Dr. David J. Skorton: Hello everyone, and welcome to Smithsonian Second Opinion. Today we are gathered in the Luce Foundation Center of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. to discuss the role art plays in the nation's success and identity.
In 1965, upon signing the act that founded the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, President Lyndon Johnson said, "Art is a nation's most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish."
Today, many people still agree with this sentiment. Yet there are others who question the utility of the arts to society, and the wisdom of using public funds to support them. To discuss these important issues and more, we brought together a fascinating, distinguished panel of experts with broad perspectives on the arts.
To my right is María Magdalena Campos-Pons, a Cuban-born artist and professor of studio art at Vanderbilt University. Next to her is David Marcus, the artistic director of Blue Box World, a Brooklyn-based theater project and a senior contributor to The Federalist. We're also joined by Rebecca Rabinow, director of the Menil Collection and Art Museum in Houston, Texas. And next to her is Peter Schjeldahl, author, poet, and senior art critic at The New Yorker since 1998.
Now that everyone has been introduced, I'll start with a couple of general questions for the group:
Should art museums have neutral point of view? Is that possible, and is that something to which we should aspire?
Rebecca Rabinow: Well, I will start off by saying: Every museum is different from each other one––it's important just to establish that off the bat. Neutrality is impossible. Everything is subjective: the art that's chosen, how its displayed, the juxtaposition. So neutrality is not even possible to begin with. Let's accept that there is a point of view, and then the question is: What should that point of view be? I think it really depends on the institution. Within any given city––even within the Smithsonian museums––you have different museums, different curators with different points of view. That should be embraced and heightened.
Dr. Skorton: Other thoughts?
Peter Schjeldahl: Institutions should do as they please. I don't care about institutions. I hate museums… but I go to them all the time. I wonder if anybody's old enough to remember Willie Sutton, who was a famous bank robber in the ’40s––a gentlemanly bank robber, who became a folk hero. He was very good at it. When they finally nabbed him, a reporter was supposed to have asked him, "Willie, why do you rob banks?" And Willie said, "That's where the money is!" …I go to museums because that's where the art is.
I'm here as an unelected representative of a completely renegade population of art lovers. Museums shouldn’t care about us, because we're ingrates. We're just going to go in, get the art, and get out.
Dr. Skorton: I think you and I have quite a bit in common here. Mostly it's a panel of renegades, if I may say so proudly. Other thoughts?
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Museums are repositories of memory. The museum is a place in which the past and the history of populations and cultures is collected. I would add to that: What’s outside of the museum? What’s not being included in the museum? What have been the points of decision-making in today's institutions? So, from the institutional point of view, in the 21st century, we reconsider what is not in the museum, and how we relate to that.
For contemporary art, the majority of the museums in America are very centered in the point of view of Western culture and modernity. So there’s a lot of room for rethinking, at our time, what the museum could be.
I love museums. Art has always aspired to enter museums, and I think that museums are a place of reflection. A place that people can come and question their own understanding, their own position within the way culture is narrated––because museums are storytellers, in some way or another. It could be a story that is being told distorted, or [told] right. From that point, I could agree with Peter about his dislike [of museums]. What I always say to my students is that at the end, the museum is the cemetery of art. No?
David Marcus: I don't think museums can be neutral in any real political or social sense. They're all going to serve different purposes, and curators are all going to come from a different angle. I would like to see museums and curators think about their role in terms of fostering a common culture, because I think that we've reached a cultural moment where we don't have a lot of that.
Twenty-five, thirty years ago, we had these famous painters and playwrights, people who were real celebrities. Now, we have less of that. As we, as a people, have less and less of these touchstones, things we share, museums could play a unique role––albeit one that certainly does have to embrace a lot more diversity––to help us share a commonality within culture.
Rebecca Rabinow: For me, museums are places of dialogue. They allow conversations. I will use my own museum as an example, the Menil Collection in Houston. It's a place where people can come in, where quality is valued. With the internet, there's an evening of scholarship: there are people who have all sorts of opinions. Some of whom are trained, and have seen a lot, and other people who have seen something for the very first time, but are equally able to comment on it.
Museums, then, have an obligation to bring a certain knowledge––a certain scholarship, a certain point of view––to the works of art to create this dialogue. Rather than create one shared culture––which I think is a fallacy already––[museums should] encourage those dialogues, ask “why,” and talk about different points of view. There needs to be these shared spaces where people can come and see something that has been vetted as worthwhile.
Art is so many different things: it's something that elevates the spirit; it's something that troubles you; it's something that provokes you; it's something that goes back to culture; it's a way people communicate over time and geographies. There are so many things that art can be, and I think museums present a place where those conversations and dialogues can be heard.
Dr. Skorton: At the Smithsonian, as in many art museums, the curators are the ones who make a lot of the decisions about what we're going to show, how we're going to show it, and how we'll contextualize it. Some have said that that's an academic sort of elitism. Do you believe that art museums are elitist organizations?
Peter Schjeldahl: Oh, sure.
David Marcus: Yes, they should be.
