observed, “art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see,” and this heightened level of perception is something all our students should develop before they graduate. I think Dr. Reid put it well when she used the language of an evolutionary biologist to suggest that “art-making is integral to the project of being human. Human beings evolved making art, and every human culture produces art. This essential part of who we are as a species cannot be left behind in the greatest engines of culture in the world: … research universities.” To do otherwise, would be to offer our students an incomplete education; to leave part of their minds and spirits fallow.

Now, it is certainly true that the study of art fills part of this need and that universities like Princeton and Michigan have a rich tradition of subjecting works of art, literature, and music to a close critique; to placing them in a larger context and comparing one oeuvre with another. No one who examines Picasso’s Guernica or watches Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or listens to Copland’s Appalachian Spring is ever going to think of war or the human condition or the American spirit in quite the same way again. But to study art in isolation from art-making is to be a mere observer of creativity rather than a creator in one’s own right—a dichotomy as untenable in its own way as separating theoretical and experimental science. In fact, my own insight on this point came from having benefited enormously as an experimental biologist from discussions with a theorist at Harvard. Left to our own devices, we would have done much less interesting and important work than we did together. By designing experiments to test his theories, and then feeding the results into refinements of his models, we came to a deeper insight into the biological phenomenon we were struggling to understand.

I don’t think it strains the analogy to suggest that making art and studying art in close juxtaposition has that same synergistic effect. To study the character of Caliban in Shakespeare’s Tempest may yield insights into the place of indigenous peoples in the Age of Discovery, but—to answer the question I posed at the outset of my remarks—through an acting class one can absorb and then unleash the conflicting passions that the conqueror stirred in the conquered in a completely different way. In writing a poem, we learn the true economy of words; in playing a role, we learn how to walk in someone else’s shoes; in joining an orchestra, we learn that the sum can be infinitely greater than its parts; in dancing, we learn to coordinate body and mind; in painting or photography, we learn that light and shadow govern perception far more than the unmediated eye suggests. Above all, as Paul Muldoon reminds us, we develop “the ability—a sine qua non for all art-making—to be humble before some ‘other’”; to leave the ego behind as we imbue a text or canvas or score with independent life. And this regard for the “other” lies at the very heart of what it means to be a university, be it a respect for other scholarly interpretations, other racial or cultural communities, or other patterns of behavior and belief.

The potential of art-making to enrich unexpected corners of the academy can be seen at Princeton in a number of unique collaborations between the arts and other disciplines. Let me share just three examples with you. The first is the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, otherwise known as PLOrk, which combines computer science and music in a way that re-imagines the traditional musical ensemble. The brainchild of Professor of Computer Science, Emeritus, Perry Cook and Associate Professor of Music Dan Trueman, PLOrk consists of up to 15 performers sitting cross-legged on “meditation pillows” and equipped with laptop computers, hemispherical speakers, and wireless connections. In addition to attracting widespread interest and winning a major MacArthur Foundation grant, PLOrk has challenged our student composers and musicians, as well as the larger musical community, to rethink music-making, while creating a fertile testing ground for computer scientists and engineers. As Professor Trueman puts it, “the laptop orchestra—as a working ensemble aiming to make compelling music from a range of aesthetic sensibilities—has the potential to both guide the development of new instruments and technologies and also suggest new ways of invigorating the traditional orchestra.” And, in the context of a liberal education, it has created a common space for the artistically and scientifically inclined, allowing each to broaden the horizons of the other.

Much the same can be said for another interdisciplinary adventure with the intriguing title of Flock Logic. In this case, Program in Dance director and renowned choreographer Susan Marshall joined forces with Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Naomi Leonard to explore their common interest in the dynamics of group movement. This union of science and art recreated in human form the kind of sensory-based movement that occurs among flocks of birds or schools of fish. Governed by the natural laws of cohesion and repulsion but rife with unpredictability, the performance of Flock Logic allowed participants to capture the beauty of a choreographed dance and the spontaneity of animal behavior. I should note that this collaboration might never have taken place had it not been for a public lecture series I established with the goal of showcasing the work of our own faculty to their students and colleagues in other fields. Naomi Leonard, a MacArthur “genius” award winner, was scheduled to talk about her work studying flock behavior of fish using underwater robots, and as Susan Marshall was new to the campus, I thought she might like to come along and meet some faculty from other departments. She was so enthralled by Naomi’s lecture that at dinner that evening she broached the “crazy idea” that culminated in Flock Logic. But then risk-taking is part of both the scientific and artistic process, especially at universities, where students, faculty, and visitors are encouraged to take the road less traveled—a point to which I will return.

