"These things are old":

Humanists as cultural agents

posted by Doris Sommer

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Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

Slowly, some humanists are recovering from a professionally sanctioned amnesia about the original mission and scope of our field.  The current enterprise of the humanities began as the core curriculum of the first modern university, established by the Humboldt brothers in Berlin in 1810, to prepare republican citizens. For the first time in European history, future professionals would have to interpret the dangerously unstable and exciting world that followed from the French Revolution. They studied history, languages, and philosophy as disciplines that acknowledge cultural differences and that suggest the power of art to achieve freedom through imagination and through disinterested pleasure. Today, humanists continue to interpret arts and culture in classrooms, scholarly publications, and in institutions devoted to conserving and promoting creative practices.  But the founding mission of civic education is shrouded under the assumption that art is inconsistent with practical concerns. Universities and art schools teach us to worry whenever instrumentality is mentioned, for fear that questions of usefulness will vitiate the free and disinterested quality of aesthetic experience.

For a while, Franklin Delano Roosevelt lifted that pall of concern about the concrete effects of art, through his massive WPA program of national recovery that built roads, schools, and also supported artists from a range of modalities and ideological persuasions. Too little is known about their work in light of the recovery, as if their art was discounted for collaborating with government programs.  But now is the time for a revision of artistic contributions to democratic and economic development, for factoring in the constructive work that creative arts do in reframing paradigms and in breaking bad habits. Formalist art theory, in opposition to instrumentalism, underlines the defamiliarizing quality of good prose, poems, and paintings. For formalists, art doesn’t promote programs; instead it interrupts expectations. In doing so, art revives the perception of people and things we had learned to overlook.  It rekindles a love for the world. Without art, Victor Shklovsky writes in “Art as Technique,” “life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war….And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life.”

In this spirit of freedom from anaesthetizing habit we can, and urgently should, take up the torn threads that tie humanism up with civic education. We humanists can join artists as cultural agents who promote creativity and interpretation as resources for social development. The objective is not a partisan victory but the formation of “thick” civic subjects who are alive to the world and exercise the free judgment that we learn, as Kant taught us, through developing a disinterested enjoyment of beauty. Democracy depends on sturdy and resourceful citizens able to engage more than one point of view and to wrest rights and resources from limited assets. In other words, non-authoritarian government counts on creativity to loosen conventional thought and free up the space where conflicts are negotiated, before they reach a brink of either despair or aggression.

Aesthetic education, Friedrich Schiller explained to the Humboldt brothers who turned the advice into an academic institution, is a necessary part of civic development. Schiller’s program for modern citizenship is The Aesthetic Education of Man (1759). He wrote the Letters to open dead-ends in politics through art that wrests freedom from contradiction.  Sentimental, tormented art like Schiller’s, unlike Goethe’s naïve genius, can be taught; it thrives in the very distance from nature where poets have freedom to maneuver. Freedom’s dependence on self-consciousness, and the promise of a new spontaneity based on reflection, became the themes of Schiller’s pedagogy. It turned Kant’s lessons about the differences between beauty and the sublime, love and respect, nature and artistic genius, into a progression of before and after aesthetic education. Yet the sometimes delayed social effects of an aesthetic education can rush skeptics to conclude that one thing has little to do with another. But hasty conclusions misprise the gradual process of subject formation.

While defensive humanists worry about subjecting art to practical uses, I used to worry about the ethical dimension of the work we do. Sometimes I’d get so sore from the everyday ethical barbs that interrupt a literature teacher’s chain of thought that thinking would get derailed from aesthetic questions to questioning why these mattered. The times that haunted me most were when graduate students would wonder out loud why—when the world was so urgently in need of practical contributions—they should write a dissertation about this or that genre, or motif, or formal property of literature. They did not doubt that preparing for a teaching career in the arts is an enormous pleasure and also a privilege.  But what good does it do in the world? What direct or indirect outcomes could justify the resources of time and money, the intellectual passions that can replace sleep at night, the dedication to writing books that (by my hardly admirable example) can trump even a mother’s attention to her children?  Can we, in good faith, counsel students to pursue humanistic careers when they sense that the same barbs that bother us will prick their own conscience if they are lucky enough to land a job?

Yes, we can, I’m relieved to say, now that President Obama has refreshed the memory of FDR’s creative years along with hopes for increased attention to arts education. Among the inspirations have been Schiller, Hannah Arendt’s lectures on Kant’s aesthetics, Antonio Gramsci, Antanas Mockus, Augusto Boal, and countless other cultural agents. Teaching about art and training a disposition to engage and admire creativity can make their contributions visible in ways that turn lessons into opportunities (read: obligations) to work constructively in the world. I’ll say why, very briefly.