Peter Schjeldahl: People who are interested in art are an elite, because they’re a self-selected elite. In America, in a democracy, anyone can be an elitist. Just nominate yourself, and you're in. Nobody can keep you out. Museums––the whole visual arts field––has a special limitation. It helps in any area of life to be rich, but it's not crucial. What you need is time. You need leisure. Because with visual art, you've got to go places. It's not on record, it's not in the store, it’s not one object in one room at one time in the universe. To be able to join the conversation means you've been in a lot of those rooms––and it's either because you can afford it, or because you're a bohemian like I was and you'd rather be poor than out of the loop.
Dr. Skorton: Other thoughts about elitism?
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: I think that museums are elitist, but that they are also spaces of privilege––which is almost talking about the same thing. I think that rather than focusing the question on whether they are elitist, the question for today is how to challenge that, how to change that. I’m a thinker, and I like to approach [questions] with the idea that there are many things we’ve done that are not necessarily right––but they exist. The question is how to upgrade to righteousness, how to change the dynamic.
Peter, I almost agree with everything that you write––all the time. But also, I would disagree with the idea that you are yourself an elitist. You were born in a very poor area, with very little access to education, and very little access to food and nutrition. You didn't have the time to go to a museum––that didn't exist on your horizon. So the question for me as an artist, as an educator, is how that barrier is not breaking. The point is that this room––which is magnificent––could be accessed by many people who will never put a foot here. Because they don't know how, and we don't provide them with the steps to bring them to this point. That, for me, is the problem, and that, for me, is the question of justice: in the delivering of art. It's this magnificent temple, open to few, and closed to many. I don't agree with that.
Rebecca Rabinow: What I would say about elitism: I think the problem is that the word itself has taken on this pejorative meaning. Really, what you're talking about are places that people have––often, through philanthropic means––helped to create so that people can come and see things that have been curated and cared for and conserved. I think more the problem is why, as a society, we would think the word “elitism”––which really means the study, care, and elevation of things––is a bad thing.
David Marcus: I might be able to provide an answer to that.
Rebecca Rabinow: Then we'll loop back there. I would simply say that to your point, I think if there was better and more thorough arts education in schools, there would not be such a separation. It's a question of how to have people who are comfortable coming into these places. It's something that I've thought a great deal about at the Menil, where we're free––none of our public programs are charged. Like at Smithsonian, it's open to everyone. But how do you get people comfortable coming, even given that? I think a lot of it goes down to education in the schools, and the importance––the critical importance––of arts education for elementary school children, [for] middle school [children]. It's key.
David Marcus: I think the visual arts are interesting, and a little different than performance arts in the sense, as you've said, that the museum is the final stop. In the visual arts, we have a lot of really fascinating incubators. We have the gallery system, we have the big auction houses. When Christie's and Sotheby's do their big Modern offerings, it's the rival of any museum in the world––for free. You're just going to walk in and see some of the best art you've ever seen.
By the time you get to the museum, you now have these gatekeepers. I think that there's a sense among many people––especially those who don't live on the coasts––that the gatekeepers in our large institutions don't understand them very well, they aren't terribly interested in them, and that they're presenting a vision of the world that doesn't align with their own. That's why they view “elitism” as something that, if not bad or good, they at least find a little exclusionary to the way they view the world. They're not seeing a lot of [the way they view the world] when they go to museums.
Peter Schjeldahl: Well, yeah. The implied condescension, and the real condescension. I'm well aware of New York provincialism and blindness to people of that type. But here we’re talking about visual art, which is a very small area of the arts––the arts include television, movies, comic books, everything online. My friend, the critic Dave Hickey, said that there has been waves of artists and critics saying painting is dead. Well, it finds being dead very inspiring, and comes back. He says that painting isn't dead, except as a major art––except as a dominant art. Now it is an art of special constituencies––like jazz.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Yes.
David Marcus: Yeah.
Peter Schjeldahl: Jazz aficionados make up in enthusiasm what they lack in numbers. You're all in a big tent, but that's not enough for you. So you go to a smaller tent, and then a smaller tent… and then you get completely crazy aesthetes like me. I've been able to make a living off of not being able to get enough of this stuff.
David Marcus: Does the academy narrow the tent? One of the art forms that I'm absolutely fascinated by is stand-up comedy, and I'm fascinated by it because it's really one of the last art forms where you don't go to school for it. You're not studying in conservatory––you're going to comedy clubs. You get up, either the people laugh or they don't laugh. If they laugh you're good, if they don't laugh, you're bad.
Peter Schjeldahl: My wife was a stand-up comic.
David Marcus: Was she funny?
Peter Schjeldahl: Yeah.
David Marcus: But I think what you see is broader cultural, societal, political views than you would in any other art form because they're not coming out of this academic setting.
Peter Schjeldahl: I think anyone who matters in any art, and maybe in any field, is going to be a renegade, is going to be an original, is going to be a misfit. I'm from small towns in North Dakota and Minnesota, and I dropped out of college and never studied art––but it was the Sixties. When you get into the middle of things, it becomes a performance thing: if you do something and they like how you do it, they ask you to do it again––they don't ask for your credentials. Usually, you go to city centers to be with people, with other misfits like you, and the first sorting out is between peers. It's like a gang. In a gang, everybody knows who's the Alpha. Nobody says, but they know. Everybody knows who's the Beta. Maybe a rival, or a pal or a sidekick of the Alpha. Everyone knows who's completely hopeless, and who is the absolute most important member of the gang––you know, as the scapegoat and the mascot. It’s like a bubbling up phenomenon: it creates an elite when it reaches a level of esteem.
