Calling on artists to lead the way

March 30, 2010

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
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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.

Examples?

“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.”

http://www.sltrib.com/arts/ci_14759443

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