Calling on artists to lead the way
Fine arts » Columbia University dean Carol Becker to speak at U.

By Ben Fulton

The Salt Lake Tribune

If playwright and poet Václav Havel can lead the Czech Republic for 10 years, and if Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa can run for his country’s highest office, why can’t the same happen in the United States?

That’s not just a rhetorical question for Carol Becker, professor of the arts and dean of Columbia’s School of Arts. For Becker, the idea of greater roles for artists, writers and other creatives in the public sphere deserves the widest possible audience and a much larger conversation.

After all, if art has the power to move us, then artists should have a larger voice in the cultural community, she believes. Becker is the sort of intellectual unafraid of placing the word “public” before such a title. She’s an educator, cultural theorist and author, most recently of the essay collection, Thinking in Place.

Through the many years of her academic career, Becker has helped shake the Romantic notion of artists as recluses too rarefied and visionary for public consumption. It was an idea made tangible by traveling with art students to Vietnam to see the site of the My Lai massacre.

And it’s an idea she manifests in her own work, traveling to South Africa, Venice and the site of Gandhi’s assassination to explore the intersections of art and society. Much like her own writings, Becker is a fan of art that’s formed “in a crucible of interaction.” She suggests that artists develop leadership skills through the art of
creation, which requires both reflection and communication.

When did you first start to notice how artists are given a limited role in public life?

“One of my first observations was that art schools were not educating artists to be powerful in society. They were instead mostly educated to fit into the art world, but not into the world as it exists. You can see it in our public school system, were art is marginalized almost as some sort of leisure activity.”

Why do you think the United States tends to downplay public roles for artists?

“We’re a very utilitarian society. We like things that are functional, which is why we put greater stock in leaders who tend to come from business or the legal profession. We also have roots as a puritanical society, so we tend not to take image-making seriously.”

How do you start persuading people that art and artists should have a greater role in the public sphere?

“When we think about societies and civilizations of the past, what do we know about them? We know them through their art, which is what endures and communicates the given psyche of the people at that time. When we look at art, we realize that the ideas we’ve taken from it define western civilization, yet we devalue the place of the artist. We don’t see what they do as legitimate, or even hard work.


“Take the art work of South African artist William Kentridge. He lived and created works during the apartheid years. He had this ability to shift and pivot the world at a time when no one wanted to confront or question power. So often artists are the ones who go into difficult situations. Doctors and others go into difficult situations in communities, too, but they don’t make representations of those situations that transform how people see the world. All I’m saying is that I want artists to feel they could take leadership in the world, not that their work will simply be relegated to what we call ‘the art world.'”

Wouldn’t you concede, though, that we at least tend to value leaders known for their writing and oration skills, such as Abraham Lincoln and President Obama?

“What was so interesting about the case of Obama was how some people argued that he didn’t even write his own books. He doesn’t even identify as an artist, but people still hold his writing skills in suspicion. I’d never say that artists would make better leaders than traditional politicians. Still, we all know that leadership is a difficult thing to achieve and do well. I’d just make the argument that artists would make leaders equal to anyone who graduates from business school.”


Book Signing February 17th

February 9, 2010

Article in today’s Metro

November 17, 2009

Here is a link to an article in Metro that was published today Monday, November 16th 2009.

Metro Article Link

Cover Interview in ROROTOKO

November 12, 2009

In a nutshell

Thinking in Place is a collection of nine essays written over the last five years of moving around the world.

Each essay is located in a place but sometimes the places are conceptual. So some essays are located in a geographical place such as Venice, while others are about Museums in general and the relationship of artists as cultural producers to the “collection” of objects that comprise museums and the attitudes of most curators and directors about the making of art. One essay is about “Gandhi’s Body” and how he used his body and his evolving nakedness to reflect his inner condition and how powerful his approach and his image became for the world.

The writing is poetic in nature but it is also narrative, philosophical, and theoretical. It is hard to characterize. And, the issues I cover range from the life of artists and art schools to the massacre of civilians in My Lai, Vietnam. The writing of each piece really reflects the way in which I thought about the place that generated the idea itself.