I would love there to be a central culture, a mainstream culture, an ideal. I came up in that. I hate to say it, but we hit the Seventies and it shattered. It's continued to shatter. I think it’s just not going to happen, there's not going to be a mainstream anymore.
Dr. Skorton: And maybe that's a good thing.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: I don't think there is anything wrong with the question of “elite,” if the elite constructs something edgy, new, interesting, and exciting. There is something there about the value of newness––in the sense of advancing knowledge and advancing language. That's fantastic. And I totally agree––at school, we knew who the people were who were going to make it. I see all of that.
The question is about when the art is institutionalized, when it is in this kind of church-temple, that is, I say, a cemetery at the same time. [The art] stays quiet and lonely, for hours and hours and hours. If we [took] data on how many hours people are really in front of art that is displayed in museums, we’re going to be very sad. They’re like abandoned places.
For me, as a maker, [I ask]: How do we change the dynamic of that in the 21st century? And what does that mean for the betterment of our culture? For me, as an educator, the question is: What are the art forms, the knowledge––the new knowledge, the new language for what we don't yet have definitions––that is out there, and that the museums, the institutions, need to go out and get. There is a lot of good art that is not in museums. In this context of the elite, and the privileged, there are a lot of things that establish the value system. There, the institution could be more active: Who are the eyes that judge? What are the problems for the people that are the gatekeepers?
I’m sorry to talk about diversity, because I’m the only black woman on the panel. But how many nuances of inclusivities enter into the context to influence the decisions about what the museum presents, what the museum exhibits, who are the artists that are invited, who are the people that are a part of the conversation?
In the 21st century, the center of art is the United States. In the 19th century, it was Europe, but in the 20th century it moved here. I’m not sure that this is true for the 21st century. I mean, I don't want to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m thinking that maybe this is shifting. Maybe we are not the alpha anymore.
I used to say to my students, I don't want to live in New York, necessarily. And they asked, Why? Because: New York is another province of the United States. I’m living in the world: born in Cuba, I am here, I am in Europe, I am in Africa. That’s what’s happening.
Dr. Skorton: I hate to even bring this up, but let's say that digital technology goes ahead to a degree that we can't even imagine right now, beyond the simple representations that we see. What if it were possible to have a digital representation that was realistic, with some information, for anybody. Would we still need art museums? Would it still be important to have curators, and secretaries, and directors?
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: I need to answer that, because for years I’ve said to my students: I dream of the day that the museum is in the palm of your hand. With this museum, you can look at your palm and you say, okay, I want to go back in history and look at [Claude] Monet. As an idealist thinker, I don’t think the institution and the architecture of the museum-church could be the model of the future.
Peter Schjeldahl: You're talking about images and reproductions, which of course since the 19th century have been available. But some of us identify the essence of art with the objective existence of art. A painting has an image, but that's all it has in common with a reproduction. It is an object, it has a body, it has a skin, it has a flesh, it has a physical presence, it has a relation to your body. You're not getting it if you're not in that relation. Maybe you don't want to, and maybe you don't have the time. But as long as physically handmade, unique objects are interesting to human beings to make and to see, I think that they will remain. In a way, there’s a kind of rebound now against the digital “cloud.”
David Marcus: Do you think [Marcel] Duchamp undermined that a little bit?
Peter Schjeldahl: Well, he had fun with it.
David Marcus: I mean there was certainly physicality, but it wasn’t really “fabricated” in the same way.
Peter Schjeldahl: He made things that were extremely boring to look at.
Dr. Skorton: But not “fabricated” in the usual sense.
David Marcus: He would just find an object.
Peter Schjeldahl: But he moved it, you know. He did something to it. He moved it from the world into the museum.
Rebecca Rabinow: He had the imaginary museum in a folder––it was exactly this concept that you were talking about.
Peter Schjeldahl: And he also signed it, R. Mutt.
Rebecca Rabinow: I, sadly, am old enough that when [digitization] first started, the headlines were: “The demise of art as we know it,” and “The demise of the museum.” But something happened: it didn't kill art. In fact, it made people want to go see the originals. I would just point to the Mona Lisa effect. That painting has been reproduced so many times, and yet there are lines so that you can see it through bullet proof glass, even though there are astounding things in the galleries adjacent to it.
Peter Schjeldahl: And actually, it's really interesting when you see it in person. D.H. Lawrence called it, “that little green painting” [laughter]. It's kind of disappointing––but then it becomes interesting. You know? I mean, we could all be like honeybees in a hive. Identical, and share everything, right? And all of our objects could be made of the same plastic, and be the same shape, and all our food could taste the same. But we have a hunger for a particularity, for specificity, for things that will stop us. To me, the signal effect of a really good work of art is that it stops me dead and reduces me to complete stupefaction: I don't know anything, and I've got to start from scratch with this thing. Or maybe I really hate it, and I just run away.
