The Arts. As the expression rolls off the tongue, it still has connotations of either privilege or frivolity for most people over forty. Plush seats at the opera, the obscene sums involved in the trade of famous paintings, or just the plummy mid-Atlantic voice of Alistair Cooke on “Masterpiece Theatre.” Those were the old arts. They worked in the earlier capitalistic economy in a number of useful ways as tokens of wealth and privilege, an artificial link to the past (the works in question were mostly created by dead white males), and as some sort of substitute for religious faith.
All this has changed, largely as a result of technology on the one hand and postmodern thought on the other. Artistic venues aren’t now designed to look like temples. “Popular” and “serious” are no longer opposed but increasingly interwoven as we think more deeply about how visual objects and performing acts create communities, identities, even a sense of nation. Above all, creative endeavor and aesthetic pleasure have been transformed by the democratizing process of multiculturalism. Even though we tend as human beings to identify most strongly with the aesthetic pleasures we have been brought up with and trained to like, we are not so sure as we used to be that the values enshrined in the works we know make them especially “great” and others by implication weak or bad. What used in the rigid fifties to be called “flabby relativism,” for example, is now celebrated as an ability to live within diversity, and enjoy it. For most people—outside legislatures where old wars are often reenacted—this represents enormous social and artistic progress, a veritable triumph of the imagination over tribalism.
Conversely the new situation puts aesthetic pleasure and artistic endeavor (or cultural work, if you prefer) at the center of social concern. This was the situation explored by the conference “Aesthetics and Difference,” organized by Emory Elliott and now being pursued as a research topic in the Center for Ideas and Society with the aid of a $250,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. Some years ago the LA-domiciled British artist David Hockney said “the artist now has a very important job to do. He’s not a little peripheral figure entertaining rich people, he’s really needed.” In this media-saturated age, society needs its artists as never before, then, and with a broader notion of how art and society work together, the university now has no excuse to treat the arts as peripheral either. This means training people in the arts, treating research in the arts seriously, and supporting creative work that provokes and often affronts as it stimulates growth in the collective imagination of the institution.
Modernist artists and writers took a step toward the new attitudes by returning “art” to its original definition as “skill” rather than the Romantic notion of inspiration, divine or otherwise. As we celebrate a “Year of the Arts” at UC Riverside, we are going to ask that people recognize and acknowledge the special skill developed by students in both the performing and visual arts. The work they do is every bit as demanding as that of the most exacting scientific experiment, and nothing is ever achieved without the highest concentration and devotion. When you see our student actors, dancers or musicians, remember how much real effort has gone into their achievement. They are often themselves transformed as a result of the experience of giving themselves over to a group endeavor that is quite as intense as any experience in athletics or sport.
But simply to focus on such products as performances, paintings, photographs, films and videos as what the arts in the university are about is as big a mistake as seeing them principally in their “ambassador” role. We are proud that through their participation in the Gluck and Artsbridge programs our students have begun to make a greater impact on the community than ever before, but that is simply a healthy by-product of their program of study. What is especially relevant about the arts in today’s educational situation is how much and how varied a preparation they offer for a satisfying life beyond. They train the body in ways just indicated, but this is only part of a process that includes equal focus on theory, history, and criticism. In today’s world the imperative to understand and validate other people’s cultures, which requires such tact and imaginative skill, also involves students in the arts in various kinds of anthropological and sociological study too. Postmodern thought, with its emphasis on representation rather than any essentialized reality, intermingles the performative and the theoretical. In this era, our performance efforts have become even more closely integrated with our supposedly more academic endeavors without our moving any closer to a conservatory model. The two are inseparable and cannot any longer be considered apart.
Perhaps the largest impact on the arts in recent years has come from technology, which has played a role in breaking down all sorts of barriers—between art forms, among artists, between classes and ethnic groups, and geographical areas—and is beginning to affect the old mechanics of distribution and copyright (the notorious Napster case is widely recognized as the tip of an iceberg). It is in the area of new media and digital culture that UCR will make its boldest advance in the next decade. It will take resolve, and it will take resources. But the vision that created a dance department with the world’s first Ph.D. in “Dance History and Theory” in the early nineties must be revived if we are to embrace the twenty-first century and play a significant role in the cultures of the future.
Philip Brett is the associate dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences as well as a Distinguished Professor of Music. Brett is the chair of the Year of the Arts committee. He received a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. from King’s College, Cambridge.