The book is about wandering as a way of organizing the experience of the world—wandering on the physical plane but also on the intellectual plane, moving within one’s mind. I wanted to reflect my thought-process as closely as possible. The first piece is about the complexity of my own half-Jewish, half-Catholic identity and its location in the streets of Brooklyn and in a small mining town in Western Pennsylvania. Ultimately, this identity-dilemma is about becoming a writer and recognizing that I couldn’t “live” anywhere, wholly, except inside the act of writing itself.


The wide angle

The book really does reflect my years of thinking and training as an intellectual—as a public intellectual. Each of the essays evolved in response to a place and then to an opportunity to write and then “give” the essays in a public context. Sometimes I read them as lectures or keynotes many times before the final essay is developed. They are the product of an engaged intellectual life.

I put ideas out into the public arena and get feedback in the form of conversation, public and private dialogues. I then rework the writing. Often the essays were first published in one context—a performance studies journal or art magazine, or a cultural studies publication—and then refined and developed again until they were perfected for the book. They have done their time in a crucible of interaction.

I studied with philosopher Herbert Marcuse when I was a student at University of California, San Diego. So, although I was educated to be a professor of English and American literature, in fact, I became a cultural theorist very much influenced by the work and thinking of the Frankfurt School. I think that orientation is apparent in the way in which I go about understanding the world and also in the inherent optimism of my thinking.

I am also trained as a literary critic who became a writer about art; therefore, so much of what I write about concerns art and artists. I am also deeply an educator—and have spent years teaching and administrating art schools. Watching the new generation of cultural workers in art and design emerge has deeply affected how I think about the cultural arena. I am constantly surrounded by young people who will be the artists of the next decades. This allows me to track the evolution of consciousness through art, culture, and design.

But I am not an art or design historian. In truth, I have invented my own approach to art and culture, with a deep orientation to progressive political thinking. I admire Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Zygmunt Bauman, Rebecca Solnit, and William Blake, all of who express wonderful ideas in fascinating ways. I would feel very fortunate for my writing ever to be associated with theirs.

A close-up

I would hope that readers “browsing” would first look at the book’s cover. It is a dreamy image of water taken on the Hudson River by artist Ellen Kozak. I would want them to allow themselves to dream and wander and then to read the Prologue, which is called “Wandering Monks and Peripatetic Birds.” It begins,” Thinking in Place: Art Action and Cultural Production is the result of the past decade of wandering.”

If people read that and then go on to read about the range of places I have visited—Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, India, Africa, Germany and sites such as the Wannsee House (where the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question” was determined), they would know a lot about me and how deeply place affects me, how everything begins in sense and then becomes response. Response then translates into ideas that then become philosophical constructs that then seek to be written. They then would know how much process matters to me; I think about writing as artists think about art making.

The readers would come to understand that the book is also about them, about how they think, and they could then reflect upon their own method of thinking in place as I have reflected on mine.



Because I was educated to be a literary critic and came up during the time of modernist and postmodern theory, I have had to find ways of writing that communicate how I think in ways that are translatable to others. I want the writing to be elegant, poetic, seductive, because deep within it there are ideas, which, if adopted, believed, cherished, could transform consciousness.

These are not my ideas alone; they are the ideas of centuries of utopian thought. I want these ideas to permeate people’s consciousness—ideas about the importance of art for human well-being, the end to war as a solution to conflict, the importance of community and the public sphere to a democratic society, and so forth.

These ideas are not presented as political messages; they are presented as the struggle for humanity’s survival. I want these ideas to saturate people’s desire as they have mine. And I want the writing to be so engaging that people remember why they love this world and therefore want to protect it and its inhabitants across national and international boundaries.

Simply, I always write for people—not for the art world, literary world, sociological world and so forth. I hope the book can cross many boundaries. This is not easy since all books are “shelved” somewhere, whether physically or virtually.

But thinking does not fit easily into such categorizations. And the problems of the 21st century will not be solved by “disciplines” but by ideas and by the willingness of people to extend beyond themselves and their own culture, to recognize themselves in the Other, as part of a species whose evolution should be considered, whose future can be consciously determined.