David Marcus: And there are definitely pieces you have to be in a room with. I remember being young and just not understanding the appeal of [Piet] Mondrian. I saw [reproductions] in books and I was like, it's like squares and lines, what is this? At the Philadelphia Museum of Art they have a wonderful room of Mondrian, and I saw it. The intersections of the lines were pulsing, and there was all this movement. None of that happened on the printed page, and I imagine none of that would happen on the computer screen. But when you're standing across from it, it's truly remarkable.
Rebecca Rabinow: And then there are questions of scale and scent for certain things. Some of these are immersive experiences. And then, you can't––I feel––underestimate the power of discovery. Discovery of the unexpected.
When I would do research, I would go into the stacks of a library and sit down, and inevitably the book that was the most revelatory was one that was five down from the one that I had gone to see. And so this idea that we're all involved in self-selecting––self-selecting our news, self-selecting our images––it rules out these chance discoveries which have the opportunity to change your entire thinking.
Peter Schjeldahl: And then we talk about it, to establish that we're not insane. Because you have an aesthetic experience, it's very private, it's very inner, it's very irrational––and you're a little scared. If you find somebody you agree with, then you think, well, maybe we're both insane. But it's to have this conversation rolling. The whole reproduction culture… Reproductions are lies that you believe. I've been to Spain a few times and have gone to the Prado to see “Las Meninas” by [Diego] Velazquez––which is the best painting in the world. Every time, I have a tremendous experience. The times when I've gone back, my first reaction when I see it is crashing disappointment: “That's not it.” Because it has become more and more my painting, and less and less Velazquez. Meanwhile, I've looked at reproductions, and they tell me what I want to believe.
Dr. Skorton: So you may be interested to know we have a high school advisory group for the Smithsonian, made up of D.C. high school kids and some from the eastern half of the country. At one of our first meetings I asked them, “Should we keep the national collections? They're very expensive, they take up a lot of room. Should we just digitize everything?” Unlike you, they have no veneer of civilization. They told me, No, you just don't get it. They said, We want to be in front of the actual object, it does something to us. What you need to use digital technology for is to contextualize it. So high school kids actually agree with you.
I wanted to change up a little bit. We're in Washington here, in the center of politics. I want to talk about art and morality and politics a little bit. Art in the past has been used to foster understanding, establish power, and to express dissent. What moral obligation, if any, does an artist have when creating art? What moral obligation does an institution have in presenting that art, if any?
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: As an artist, I always think that artists have––and I want to talk in the singular, not in the plural––a sort of responsibility with their time. That is a given. We are living in troubled times. I think that some of the best art of the past is art that looks, and that dares to talk back to power. Sometimes, artists do that even without wanting to. It's just that you react to what you see, what you witness, what you are participating in, and you grasp the dynamic of the thing of your moment. As an artist, I am engaged with the question of justice. Not only justice of representation, but justice of the location of art. Homi Bhabha wrote a fantastic book, The Location of Culture, that talks about all of these ideas.
I am back and forth, because I always think in terms of: What is art in the 21st century? Who am I, versus an artist in the 18th century? Do I want to lock myself in the solitude of my studio and deal with my devils and my troubles? Or would I want to be myself, in the street, looking at what happened, and then maybe come back to an institution, such as this one, and talk about it? I did a performance here at the National Portrait Gallery a year ago that was all about that. I was troubled––I am troubled––by the fact of how black young males are treated in America. I lost sleep over that.
I am a mother of a young man, as well, so for me this is an ethical problem. I cannot separate my making from that. I cannot find a space just to go and engage myself with the problem of color, especially black, because it’s the thing that’s trouble. Sincerity is the only point of my departure. Honesty is the only place that I locate myself. So I am troubled by what happens in America––troubled.
I am troubled by what happens in the world. All that I am doing is about that. How can I be effective in really placing my art making as a making––the making of that experience that you guys were asking for. The making of the object that moves you. The making of the situation in which you feel discomfort, or this emotion of total engagement. I think that that is fundamental––I don't care for art that doesn't engage with that.
I love Mark Rothko because he was looking at something of his time that was important. I never loved Rothko before, until I came to America in 1988. I went to the MOMA. I was trembling. Physically. Because I saw the colors moving, like they were vibrating, and I was like, okay, how is this possible? He was responsible, and a surge of something of that time transcended the moment and talked through. It talked through the time, because it talked through to me, many years later, a total outsider, from a different culture. So I believe that if art wants to be meaningful and significant, it must engage with the troubles of the time. Be it those totally philosophical, or be it those really socially engaged, politically engaged.
I don't think there is one single piece of art that is apolitical. Because every single thing that the artist touches, his entire self is in it––be it a painting, be it a drawing, be it anything. And whatever political [sentiments] he has, it’s there. Whatever political engagement he has––it’s there. There’s no other way. That’s a very radical viewpoint, but that's what I think. You don't live two lives. You don’t split yourself that way. I think that there are a number of artists right now, especially in America, that are doing fantastic work about showing a sense of ethical and moral engagement––and that is something to commend and to celebrate.