At the beginning of her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, Arendt jokes that of course he never wrote in that genre.  He didn’t have to, because he wrote indirectly, on aesthetics, as the most certain way to get to politics. For one thing, with the French Revolution as a backdrop for his 1790 Critique of Judgment, indirection was prudent for a cautious man.  But caution and care also encouraged Kant to build a theory of the public sphere from the buy-in of individual citizens.  This was not an appeal to the “general will” that Arendt recoils from in the French and in the Bolshevik revolutions, but a foundation in particular subjectivity that could be trained toward agreement with other subjects through exercising the faculty of judgment. Judgment is an innate faculty, like reason and imagination, but one that went almost undetected or flaccid from under-use during long centuries of pre-modern authoritarianism. Subjects of a king, devotees of a church, serfs, slaves, and students of classical curricula don’t need to exercise judgment because they don’t make choices.  But the intellectual freedom that the Enlightenment defends makes choice possible and therefore an obligation. For the first time in Western history, Arendt says, common people need to develop their faculty of judgment.  And the training program is none other than aesthetic education. Because they are free from interest, subjective observations regarding beauty and the sublime depend on a faculty that has nothing to do with reason, or morality, or any pre-established concept of right or wrong, good or bad. An aesthetic judgment is a second order response to pleasure or displeasure: after we register the immediate feeling, we judge if the feeling is free of interest; in that case we imagine that others might share the same pleasure because it does not depend on concerns that may affect us differentially.  Through aesthetic judgment, subjectivity makes a bridge to other subjects and promotes a shared sense of freely acknowledged value. This “common sense,” Kant’s clever resignification of everyday wisdom in every man, is enabled through aesthetics and becomes the foundation for a public sphere.

Kant kept free of too much involvement; he preferred to observe, not to engage with the world. His student Friedrich Schiller would insist that aesthetics demands hands-on achievement of form, not only the judgment of existing objects. The modern subject is an agent in creating a cultural and political environment, so that arts education was practically a redundant and urgent project for Schiller. In ways that I only intuit and hope to develop soon, Schiller is an inspiration for Antonio Gramsci, a fellow traveler of the cultural agents I most admire.

Take Antanas Mockus, for example. In 1995, the newly elected mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, proposed a bold program of “Cultural Agency.” Simply stated, he put culture to work in a city so violent and corrupt for over a decade that it was the one place in the Americas banned to tourists by airport advisories. What could be done in a place so troubled that investments of money and force would have magnified, not mitigated, the disaster?  If civic spirit had worn so thin it would not sustain a body politic that could take fiscal cures or demand security, the first prescription was to revive the spirit through art, antics, and accountability. First a philosopher and then a public servant, Mayor Mockus made theory yield practices that would themselves yield more reflection. He sidestepped conventional sites of struggle that stayed stuck between fear and opportunism. Like Gramsci, Mockus refused to wait for better conditions and instead promoted a “passive revolution” through the power of culture. Gramsci’s response to unbeatable odds makes him something of a patron saint for cultural agency. Using culture as the wedge to open up necessary civil conditions for decent politics and economic growth, workers would get beyond economistic deadlocks and move toward the goal of emancipation.

For Mockus, civility was goal enough, and getting there became an experiment that mixed fun with function (imagine combining Schiller’s playful education for self-made subjects with Kant’s appeal to inter-subjective judgment inspired by aesthetics).  For example, the municipality’s inspired staff hired pantomime artists to make spectacles of good and bad performances at traffic lights. Suddenly, skeptical subjects became an interactive public of spectators.  The mayor’s team printed thousands of laminated cards with a green thumb-up on one side and red thumb-down on the other, for drivers to flash in judgment of their fellows.  Vaccination against violence was one city-wide performance-therapy against the “epidemic” that had become a cliché for aggression. Arts programs in schools, rock concerts in parks, a monthly “ciclovía” that closed streets to traffic and opened them to bikers and walkers have, among other civic games and alongside rigorous educational programs, helped to revive the metropolis.

Citizens soon paid their taxes, often above what they owed in order to support a particular library, or park, or senior program. Between 1993 and 2003, the end of Mockus’s second term, one stunning indicator of change is the rate of homicide, reduced by sixty-five percent. Today, Bogotá feels the strain of migrants who flee zones of conflict for this newfound haven. As they overload the city’s systems, planners suggest that migration might slow down if cultural agency stepped up in still troubled areas of the country.

