After completing my Ph.D. in literature decades ago, I was ready for a big change. I tried journalism and several other professions, and eventually found my way back to the academy but this time to an art school. I was hired to teach literature and philosophy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and over time became its dean, falling in love with such environments in the process. Five years ago, I moved back to New York City, where I was raised, to become dean of Columbia University School of the Arts.
When I entered an art school for the first time, I immediately felt at home in its anarchy and unpredictability—figure-drawing models roaming the halls in their kimonos, students with Technicolor mohawks working diligently on performances referencing their suburban childhoods, or seemingly bored students who then appeared at the end of the semester with 20 remarkable woodcuts based on our close reading of Moby Dick. It was a revelation that creative response could take so many forms and imagination roam so freely in an environment defined by its passion for ideas.
I have been reminded of those original responses quite often recently because increasingly I am invited to speak about the pedagogy of art schools at unexpected venues such as the World Economic Forum where I attempt to explain to those in business, economics, science, and technology how such environments encourage creativity. These encounters have caused me to reflect on the uniqueness of the underlying philosophy of art schools.
Art schools are like conservatories in that they are committed both to developing individual talent and to preparing students to enter their chosen profession. Unlike conservatories, they do not necessarily expect students to master a body of knowledge from the past and then replicate it, however extraordinarily, in the present. Instead, art students are encouraged to reinvent such histories and move them forward. Art worlds, arguably indebted to the past, actually are all about the new. Even when students are learning to paint in oil—a very old technique—it is not so that they can render portraits like Rembrandt’s, but rather so that they can reflect the consciousness of the 21st century.
To help students achieve their unique potential, a great deal of art school pedagogy is based on the practice of the critique—engaging the work of individual students one-on-one. Students are recognized as the future of the field and may well be more interesting artists than their professors, even at a young age. They therefore are taken seriously as equals in their ability to confront the world through the forms art offers and to create new methods when needed.
Like scientists, artists often have their most exciting ideas when they are young and most irreverent. But original ideas really can come from anyone at any time. One is never too young or too old to discover or to be discovered. We see young artists readily embrace new technologies and utilize them in extraordinary ways but some more established artists—such as David Hockney——also become enamored with these new possibilities; Hockney’s iPhone drawings are a good example. Others, like avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros, have had to wait a long time for technology to catch up to them.
The work begins in ideas, and technologies serve as great tools, allowing artists to actualize the projects they have seen in their mind’s eye. Their inventive practices can also push technologies forward. In the early days of computing, companies would give computers to artists just to see what they could get them to do.
In experimental environments such as these, risk-taking and failure are also expected and accepted. It is understood that trying new things will sometimes result in failure. And, because the solution to problems posed by the world—and by the artist—may not be solvable with the strategies offered by any one discipline, art schools are intrinsically interdisciplinary. Artists might need to wend their way among several disciplines to find a conglomerate within which to express their concerns. Such experimentation increases risk. Cross-disciplinary focus encourages playfulness and is exciting, but it also can be terrifying.
In order to encourage people to take chances and be willing to “Try again. Fail Again. Fail Better,” as Samuel Beckett dares us all, art schools have to create a safe environment where everyone is in the same experimental mélange of research and development all the time, united in their commitment to suspend judgment until the work is resolved. Creativity thrives best in a safe “holding environment” and in “potential space,” as D.W. Winnicott has written in relation to the psychoanalytic model.
Although failure is a key component to art-making practice, occurring in artists’ studios daily, real failure with consequences in the world outside the institution has not yet occurred for most young artists. Once they leave school, they could become extremely recognized in their chosen fields. This makes for an exciting environment where as experimental as the work may seem, there is still potential for worldly, highly visible, and even lucrative success.
There are those who would say that artists live in the future, but artists actually live boldly in the present. They take the pulse of society and are attuned to all that is developing around them—that which is seen and unseen. To do this, they do not necessarily rely primarily on their analytic skills (although some do), but on their senses, intuition, dreams, unconscious, emotions, and daring to break through restrictions of form and content. This is why art schools are so attractive to young people—they encourage fearlessness within an atmosphere of acceptance and safety.
Because the type of art that will succeed in the future is not predictable in the present, artists understand that their work might not be appreciated at the moment it is created or even in their lifetimes. Therefore, unlike more structured paths charted for students graduating from other professional schools—for medicine or law, for example—artists must each define their own journey and accept their own level of achievement. It is their single-minded commitment to the work that moves them forward despite such obstacles.
Business-school deans have told me that their schools accept students who are very interesting when they first encounter them but observe that these students soon become homogeneous in their worldview and goals, after internalizing safe measures of success. For the most part, this dynamic is not true of art schools. Students are chosen because they and their work are unique. By the time they leave, they are usually even more interesting and original than when they arrived, and of course, more accomplished.
In this global world of economic and political uncertainty, where new ideas of how to address the problems of the future are desperately needed in the present, what could be more exhilarating—and potentially powerful—than an environment that caters to deep thinkers, adapts easily to new technologies, moves readily between disciplines, cultivates resilience, believes in the importance of play for problem solving, and engages issues resonant to social contexts? It is no wonder that leaders in other fields are trying to understand and replicate the ambiance that art schools so organically create.
Carol Becker is Dean of Columbia University School of the Arts. Prior to this appointment she was Dean and Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her books include: The Invisible Drama: Women and the Anxiety of Change (with numerous foreign editions); Zones of Contention: Essays on Art, Institutions, Gender, and Anxiety; Surpassing the Spectacle: Global Transformations and the Changing Politics of Art, the edited edition The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society, and Social Responsibility, and most recently; Thinking in Place: Art, Action, and Cultural Production.