Dr. Skorton: You know, David, you brought up a point before that's not just visual arts, as important as they are. We're in a temple––as Magda puts it––of visual arts. What about theater, what about stand up, what about music?
David Marcus: I would say, in general, I think art can do a really good job at having an impact on diffuse cultural issues. Issues like racism, broadly. Or gay rights, I think was a great example for decades, where the arts went sort of hand in hand. I think when you get into the specifics of things like electoral politics––art doesn't do as well, and there's a danger that it begins to turn into propaganda.
Now what happens in theater is… We had begun our show in New York right after 9/11, and we were producing ten-minute plays. And, as you can imagine, we had a lot of ten-minute plays about 9/11, because that was just so front and center.
As time went on, you would start to get some [plays] about the Iraq War––less, because that was more far removed. What I'm seeing now in the theater world is just an enormous amount of very direct attention on Donald Trump. And a feeling from a lot of my friends and a lot of my colleagues, you know, Oh my god, we're responsible to help get rid of this awful guy, let's use our theater companies to do that.
There's a part of me that says: A) I don't think that's going to work, because I don't think you're reaching the people you need to reach to make the change that you want to make, and B) you might actually be making it worse. There's a room full of people at the Tony Awards who love hearing Robert De Niro use curse words and talk about Trump. But the next morning, that's all over Twitter, and there's a bunch of people in Ohio who think like––who are you? You're a millionaire standing in front of a bunch of millionaires… I think you’ve got to be really careful with that.
Peter Schjeldahl: Political art is always troubled. I think political art isn't always bad art, but it's almost always terrible politics. Politics is always fast and rough. Art is slow and refined. It's like… Trying to use a feather duster to dig a foundation [laughter]. You know, like, keep at it long enough and like, you know… It reduces the subjectivity of the maker. It selects the political, it narrows the focus.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Wagner––I adore Wagner. His political work––terrible.
Peter Schjeldahl: Oh, boy [laughter].
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: His art is magnificent––his art is magnificent.
Dr. Skorton: That's a great example.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Of course you guys might be feeling like––this girl from La Vega Manguito loves Wagner? My father-in-law was surprised when I told him I love Die Walküre. In any case, the question is––do we need, in the 21st century… I'm sorry that I keep coming back to the 21st century, because I feel that I’m kind of a cross child between the 20th to the 21st, and I am afraid that I’m maybe getting too mature in my 20th century, and not completely open to my 21st.
Peter Schjeldahl: We get older [laughter].
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: I'm trying to be friendly, using this friendly way to talk about age.
Peter Schjeldahl: I had to retire my skateboard.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: But maybe we need to reconsider this conversation about the politics of art, about politics in art. See, if we just label it the “bad child” of art and politics… Maybe in this time, in our time, and with everything that's changing and happening, that thinking of the 20th century should be left behind, and [we should] think differently.
I don't know. I don't have the answer. But I am sure, what I am most certain [of is that] there is new knowledge, new problems, coming ahead for what we don't have names, for what we don't have language. So we are using the same language that we have from the past, and we have trouble there. That's one thing, I think, that that has happened in this conversation about politics and art.
Peter Schjeldahl: Well you're an artist. So that's your research.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: I’m troubled, I’m––all the time––arguing with myself, I'm questioning myself. I'm finding… I love painting, I taught painting for twenty-four years, and I have had many very good painters out of my hands. But also I’m doing performance, I’m doing conversations, I’m planting gardens, and I feel: Am I betraying myself? I am not. I am making. I am in a moment of a transition, as my time is in a moment of transition. I am never in fear of anything that brings me into the age. I am never in fear of the art that is too––so called––“political.”
David Marcus: I think a lot of people are, though.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Yes, but that's okay.
David Marcus: I'm fascinated by the notion of new words, though. I think that's really important. Because the question becomes, who gets to agree on these words? A lot of the issues that are going on right now––when you look at the trans issue, when you look at identity issues––and you say, okay, these are the new words. And then everybody in the arts, they say, Sure, these sound great. And then the rest of the country, they say, You're out of your mind.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: But, But. I would say, I made a piece in 1994 that is called "Identity Could Be a Tragedy." So, I place myself in that. I see that identity can be a complicated thing. But I wanted to come back to something that Peter said before about specificity and locality. There’s a fantastic book by Lucy Lippard called The Lure of the Local. Gorgeous––gorgeous. That says, we need to pay attention to minutiae. We need to pay attention to the “breadcrumbs” in the making of things––from the institutional level to the individual level. And with that attention to minutiae––to breadcrumbs––we could connect with these people that say, Oh, they’re saying crazy things. Not if we manage some way, somehow, to build that bridge. I am a great believer in bridges. Through art… Art is a form of communication.
I was raised on a farm. I was a peasant. I should not be making elite, “elitist” art. But I do. When I was 13 years old and I arrived with my first cast in plaster that I had ever done, my father took it and showed it to the entire village and said, "My daughter made an monument." I'll never forget that, because it was such a beautiful response to a form of art, by somebody who was not an artist.
