Art and the Academy in the Time and Space of Social Distancing

The following letter was composed in the afternoon before a meeting to be held in Manhattan.   The broader topic of the occasion related to digital arts and the motif of the ID.  But I was invited to a panel on the arts in the contemporary academy.

I had announced to the organizer previously that I thought I might choose not to attend (this was at a moment earlier in the week when conferences were being cancelled and it was becoming apparent that almost all academic institutions and museums were closing their doors).  But I was uneasy, as you will see in the letter.  I suspect many of us are facing conflicting imperatives of a broadly ethical character in a myriad of immediate situations just now.  I suspect my embarrassment is a fairly general phenomenon.

I share this letter because I think it may be valuable to address the EGS community with something more than brief, official communications.  So I am offering an occasional statement that is part personal, part academic, but that will nonetheless give an indirect glimpse of how I am thinking of this situation in my roles relating to the EGS.

I will see if I can find other modalities for communicating in this less-than-official manner.  But let me start with these few pages.

March 13, 2020

Dear Fellow-participants at the discussion held this evening at the National Arts Club:

I deeply regret being absent from this discussion this evening.  The topic is an important one for me—particularly in that I have a lot to learn!—and I would dearly enjoy meeting all of you.

My choice, however, has been to adhere to the immediate imperative of social distancing (a phrase that I detest) and thus remain apart from large gatherings.  Yes, I am in a risk group and have a family to care for, so my motives are in part quite personal.  But I also believe this is a vital imperative in this moment when governmental authorities in North America have so delayed in response to the growing crisis.   The cultural institutions that have suspended their work for the coming month in New York are doing the right thing in this moment of danger and uncertainty, however difficult this may prove to be for all who must bear the impact of these closures.  (Mayor de Blasio in New York has been striving to keep public schools open.  He suggests they practice social distancing.  I wonder if our mayor has ever been to a N.Y.C public school?)

As Chief Academic Officer of the European Graduate School, which is based in Switzerland, I bring an international perspective to this question.  One of our upcoming programs, as it happens, is scheduled to occur this summer in Bergamo at the Accademia di belle arti.  Bergamo, as you may know, was featured today on the front page of The Guardian.  So I am acutely aware of what can happen in this pandemic in the academic context; if the spread of this virus is not contained, the damage in those institutions that support the arts and humanities will be very great.

“Social distancing” has a very chilling meaning for educational institutions that are investigating questions relating to the social meaning of art in an experimental and searching manner.  Many of us are devoted to the very opposite of what this phrase connotes, be this in research into matters digital or  in more traditional forms of critical reflection and exchange. We rely necessarily on a small community of devoted thinkers and practitioners.  If that community cannot join in shared reflection and practice, the consequences are intellectual, to be sure, but also quite material; there will be damage, whichever way we choose to turn.

Everyone must make their choices in this matter of social distancing, and they are difficult ones.  I want to express my gratitude for Natalia Kolodzie’s graceful response to my own decision this evening, and also express my thanks to the group assembled for their consideration.  I cannot entirely get over the feeling that I am letting you down and I cannot quite get over a sense of embarrassment.

But, in response to Natalie’s invitation to address the question of contemporary art in the academic environment, I have thought I might still share with you in this very traditional form (a somewhat casual letter) a few thoughts regarding my work with the EGS.  Let me say a few general words about our ambitions as an institution and then try to be a bit more specific about questions pertaining to the arts.  What I have said about struggling against “social distance” offers me perhaps a strong point of orientation.

Our programs are effectively devoted to challenging all forms of academic distancing (forms that inevitably reinforce social distancing even as they enforce abstract relations to whatever might be the topic of investigation).  I refer to two dimensions of our work in this respect.  First, we are fundamentally devoted to cross-disciplinary reflection that is disruptive of disciplinary boundaries.  In my previous incarnation as founder and director of the Centre for Modern Thought at the University of Aberdeen, I created a research structure that I quietly described as a “machine for eating disciplines.”  The disciplines ended up eating us, to everyone’s loss at Aberdeen.  But at the EGS, we actually push that idea much farther (and remain at the table, at least so far); we leave established disciplines to the side, and only look back when it comes time to help our students insert themselves into more traditional institutional formats.  This does not mean that we ignore discursive histories and the immense contributions of extant academic research.  On the contrary; some of our faculty have in fact made decisive interventions in academic fields and we expect our students to grasp these and learn by their example wherever possible.  But it means that we turn to that research only from the basis of a form of “teaching-led research,” and sometimes artistic practice, that is directed to questions that exceed the purchase of any particular discipline, be this philosophy, art history, theory, or political thought.  These questions may bear on societal issues of contemporary global import that no discipline can address on its own, or they may bear on the foundations of disciplines in the manner of the question that Maurice Blanchot posed to literary study a half-century ago when he asked “What does it mean that something like literature should exist?”  That was a question that exceeded any form of literary criticism or theory, leading into far broader issues relating to the symbolic order and the place of literature in its worldly context, even as it demanded an intense concentration on the literary fact.   Comparable questions could be formulated for every form of thinking or creative practice.