My final example illustrates what can be done when the creation and study of art are brought together on an even more ambitious scale. In 2007, in one of the first collaborative ventures sponsored by the Lewis Center, we resurrected the great Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold’s early 20th-century production of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, which was suppressed by Stalinist censors before it could be staged. Meyerhold was executed in 1940 and Sergei Prokofiev, whom he had commissioned to write the music, was relegated to official obscurity, so it was not until we undertook this project that Meyerhold and Prokofiev were reunited in a public performance of their work. The scholarly underpinnings of our production were provided by two outstanding members of our faculty, Professor of Music Simon Morrison and Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures chair Caryl Emerson. Professor Emerson has devoted much of her career to the study of Pushkin’s works, and Professor Morrison is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Prokofiev’s compositions. His successful quest to gain access to the composer’s papers in Moscow played a critical role in doing justice to Prokofiev’s music and Meyerhold’s directorial vision. The artistic leadership for Boris Godunov was provided by our programs in theater, dance, and musical performance, which marshaled a cast of actors, singers, musicians, and dancers, and a host of designers, costumers, and technicians. Our School of Architecture made a vital contribution by designing and building a set that could match the daunting technical and aesthetic demands of the production.

In a real sense, Princeton became a giant atelier, with Boris Godunov becoming the focal point of two undergraduate courses, two graduate-level seminars, an alumni studies course, a library exhibition, and an international scholarly symposium conducted in English and Russian, quite apart from the whirlwind of activity surrounding the production itself. The staging of Boris Godunov was for all involved an unforgettable experience—one that gave the scholarly community a new perspective on a major artistic work, while our student performers and their directors were able to inform their art with in-depth scholarship. Indeed, I think it can be argued that a production of this scope could only be staged by a university, and then only by a university in which the arts and other disciplines are in conversation with each other. In the words of director Tim Vasen, who directed the play, “At least in this country, there is no theater company that has these resources to offer. Back when Meyerhold was creating the original idea for this production, most theaters would have had their own orchestra and a large company of actors and dancers—that was normal, but now would be almost an absurd luxury.”

This brings me to a second compelling reason for nurturing the arts on our campuses—one that has less to do with the provision of a complete education than with the enrichment of society. Universities confer many public benefits—from economic growth to social mobility—and high on this list is the support or, more precisely, the life support that we extend to artists and art-making. Indeed, to quote the American Assembly on the arts in higher education, “American colleges and universities are amongst the greatest patrons of the arts in the United States. … If the academy did not support the arts, the activity of entire performance forms—dance, theater, music, and others—would wither or would be available only to those in areas of the country with the wealth and density to support them. Without their home in higher education, the performing arts could not live.” This speaks to the absence of a national consensus that the arts are central to who we are as a people and therefore worthy of support. All too often, the arts are conflated with and overshadowed by popular entertainment, which, in turn, is viewed as a luxury. The following comment, culled from the blogosphere in reference to public funding for the arts, says it all: “Arts are nice to have but those who want should pay for them. I do not go to the movies when I have NO MONEY.” Art conceived as a luxury, as opposed to an integral part of what it means to be human. The earliest evidence of the appearance of Homo sapiens on earth was cave paintings and decorated household objects. To be human is to make art.

In the last century we witnessed a virtual explosion of new art forms in the United States, from jazz to film to modern dance, all of which deserve to be a great source of national pride. Yet as Dana Gioia, a poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, observed, “the government subvention for Italy’s major opera houses is nearly 10 times larger than the annual Arts Endowment working budget.” And the trends are not encouraging. Funding for the NEA—a paltry $167.5 million in 2010—has never recovered from the cuts it suffered in the mid-1990s, nor will it do so in today’s environment in Washington. This winter, the House of Representatives voted to reduce the NEA’s appropriation by $43.1 million, and this was good news of a sort, given the desire of some in Congress to entirely defund it. Overall, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies reports that “in inflation-adjusted dollars per capita, funding from local, state, and federal sources has decreased by 31 percent since 1986.”

Funding the arts is thus a largely private affair, either through donations or box office proceeds, and while philanthropy and self-reliance are admirable qualities, they are not a substitute for local, state, and federal resources that publicly affirm the value of the artistic enterprise and promote the dissemination of the arts to the widest possible audience. If the arts are perceived as the purview of a well-to-do elite, the general public will grow increasingly indifferent to them, and if artists must keep one eye fixed on the bottom line, they will find it difficult if not impossible to take the kind of risks to which I alluded earlier.