The level of perception, the level of response to the thing, at any level, could be a wish for communication. Through communication, it would go back to education. It would go back to, "How do we respond to what is made, what is collected?"
I want to come back to digital. I needed to learn how to [use] my computer. My son, who is twenty-five, is a computer guy. Everything is digital. The little kid that’s four, the first thing that they touch, practically… At first, they make drawings with their food, and their little food table. The next thing, they’re in front of a TV, and their mom or dad has a phone that they have access to, and they already know how to open it and start talking with it.
David Marcus: My son knew how to do it when he was two, and I used to say to my son’s a genius. And then I said, well, actually Mrs. Jobs's son was a genius [laughter].
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: But we, as the people now, are the gatekeepers, because of our age. We need to be open to what that means. There is a very democratic open field for what exists in this digital realm, what is creating all their forms perception, all their forms of knowledge. That happens.
Dr. Skorton: I want to drill down a little more on the governmental issue. Should the government be funding art in America? If you look at the European countries, Australia, the ratio of public funding of the arts per capita is ridiculously bigger in other countries than it is here.
Should the government be funding art at all? Should the government stay out of it? What are your feelings on this? David, you've written on this.
David Marcus: Yeah. I think there is a role for government funding in the arts. I think the government needs to be very careful about it, though. I think in theater, it's had an awful lot of negative effects. The '40s and '50s and before that, it was really an open marketplace, where you had creative destruction and you had people saying, How do I get an audience?
We've created an economic system in theater where kids coming out of school [are saying], “I want to start a theater company.” What should your first question be? Who is my audience, and how do I get them out. That's not their first question. Their first question is, How do I get a grant? The audience comes way after that. So I'm much more comfortable with the government funding infrastructure than I am with programming. I don't want the government picking winners and losers because frankly, I don't think they're very good at it.
Do I want the government zoning an area for art? Absolutely. Do I want them to build multi-unit spaces that artists can use? For sure. You look at the World Trade Center, the art center that they're going to build there. It's been a decade––nobody knows what to do with it. Do we want another Lincoln Center, do we want another BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]?
What I said from the beginning is: Artists in New York need space. Give me five 50–seat theaters, give me five 99–seat theaters, and let these people come in and they'll use them.
Dr. Skorton: By the way, that's also true for start-up science type operations, as well. [Scientists need] space, a chance to fail.
David Marcus: Incubators.
Dr. Skorton: Thoughts about this, Rebecca? About government funding for the arts.
Rebecca Rabinow: Absolutely. I think absolutely the government should fund [the arts]––but the question is, Why should they fund? It's because they should value the arts. They should value the sense of creativity, which will allow culture to expand and grow, and that permeates everything art-related and non–art related.
When you look at history, the societies that valued their culture… [Valuing the arts] improved what was created in all fields, but it's also a way of [creating] dialogue with other cultures and other nations. You can go to almost any country over its history and it’s by sharing art, music, and theater with other nations… During times of great crisis, and always [during] times right after crisis, art is the ambassador. There has to be a culture that privileges art––here, in this country––and is proud of it––and then stimulates it here and shares it.
That’s how you have communication. When people defund the arts, things start to shut down. Borders start to close. People don't communicate with one another––and that is so troubling to me.
Dr. Skorton: Peter, thoughts about this?
Peter Schjeldahl: Yeah, I don't know. I’m against grant culture. In the '70s, Richard Nixon vastly increased the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts].
Dr. Skorton: Eight-fold.
Peter Schjeldahl: Yeah. I think, somewhere on the tape, he told all the men it was meant to disarm the Jew avant-garde. Which, by the way, worked––I mean, we were completely out of the protest game because we were writing up grants [laughter].
I would like the government to pay a salary to all the museum guards in the country. That would be great. It would be a great expense and it would allow museums to do a lot more.
I mean, in other countries… America is unique. We're not a nation. We're a fiction, right? Other nations are integral––[they have the same] culture, race, language. We're a complete salad. We have in common… What? We have a couple of 18th-century political documents. We have the Civil War, which was so unpleasant. We're not going to do that again. Then, we have popular culture: We have Hollywood, Madison Avenue.
Andy Warhol was maybe the greatest American artist. He covered the whole thing. He got that our national culture––to the extent that we have one––is superficial. Other countries think we're superficial––and they're right. But they don't understand that we are profoundly superficial. We come together on the surface, [but] you go into depth, and you've got an immediate gang fight.
It's troubling. Other countries preserve and advance their national culture, but they have a sense of what their national culture is. See––we don't. It's kind of blind, a shot in the dark, you know…
…I'm for money in the arts. I'm for money for everything I like [laughter].
Dr. Skorton: So, I spent my whole career, before coming to this Smithsonian, as an educator in higher education. One of the big debates in society now is the role of the arts, and the humanities for that matter, in K–12 education and in post-secondary education. I want to switch gears and talk about that a bit. I'll just stick my neck out here by saying that: the world's thorniest problems are not going to be solved by STEM alone. We need to emphasize the arts and humanities in the educational environment. Is that right? What do you think about that? What do you think about the role of the arts in education––not just for those going into the arts, but for folks in general. Any thoughts on this?
