November 4, 2009
Stanford's acclaimed artists discuss art and academia
By Cynthia Haven
How do America's universities impact the work of artists? And how does creativity adapt to the rules of academia? Stanford is at the forefront of the higher education institutions bringing celebrated artists to teach.
The trend, which gives undergraduates as well as graduate students access to high-quality artists, has triggered a national debate: Is this an unwise "democratizing" of the academic preparation of artists, as an October Boston Globe article by Roberta Smith warned? On the other hand, Marjorie Garber, in a controversial article last year in the New York Times, called for universities to become patrons of the arts, in the same way they nurtured scientists in the postwar years.
Janice Ross, director of the Dance Division at Stanford, emphasizes the "difference between art and educational practice." The artistic process involves "getting lost, making mistakes, being out of control" and working at "the edge of risk and danger and error that isn't normally part of the agenda" of a university.
She was moderator of a recent event, titled "Pedagogy for the Impressed," sponsored by the Stanford Drama Department and Dance Division and the Department of Art and Art History, in tribute to the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts.
Art Professor Xiaoze Xie, a Guandong-born painter who has exhibited in major museums and is considered at the top of his field, noted that one artist colleague had called academia "a cancer for creative work."
Xie considered the comment without endorsing it, noting the "unconscious" influence a "heavy practice of teaching" can have on art. For example, he said that "the emphasis on form, structure" in classroom lectures sometimes results in artwork that is too self-conscious of precisely those components. After hammering at such themes in the classroom, it is "built into the brain and you can't get rid of it."
"A consistent pattern of thinking predictable fits so comfortably into an intellectual framework," he said.
Xie included some of his students' work among the slides of his own. Noting that he has "encouraged them to make works that are socially and politically engaged," he wondered aloud whether his influence might inhibit his students' creativity whether their works of art resemble his own.
Matthew Goulish, one of the pioneers of the "devised theater" movement and a visiting artist in the Drama Department, noted that most of academia works in a "major key," referring to "the discourses of the dominant disciplines and approaches of the university" in the sciences, mathematics, economics, medicine or law. The arts "must always take a minor position, because creativity is not a practice of agreement or disagreement, but of the proliferation of possibility," he said.
"It always contains wrongness, and makes its wrongness apparent," he said. "The world of rules and laws, arguments and corrections, is a world I depend on, like everybody else.
"But when I teach from or practice my creative practice, I operate at a horizon of discovery, of knowledge appearing out of ignorance, and that borderland is full of mistakes." He said that "its quality of emergence is full of life I will go further, and say it is life."
Muriel Maffre, formerly principal dancer of the San Francisco Ballet and one of the leading ballerinas of her generation, recalled the "pitiless training" she received at the Paris Opera Ballet School, "a place that is regimented, with an oppressive hierarchy."
Maffre, a visiting lecturer in the Dance Division, said she has appreciated "an arena of free-choice learning" which creates an "encounter that relies on authenticity."
"Aiming for perfection defines ballet. It's defined by the idea of reaching for the ideal," she said. Yet academia pulls a different cord: "As a teacher, I have a tolerance for imperfection. It shows a human quality in the dancer."
Ralph Lemon, an internationally renowned postmodern dancer and choreographer, said that, during his Stanford experience, "I feel like I've been on brain juice," adding that he has "an organic need to be stabilized."
"My pedagogy is my process," said Lemon, who was the featured artist for Stanford's first Arts Intensive and is now teaching in dance and the Institute for Diversity in the Arts. Recalling the creativity that was unleashed when he once sponsored a "Drunk Day" for dancers at another institution, he asked, "What are the rules and how far can we go before the kid gets kicked out of school? Where is the edge?"
Goulish admitted he struggled with Stanford's grading; Lemon confessed he had stopped worrying about it and just makes drawings instead. Consequently, he accents the parts he likes best in his students' papers with his own watercolors.
Lin Hixson, a founding member of the Chicago-based performance group Goat Island, with Goulish, and also a "devised theater" pioneer, responded to the challenges of balancing art and academia. She recalled the recollections of a friend of Henry David Thoreau's visiting him a few days before his death and asking, "You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you." Thoreau answered, "Please. Let me live one world at a time."
Exhorting the audience to "embrace unknowingness," she said: "Have visions little by little on a daily basis in a daily way with a habit of making a daily creative practice in a daily space with others, even if they are not present but are instead departed, the quiet voices that come from afar. Our teachers, our guides, ushers, touchstones, books, paintings, diagrams, maps, YouTube, a kitchen sink or a dried flower. "Show up to and for each moment. One world at a time."