Universities, which straddle the worlds of public and private endeavor, are uniquely positioned to address this through three broad means. First, by giving art-making its due in our curriculum, we can ensure that the students of today will become tomorrow’s patrons of the arts, to say nothing of those who will pursue artistic careers on the basis of their collegiate experience. Numerous studies have established a correlation between exposure to the arts in youth and engagement with the arts in adulthood, and at a time when audiences are becoming older and sparser, creating opportunities for such exposure has never been more critical. Moreover, because our student bodies are growing increasingly diverse, we have a chance to ensure that the audiences of the future will represent a wider cross section of America than the ones today.

The second arts-related service that universities can render American society is to provide a forum in which both emerging and established artists are able to showcase their talents, develop new projects, and both teach and learn from others, especially the rising generation. And unlike the marketplace, where success is measured primarily in sales, our campuses provide a nurturing environment in which art for art’s sake can be pursued. Given the fact that in 2009, the average unemployment rate for artists was more than double that of their fellow professionals, with the average unemployment rate for actors exceeding 36 percent, establishing these havens is especially important. One of the primary goals of the Lewis Center is to create a Society of Fellows in the Arts, consisting of “innovative and early-career artist/scholars” who would both practice their art and teach our students for up to two years at a time. Although we are still raising funds for this initiative, we are continuing our tradition of inviting a wide variety of artists to campus under the auspices of the Princeton Atelier, a program developed by Nobel laureate and professor emerita Toni Morrison to bring together representatives of different art forms—say, an actress and a ballerina—to create new artistic works in conjunction with our students and faculty. A more recently established program, Performance Central, brings artists to campus for brief engagements, and the Lewis Center has also sponsored or co-sponsored longer-term visits by eminent figures in the world of arts and letters, including the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature while he was teaching with us in the fall.

Last but not least, universities offer an unrivalled level of public access to the arts. By opening their performance halls and galleries to the general public, universities enrich the cultural life of their localities. And through targeted forms of outreach, they attract sectors of the population whose social and economic circumstances limit their exposure to the arts. At Princeton, as at the University of Michigan, our world-class art museum—currently headed, dare I say it, by James Steward—does not charge admission and has a dynamic outreach program, including a long-running relationship with the city of Trenton’s struggling public schools. The vast majority of events that the Lewis Center and our Department of Music sponsor are open to the public at no charge, and when there is a fee, the cost of an adult ticket seldom exceeds $15.

In April, for example, we hosted two performances by Elevator Repair Service, one of New York’s most interesting experimental theater companies, who will return next year as part of the Princeton Atelier. Their play, The Select (The Sun Also Rises), will not appear on the New York stage until this fall, giving both our University and local community an opportunity to see a theatrical tour de force at a fraction of the cost charged by commercial theaters. Universities can also play a supporting role with regard to local artistic companies, symbolized for Princeton by our long and close relationship with McCarter Theatre, a leading regional performing arts center. In one of our most fruitful recent collaborations, we established the Princeton University/McCarter Theatre Playwriting Fellowship with the support of the Ford Foundation, bringing to Princeton the celebrated playwrights Edward Albee and John Guare, who both taught courses on campus and developed new plays. Albee’s play, Me, Myself and I, premiered at McCarter in the fall of 2007, and went on to have a successful run in New York, and Guare is returning in the fall to put on his new work. I like to think that Albee’s description of his play sums up the kind of art that universities should be incubating. “I break every rule in this play,” he told his students. “Critics who like the rules will hate it.”

Universities face many pressures of their own, especially in this time of enthusiastic budget cutting, so serving as a mainstay of the arts may seem to some like an extravagance. But if we are to provide our students with the well-rounded education they deserve and nourish a dimension of human existence that is no less vital to uphold than the scientific method or historiography or cosmopolitanism, then we must do everything we can to make our campuses artistic crucibles. Only by shouldering this responsibility can we hope to share it with others; only by embracing the creative and performing arts can we inspire in others what one of our recent graduates describes as the “infectious joy attached to the creative experience.”

Thank you for making the arts the focus of this meeting, and thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts with you tonight.

Courtesy e-archive, Princeton University http://www.princeton.edu/president/tilghman/speeches/20110504/