Rebecca Rabinow: We were chatting a little bit about this earlier. The idea of creativity being a necessary part––turning STEM into STEAM––is something I find incredibly important. You look at successful companies––Apple, you were just mentioning. Even just the graphic presentation, how these things come about, is thanks, in large part, to artists. You have the technology, but then you also have another vision.
Artist also––since they may not be involved with the developmental science of something––have a privilege, a work-around, so that they can suggest ideas that maybe won't be challenged in the same way, so that those ideas come out on the table. So, bringing art––turning STEM into STEAM––is really to everyone's advantage, I think.
Peter Schjeldahl: That's awfully cute.
Rebecca Rabinow: I didn't make it up [laughter].
David Marcus: I think there are huge questions––enormous, absolutely terrifying questions––in tech today, involving bio-hacking, genetic manipulation. And I'm not talking about things that are happening in fifty years… I'm talking about things that are happening in five years. Or that maybe, in China, are happening right now.
And I don't think that people who have even the best STEM education in the world are getting the tools to grapple with those kinds of ethical questions. So you need artists, you need philosophers, you need writers. You need the people like George Orwell, who can say before it happens: Hey guys. Something scary’s going on. We better get in front of it.
What, fifty, sixty years later after Orwell, we're still using his wisdom in how we think about information technology, and how we think about sources we can trust and what we can't, and what the government should do. So we really do need artists right now to get in front of these questions of, What is it going to mean to be a human being? The STEM cats don't have that.
Dr. Skorton: [To María Magdalena Campos-Pons] Some thoughts? You're an educator.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: I tell my students: Learning in science practice is very close to our practice. We both are in the lab. No? We're both in a lab, trying to find something. The scientist is trying to find a response that [can be] proven. The artist is only placing many questions. I think they use this position for creative thinking––posing questions without necessarily needing to prove one sole answer. [This approach] could be very important for the future of our education.
In art education in this moment, there's a big conversation about how many artists can we keep graduating. How do they go out [into the world]? Doing what? What is [their] question?
The future of our education is one that needs to be very fierce, and in synergy with these conversations in technology, engineering, and science––but in a different way. So, I think, What would be a master degree for artists in 2030? It's one that would be very engaged in conversations with scientists, biologists, physicists, with all of those territories of philosophy. This is where we are, and I keep talking about needing to find the [new] language––that is, [identifying the new] territories to define. That is where our education is moving. Maybe we need to figure out an entirely new system for that. The people in higher education are really, seriously questioning and engaging with those shifting territories at this moment.
I wanted to add: [having] participating in Documenta 14, one of the successful programs was called "Un-Education." The question was, literally: How do we learn again? What were the tools that we have put in place to learn, and to establish a sort of paradigm: “This is truth.” Because at the end, we are looking for some sort of way to find answers to very serious problems. Ecological [issues], population growth, feeding people. With those sorts of things, true artists help from the side.
So I don't have the answer, I just have the question. That is a very important topic in this new generation of learning––who are totally digital, literally. We need to prepare ourselves for how to deal with that. What is the perspective and aspiration of a kid that is now two years old?
Rebecca Rabinow: María, you talked about creative thinking and I think that's the key. I was at a lecture that the head of a business school gave recently, and he said that twenty years from now, his prime students are going to be artists.
You can train people to think a certain way, but he needs that creative thinking. That needs to be stimulated from the earliest years. Get people thinking outside of the box, encouraging them. They don't have to start with a hypothesis that they're proving. You can just go and see where you end up. It's a different way of thinking, and you need them both.
Dr. Skorton: It's interesting, “You need them both.” I was a small part of a National Academies panel that spent the last couple of years looking on whether we should reintegrate the different forms of education, both in the direction of those studying the arts to have some quantitative courses or curricula, and vice versa. We decided that it's a very important thing.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Yes.
Dr. Skorton: The last couple of minutes we have, I wanted to touch on one more issue that we touched on a bit earlier in various ways, and that is accessibility of art to people beyond those who already have a chance to get it.
What do you think the best way is for institutions––not just the Smithsonian, but institutions in general––to reach new audiences and to broaden the reach that they can have, and therefore, the accessibility of the institutions to people.
Do you think it's important? If so, what should we do?
Peter Schjeldahl: Make it cheaper.
Rebecca Rabinow: So, the Menil Collection is free, and all of our programs are free. Yet this is still something that we think about. Houston is the most diverse city in the United States. How [do we] bring in people who may have never gone to a museum in their life, may not know that a museum exists? We're fortunate to have thirty acres––our arts buildings are situated within a residential neighborhood with parks and green spaces.
[I was] speaking with someone who came to Houston 13 years ago, and said that he didn't always feel comfortable in different parts of the city. He didn't know where he was welcome, and [where he was] not. He brought up this very interesting idea of making people comfortable in the area, and then they'll come in. It's sort of how one deals with a small toddler who is standing by a door. You can run after them, but chances are, they'll back away. Or you can be there, approachable, have the door open, and they'll come towards you.
