Some Thoughts on the Arts
At the end of this academic year I’ll be stepping down as Associate Provost for the Arts and returning to the bosom of my colleagues on the faculty of Music and Theater Arts. I’m looking forward to being enveloped again in that capacious and quirky bosom. Even more, I’m looking forward to having daily contact with the students who find themselves in my studio – even if it’s only because it fits into their schedules. And while I’m looking forward to all that, this isn’t a bad time to look back and take some measure of where the arts at MIT have come over the last 10 years.
In 1995, when my extraordinary predecessor, Ellen Harris, announced she was stepping down, the Institute was just coming out of a financial bind that had led to a 2% budget cut across all Schools. Some people were questioning the need for an Associate Provost for the Arts and suggested eliminating the position. Chuck Vest said, “No. When times are bad you don’t cut the arts. If the arts weren’t serving our students I’d cut them whether times were good or bad, but you don’t let them go because times are bad.” I thought this was remarkable. It was the finest evidence that the administration understood the contribution the arts make to the intellectual and creative life of the MIT community.
The most rewarding aspect of my time in the administration was the opportunity to facilitate so much fine work on the part of students, faculty, and staff. MIT being what it is, I suppose there will always be people who say, “I didn’t know MIT had any arts.” The Institute will always be known for its preeminence in science and engineering. But every year those who join the campus community discover the richness, the exuberance, and the passion with which the arts are pursued. And those newcomers find themselves welcomed by those who have discovered us before them.
In the curriculum, our students discover new ways of being in the world. They develop a tolerance for ambiguity and learn to honor their dreams. They come to exercise those parts of their bodies and minds they may never have experienced before. They understand the profound difference between solving a problem and illuminating a mystery. For many, a course in the arts can be transformative, bringing a whole new dimension to their work in the classroom and the laboratory. Each member of the arts faculty, in his or her own way, introduces them to the complexity and rigor of each discipline, exploding the general myth of the arts as “soft,” as an enterprise where anything goes. In doing that, the faculty serve their art, as well as their students.
The arts faculty’s research is its creative work. What makes that work distinctively a part of the MIT culture is the amount of interdisciplinary collaboration that occurs, not only between artists but also among artists, scientists, and engineers.
In the Catalyst Collaborative, CAVS, individual artists like dancer Tommy De Frantz, theater director Janet Sonenberg, performance artist Joan Jonas, novelist Alan Lightman, and composer-performer Evan Ziporyn all celebrate and exploit the unique cutting-edge scientific and engineering resources of their colleagues. They serve as models of cross-fertilization and the continued ability of the arts to mirror and thrive in their own times. A roster of the recent shows at the List Visual Arts Center reinforces this sense of interdisciplinarity. The artists with whom they fill their galleries all, in one way or the other, incorporate, challenge, subvert, and engage the farthest reaches of science and technology in contemporary society.
The MIT staff, as well, exercises its talent and passion. I don’t know of a program on any other campus quite like Artists Behind the Desk. Every program of music and poetry, every exhibit of visual arts from painting to photography demonstrates what an astonishingly rich and accomplished creative resource lies in the people who have, in addition to their art, learned to master SAP.
In his autobiography, Nobel physicist Victor Weiskopf wrote that there are two versions of the start of the universe: the Big Bang and Haydn’s The Creation. Any informed human being, he said, must know both. Whenever anyone has complained that the arts are marginalized in the MIT ethos, I have tried to explain that although the arts are not central to the mission of MIT, they are necessary.
This is what I have found so exciting and rewarding after having worked in so many pre-professional and conservatory programs. At MIT, we are serving a majority of students who will go on to be scientists or engineers. If we’ve done our work well, they will not go on to have a life in the arts, but they will always have art in their lives. They will be open to those aspects of themselves and the life around them that might not otherwise have been available to them. They will have a more profound understanding of the human and aesthetic dimension of every enterprise they engage in. Their work with the MIT Symphony or a chamber music group will have deepened their sense of how to work as an ensemble in a laboratory, a study group, an industrial division. Most important, they will be curious about the most baffling aspects of the contemporary arts, eager to be informed, and appreciative champions and lovers of the art of the past.
Over the past 10 years, the arts have become ever more visible on every part of the campus, from our superb collection of outdoor contemporary sculpture to the newest work we have acquired through the Percent for the Arts policy, commissions by Sarah Sze, Mark DiSuvero, Matthew Ritchie, Dan Graham, Jorge Pardo, and Candida Hofer. Freshmen now come to know about the arts resources at MIT through the pre-orientation arts program and the Freshman Arts Seminar and Advising Program, so superbly administered by Michèle Oshima and her associates in the Office of the Arts. The Weisner Art Gallery is being programmed regularly under the leadership of Susan Cohen. The monthly Arts Colloquia feature arts faculty and guest artists sharing their most recent work with faculty, students and other members of the MIT community. And SHASS now stands for the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.
There is, of course, much still to be done. The performing arts still have no home. We still depend on the kindness of strangers. None of our teaching spaces is under our control.
We still have to schedule five years out to assure performance and rehearsal spaces, and even then we are subject to preemption. New faculty members are often startled by this. We are in a situation now that is not unlike telling our scientists and engineers that they will simply have to break down their experiments every night when they leave their laboratories – and that they have to be out by 5:00 each night anyway to make way for a reception or a conference. We have the initial designs for the new Laboratory for the Performing Arts that will provide us with the dedicated teaching and rehearsal space we need. We have the site chosen and approved. It is a modest building and we are on our way to raising the funds for it. Within the new system for capital funding, however, this is now the only building project that must be 100% funded before we can proceed. That will not deter us. We are still determined, as Shakespeare said, “to give to airy nothingness/a local habitation and a name.”
As MIT has evolved from an Institute of Technology to a university that is centered on Science and Technology, some old habits of mind die hard. I think there are still many here who see the arts as an afterthought or, even worse, a frill for the Institute – and maybe for the society as a whole. This limitation reveals itself in our advising system. When I taught at other universities and liberal arts colleges, my theater students would balk at taking their science requirement. I would patiently explain why it was important for any artist to be familiar with the scientific method, the particular discipline and specificity of scientific inquiry. I would explain how a liberal arts education is designed to expose them to many different ways of being in the world, however demanding was the focus of their own training. “You’ll never really understand Oedipus or Ibsen,” I would say, “unless you develop a respect for the rigor of cause and effect.” At MIT, I have sat in on advisor orientation sessions where new advisors were given explicit advice on how to help students get their HASS distribution courses “out of the way.” This is still a discouraging message. It tells me that we all still have work to do to help us honor each other’s contributions to the rich intellectual and aesthetic resources at MIT, and help our students understand their value.
The arts have come a long way since I joined MIT in 1988. I’ve seen the culture of the Institute slowly respond to the ever more visible presence of the arts. I’ve seen the profile of our student body change as we’ve heeded young applicants’ demands for ever broader learning opportunities. I’ve seen young people transformed by a variety of new exposures and faculty members discover opportunities for collaboration where they never would have dreamed of finding them.
But that, after all, is the mission of the arts – to help everyone dream and then embody those dreams and celebrate them. It’s why we’re necessary to the core mission of MIT. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to help that happen more and to keep it happening.