Throughout the Americas, culture is a vehicle for agency.  Photographers are teaching visual literacy and whetting young appetites for other arts and sciences. In theater, improvisations foster collaboration and find dramatic outlets for frustration while rehearsing roles that rise to daunting challenges.  Without the “Teatro campesino,” César Chávez could not have organized the United Farm Workers’ Union. Perhaps the most far-reaching case is Augusto Boal’s “Theater of the Oppressed.” The multiplier effect of his lessons in listening to disadvantaged social actors and encouraging them to take the stage resulted, for example, in his two-term election to the City Council of Rio de Janeiro.  There, he promoted legislation suggested by audiences and actors in marginal neighborhoods; thirteen laws passed, and several were adopted at the national level. Alongside these artist-activists are many others. Musicians, dancers, poets, painters, of the past and at present, do not yet figure as subjects of many academic studies, but they might inspire the kind of creative reflection that amounts to a civic contribution.

In Bogotá, no one asks what “cultural agency” means.  The concept resonates with a variety of public practices that link creativity with social contributions. But elsewhere the term can beg definition. Maybe this shows a lack of activity, but I suspect that activity is almost everywhere. What we lack instead is perspective on the family resemblances among a variety of repertoires and remixes. Recognizing these resemblances, promoting replication of artful interventions can be on our professional agendas as humanists through at least two standard professional approaches to the arts: we highlight particular creative practices, and we give those practices a theoretical spin.

The first value added by humanists follows from simply noting and commenting on examples of arts that build society. Drawing attention to undervalued creative practices offers them as models to inspire variations and choices for research projects.  Research begins by locating or formulating a topic; we choose which text, phenomenon, or practice, which perspective or approach, merits extended consideration in a scholarly essay. Allow me to mention my own choice as a literary critic. Instead of focusing on popular cultural studies topics such as violence, necrophilia, consumerism, or abuse of human rights, I chose to focus a book and course on “Bilingual Aesthetics” to reframe bilingualism, from the barely tolerated transitional condition of minorities and immigrants, to an intellectual and emotional advance over monolingualism.

Cultural agency is an invitation to notice “felicitous” engagements as well as frustrating performances. And since the approach privileges the surprise of ingenious responses to difficult challenges, it can sustain the attention of humanists trained to value art for producing uncommon effects.  Alongside the end-game of critique, humanist agents can play the gambit of reflecting on an inexhaustible range of creative moves and on their immediate or delayed effects. In the end, results will be important, as talented administrators like Mockus maintain. He developed innovative, often indirect, measures for changing attitudes of youth and mature citizens, before and after experimenting with particular cultural programs. Among his fans, artists and teachers may be cured of an allergy to numbers.

I, for one, was also cured of sleepless worries about what art has to do with ethics and social development.  With FDR as an exemplary leader and model for new civic investments in the arts, I know that new investments along with more attention to interpretation will channel the power of arts from mere contestation to engagement.  Alongside that engagement young humanists can pursue a passion for literature, hopeful that their faculty of free judgment and their creative engagement with their own students will amount to the bricks and the mortar to rebuild a strong civil society.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]

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One Response to “Humanists as cultural agents”

  1. avatar Jordan Banks says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the main premise of this blog: cultural agency as a catalyst for social change. It is so important to have art programs in schools for young children to especially learn how to express themselves through artistic outlets. People are not only self-expressive and creative, but also are able to communicate their points of view on a specific matter to the general public. One particular area Sommer touches upon is FDR’s policies in supporting art education and commissioned pieces. This is especially important because artists such as Norman Rockwell, whose paintings inspired Americans to believe in the American Dream, would not be able to shine. To me, the arts contribute to cultural agency as a form of documentation. Fine art, music, drama, literature, and film are just a few that give people endless ways to document historic events, lives, and people’s emotions and reactions of a particular time period. Without artifacts like these, museum curators would be out of a job bringing primary sources to the public about lives and events past. Some of these works can foreshadow edgy trends that are ahead of its time. Andy Warhol’s movie Empire, for example, documents the sky changing behind the Empire State Building for eight hours. Sounds boring—but the reading of this film could be Warhol’s broad premise of documenting life itself, as it goes by in measurements of time. This is something very avant-garde for the 1960s as most documentaries focus on a specific event or institution. Finally, I can understand Sommer’s case of urging humanists to be apart of cultural agency; they give an academic perspective. Their perspective does not only help us understand the premises of artists’ work, but also understand how art has helped people understand history.

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