We’ve removed the barrier of price. We've tried to remove the barrier of access as best we can with the public transportation system that we have, with walking, bicycling, cars. But how to get people comfortable even coming to the area, so that then they feel empowered and welcome to come in.
Dr. Skorton: Other thoughts?
David Marcus: I think what we need is––to go back to the content that bridges––I think we need more bridges from the coastal centers of arts to the middle of the country. So, one thing that happened with our show––we ran for 15 years as a ten-minute play series in New York called "Sticky,” and we would use club or bar spaces because theater space was so expensive in New York.
We had one friend who was from Normal, Illinois, and he moved back home in 2011. He said, David and Libby, would you mind if I tried doing Sticky out in Normal? And we said, That would be great! We came up with some kind of contract, if he makes $1 million, we get $1,000. I don't know what it was. But he did it.
He started getting bigger audiences than we were getting. Then, someone started doing it in the Hudson Valley. What's nice is, they have our whole database of plays to pull from, but they're also developing new work there. If he develops a ten-minute play that's really good there, then he can send it back to New York.
I think the internet allows that kind of connectivity, and someplace like the Public Theater, or these big theater companies, can have these relationships with small theater companies in small towns. The advantage is really going to flow both ways, because there is a lot of stuff going on in the rest of the country that we're just not aware of. I don't think it can be the way it was in the '60s anymore, where first you have to move to New York.
Rebecca Rabinow: Having lived in New York for 30 years, I'll just say that one thing that would be great for art professionals, at a certain level, is to travel around, because there is a misperception that culture exists along oceans. It is throughout this country. I go anywhere, and I meet artists and I visit museums. It is there.
It's a question of encouraging different places––but there are amazing museums in the heartland of the United States, and symphonies and orchestras, and people who care deeply about them.
Dr. Skorton: Peter, any last thoughts?
Peter Schjeldahl: I'm a little leery of any pragmatic reasons for art. [That it] makes for better business, or better culture. I don't know that art is “good” for you. Some of the worst people in the world are great artists.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Yes [laughter].
Peter Schjeldahl: And we were talking about Wagner––You don't get any better than Wagner, or any worse as a person. Once, I think Wagner was in a room of people who were not looking at him, and he screamed.
And also, education... You get people are may not be terribly creative trying to stimulate people who really are creative and are going to hate them. Creativity is a renegade force. It's something that finds its way. It doesn't go through the door. It comes over the transom. It's an eccentric way of learning. That's what creativity is. It's a way of learning that isn't in the syllabus.
I don't what you do for that... I think you just have a really lively world. You have a lively world, and count on nature to turn out these weirdos who are creative people.
Dr. Skorton: Any last thoughts, Magda?
María Magdalena Campos-Pons: I agree with Peter in almost everything there. I teach, and I always say to my students: I [teach], but I know I shouldn't be. I teach a particular class, Installation Art, and I say to them: Installation is born, not taught. Every single gesture of installation art rebels against anything that is academic. We try to find ways to keep drowning out this kind of information.
I, as a maker, am more engaged with forms that bring me closer to conversations with people. I am engaged in performance pieces in which I use that. I talk to people, then I introduce myself. Some of them answer, some of them don't answer, but I have found a lot beauty in it.
I believe, really, and this is just a little bit romantic… But I believe [in] candor. We are in need of a way to communicate to each other that is gentle––that is nicer. Our culture is incredibly harsh. Even social media, and our whole digital world, is incredibly harsh in ways. The only thing that I believe in––and I believe in very few things––is that artists sometimes find ways to touch other people in delicate ways, or in very tough ways that moves something within people. That is the only reason that I believe that people don't know they need art, but they need it. People live with art without knowing to a certain extent, and it sustains them, without [them] knowing, to a certain extent.
In my thinking and in my teaching, [I say], Without the presence of art, we wouldn't be in this room, in this conversation. [Art] is a way we survive as a species. As we think of the future, in all the fragility of our moment, I still believe that, maybe, I can do something about it.
I have never been a cynical thinker. I agree that a lot of horrible personalities within the art world have done magnificent things. And I don't know, sometimes you need that. I don't have a finite answer to that. I have questions and curiosity.
I know that deep sentiments are sometimes troublesome, but I think of art as deep, deep sentiment territory. It's a gesture, in whatever form––music, theater, ballet, anything––that makes you become human. When you encounter art, your humanity is revealed in ways that you cannot explain. I think, for that, it's worth it.
Dr. Skorton: David, any last thoughts?
David Marcus: I think that this is a really important and good conversation to have because I think we all have slightly different visions, we probably have very different politics. A lot of differences, but art remains––as it has, perhaps, since people were putting things on the sides of caves––the object outside of ourselves that we can have a little bit of disinvestment [from], and look at all together, and have that conversation. I think anything in our society, at the current moment, that people are able to do that with is going to be a real benefit.
Dr. Skorton: I want to thank the panelists, Peter, Rebecca, David, and Magda, for a fantastic conversation. To those of you enjoying Second Opinion, I hope you'll have a chance to look at some of the other interviews on the website about this topic and have a chance to consider some of the readings that we put out there.
Keep an eye out for the next segment of Second Opinion. Thanks very much for being with us, and thanks everyone.