Princeton’s Tilghman Calls U’s Crucial to the Arts

Shirley Tilghman at ArtsEngine (photos by A.C.K.)

By Alexander C. Kafka


In a speech Wednesday night at the beginning of a three-day conference here, Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman urged universities to work “in the service of the imagination” and to “make our campuses artistic crucibles.”

Tilghman’s audience included some 150 participants, representing about 45 institutions, taking part in the University of Michigan’s ArtsEngine conference on “The Role of Art-Making and the Arts in the Research University.”

Tilghman said that the public at large, and some segments of academe, are skeptical of the role of art and, even more so, art-making, in academe. The arts are conflated with pop culture and seen as a luxury, she said.

She argued that, on the contrary, a postsecondary education without art would be an “incomplete education,” and that universities have both a responsibility and a unique ability to use the arts for the enhancement of society.

While some argue that the arts are best left to professional schools like conservatories, Tilghman praised the “collaborative, synergistic” effect of the arts on students’ thinking and the campus environment alike. She quoted the artist Paul Klee: “Art doesn’t reproduce what we see, it makes us see.”

Critique through art history and the like is valuable, Tilghman said, but “mere observance of creativity” is a different experience from creating “in one’s own right.” She drew a parallel between the “synergistic effect” of aesthetic critique and practice, and the crucial interplay between theoretical and experimental sciences.

In a poem, she said, “we learn the true economy of words.” In playing in an orchestra, we discover and help make “a sum infinitely greater than the parts.” In acting, we walk in someone else’s shoes in a profound way, learning a “regard for the other.”

She cited three Princeton examples from recent years of the interplay between the arts and other disciplines: a laptop orchestra that developed “a common space for the artistically and scientifically inclined”; a dance production called “Flock Logic” that choreographically and empirically explored group movements of humans, fish, and birds; and a production of Boris Godunov that revived a groundbreaking work of Vsevolod Meyerhold and Sergei Prokofiev, and involved not just the ambitious production itself, but symposia, exhibits, and coursework. “A production of this range,” Tilghman said, “could only be staged by a university.”

And that leads to the second thread of her discussion, the university’s role not just in educating its students but in serving its community and society. America has paltry government arts support that’s decreasing further in this era of austerity, Tilghman said, and with private funds insufficient to make up the difference. Universities “straddle the worlds of public and private endeavor,” she said, and function as a form of “life support” for the arts and their practitioners.

Universities can serve that function in three ways, she said: by integrating the arts into curricula, fostering tomorrow’s patrons from today’s students; by servicing as a forum for emerging and established artists, nurturing work in a way that is not dependent on the market; and by offering “an unrivaled level of public access to the arts” so that they are not an extravagance but part of the fabric of life.

ArtsEngine’s Executive Director Theresa Reid spearheaded the conference’s organization, working with Michigan’s deans of the Rackham Graduate School; the School of Music, Theatre & Dance; the College of Engineering; and the School of Art & Design.

Bryan Rogers

In the Michigan deans’ remarks preceding Tilghman’s, Bryan Rogers, of the School of Art & Design, decried two common defenses of arts in academe as having, at best, “limited value”—the notion that the arts can deliver tangible and direct return on investment, and the idea that the arts have a salvific effect on the human spirit. He urged academe to shed its fixation on “sacred beaux-arts traditions,” saying that an obsession with matters of artistic canon is a “rearview mirror” perspective out of touch with contemporary culture. And he prodded scholar-artists to collaborate across disciplines, catching up to the non-academic world, and to make the arts “part of the DNA of the research university.”

For all the eloquent imploring and analysis, the conference is, after all, made up mostly of creative types, even if some of those creatives have developed advanced administrative skills as deans and provosts and program directors and department heads. And so there’s more than a touch of whimsy to the proceedings.

Members of the Gratitude Steel Band playing before Tilghman's keynote

For instance, warming up the crowd for the keynote were the Caribbean sounds of the Gratitude Steel Band. And participants have been assigned to working “ensembles” indicated by codes on diminutive, mysterious scrolls found in little blue velvet sacks along with, say, the top of an acorn and a couple other enigmatic knickknacks. There’s a graffiti wall on which conference-goers can scribble their rants and musings, and a Web site to which the photographically inclined can send their snaps for prompt mid-meeting posting.

In other words, if corralling creatives is like herding cats, Reid and company have found, in the service of serious discussion of giant themes, some playful intellectual catnip to help engage and enthuse this learned litter.

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