I could go on at some length about the fundamental exigency of cross-disciplinary thinking for any critical thought worthy of its name, but let me simply state a basic principle that has become clear to me over many years of research and academic administration.  In breaking down disciplinary boundaries, it does not suffice to bring the disciplines into some form of inter-disciplinary conversation, or expose them to creative work in the arts.  It cannot be a matter of simply bringing extant disciplines or forms of practice into relation with one another.  There must rather be a fundamental questioning that indicates what is required of the disciplines and eventually orients and transforms their work.

I spoke of two dimensions of our work at the EGS inasmuch as it is devoted to challenging academic distances, and have touched on the first with these words on cross-disciplinarity.  The second is a bit more difficult to evoke in a few brief words, but let me simply observe that the EGS actually functions more as an intellectual society than a standard academic institution with its forms of bureaucratized protocol.  Our faculty are selected by a process of deliberation and that is quite fluid (there are no committees: just multiple, ongoing conversations that pass through me as their facilitator).  We invite people whose work we admire and whose approaches we want to make available to our students.  Because the people involved in these conversations are at the very highest levels in their respective areas, the individuals invited will be of a special calibre.  The result is an intellectual context that is quite current in its orientations, very much at the cutting edge.  More than this: it is a context where people feel able to experiment and to undertake collaborative ventures together.  There is a thorough academic freedom at work in this society.  I have to acknowledge that it is not quite a utopia, and never without its own distances (there are egos involved…–we have yet to find a way past that problem).  But there are few forms of hierarchy, and a constant regeneration of a community that seems genuinely engaged in a task of reflection and questioning.  One piece of evidence for this fact is that our core faculty (distinguished people who do not need the honoraria in most cases) come back year after year.  They come entirely by choice and they return faithfully.   There is something happening in the teaching environment; something singular and very stimulating.

Let me turn now to the question of art.   The EGS has always paired critical and philosophical reflection (on a range of fields, including art) with contributions by practitioners from the arts.  Seminars with a philosophical cast, for example, will occur next to seminars by film-directors, and we will require our students to make passages between these fields.   So, “cross-disciplinary” is actually an inadequate word for the actual crossings we undertake and the encounters we curate.  There have been seminars by writers, film-makers, distinguished musicians, painters, and artists in the digital fields.  Recently, we have been building a concentration in electronic music.  These seminars, too, consititute a form of teaching-led research where fundamental questions are engaged.  I do not want to dwell too long on the context of the digital arts, but I want to say that in this context, experimentation in the digital arts has fully equal standing with any other form of thinking practice in our institution.   What distinguishes the digital arts is their very pressing currency and their contemporary significance in this respect.  They require our attention in our effort to think the forms and meaning of creative practice today.  We therefore seek to foreground them in our programming.

We have also been exploring a new form of passage through the vehicle of craft.  With a distinguished luthier, Robert Brewer Young, we have held seminars in which students participate in building and studying instruments of exceptional quality.  Recently, some of our students have had the opportunity to join a philanthropic project devoted to creating a violin of conservatory quality that can be assembled by students from disadvantaged backgrounds at a tiny cost.  I have personally been astonished at the way this experience of craft can inform reflection on the craft of thinking itself.  That astonishment has produced a significant advance in my own thinking on art, which has been pursued in this seminar next to contributions on the history of the philosophy of geometry, alchemy, architecture, and music.  It is actually hard for me to convey what has been happening in this seminar.  But, at the suggestion of the independent film-maker, Rick Alverson (who examined the violin I helped make and understands craft to be essential to his own work), I have returned to the project of Black Mountain College and have sought to grasp how creative interlacings of creative practice and philosophically informed critical reflection can produce unpredictable forms of inspiration.  The EGS has been compared to the Black Mountain College many times because of its celebrated faculty.  But I have shunned this comparison because it has seemed either trivial (cheap publicity) or pretentious.  But I have come to understand that there is a genuine question here for our approach to the topic of contemporary art in an academic context.  Something occurs in the passage between critical thought and practice that is of fundamental importance for our understanding of both thought and art.  That practice can be on the equipment required for the digital arts, or it can be on a workbench with a violin.  In either case, if it is undertaken together with a thinking practice, or brought forth in itself as a practice in which thinking occurs, it can become profoundly inspiring for an academic endeavour that remains committed to experiment and the development of an intellectual community where social distances and hierarchies are effectively transcended—momentarily in some cases, in a more lasting way in others.

Thank you sincerely for bearing with this distanced communication.

Christopher Fynsk