Taking Center Stage?

The role of the performing arts in Emory's intellectual life


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"What I think has been missing is the critical discussion of these works of art and their performance in our midst."
--Don Saliers, Parker Professor of Theology and Worship

"Before you can have critical discourse, you need to have a widespread direct experience."
--Sally Radell, Associate Professor of Dance

Making art and making tenure

Lean times for the arts


Academic Exchange April/May 2000 Contents Page

It has been almost ten years since Associate Professor of Dance Sally Radell was asked to propose the criteria for her own tenure review.

"It was kind of amazing, but there had been no precedent, so it was understandable," says Radell, who became the university's first tenured faculty member in dance in 1993. "I was aware that this would also be the criteria for subsequent tenure-track people in dance, so it needed to be rigorous yet flexible, to accommodate different areas of creative research--performance, choreography, or reconstructing historical dance."

Radell's forethought proved timely. Since she came to Emory in 1987, the dance program has grown from one and a half positions to three tenure-track appointments (two of which are now held by tenured faculty), one full-time lecturer, three part-time instructors, two half-time musicians, and an administrative assistant. The program, part of the health, physical education, and dance department in Emory College, also launched a new major last fall.

The growth of the dance program is emblematic of the rise of the performing arts at Emory, but complex questions persist about the role of the arts in the university's intellectual life. As ground is broken this summer for the Donna and Marvin Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, to be prominently situated on the corner of North Decatur and Clifton roads, many arts faculty still wonder whether their contributions are valued as an essential and integral part of the academic program.

The $30 million, 98,000-square-foot center will include a 750-seat concert hall, ample rehearsal space, a director's lab, and a 150-seat dance performance studio. Associate Professor of Theater Leslie Taylor believes the facility will give the performing arts a more secure station in the academy. "Having a space designated for the arts says that Emory values the arts and will stand behind them," she says. "Without it, we have no face. Many faculty and students don't know there is a professional theater company here at Emory."

Such ambiguity reflects a deeper misunderstanding of the role of the arts, Taylor adds. "Academia--especially the humanities--is often set up to study things that have already been created. The people who are creating the art are somehow suspect. At Emory, at least, this contributes to the perception that maybe this is something students shouldn't be doing: they should study it, but they shouldn't be doing it."

This distinction between reflection and action points to another unstated assumption, Taylor says. "Sometimes theater is thought of as all play, not an academic pursuit that correlates with the sciences or social sciences." While some people assume theater is not intellectually rigorous, she insists, "it's no different in some ways than what a physicist might do in a laboratory. It's the same thing in terms of creative play. It has a lot of the same investigative qualities."

Parker Professor of Theology and Worship Don Saliers agrees that those common qualities serve a necessary function in the academy. "The intellectual life of the university can easily devolve into sheer cognitivity and rational productivity, particularly with the overload of data," says Saliers, whose remarks are part of a longer interview in this issue. "The arts touch that part of the human intellect deeper than rationality and cognitivity--where imaginative power suffuses knowing and feeling. People working in the neurosciences, for example, have to have a certain kind of imagination in their inquiry. Patterns of interpretation require the imaginative capacities in many disciplines."

Saliers notes, however, that this function of the arts is not universally recognized at Emory. "There has always been an appreciation of the arts here, particularly the musical arts, but I think a lot of people regard art as ornamentation: nice to have but not really at the center of intellectual life," he says. "And that, to me, is disturbing. It's a sign of parochialism about the life of the human mind."

One way to remedy that parochialism, he suggests, is to encourage a more reflective culture around the performing arts at Emory. "What I think has been missing is the critical discussion of these works of art and their performance in our midst," he says. "A university must be about preserving knowledge and culture--yes, but also reimagining the world, the cutting edges. This requires critical reflection on specific art forms, on the performance practices, if you will."

Dean of Emory College Steven Sanderson raises concerns about the elitism this critical approach might engender. "I don't reject the idea at all; I think there is real value in it," he says. "But I don't want the arts to become the domain only of people who are professionally sophisticated, which might intimidate other people out of thinking about art in their lives. I'd prefer to allow the popular appreciation of a variety of aesthetics. If we had a course in classical Indian music, for example, is it really necessary to have critical sophistication in the genre, or just to soak it up, to puzzle through to what drove that tradition to develop in a particular place, in a particular religious and cultural context?"

Provost Rebecca Chopp wonders whether casting the debate in terms of a performance/critique dichotomy is the best way to understand the place of the arts in the academy. "It assumes that the arts in themselves do not carry any kind of
constructive or critical function in society," she says. "I am not saying that all art is critique, but it is always part and parcel of a culture. We should both appreciate and understand the arts--and recognize that understanding always involves critical interpretation.

"But I do recognize how focused the modern academy has become on abstract methods of interpretation in everything from literature to philosophy to religion. I have had students who have read a poststructuralist on philosophy but have never read the philosophy itself. The either/or reveals more about how the academy and culture have viewed art rather than how it should be viewed."

Saliers adds that the ambiguous role of the arts in the university reflects their status in the larger culture. "With the travail of the arts and the enormous splintering that popular culture has undergone," he says, "we're struggling against this postmodernist milieu in which everything, including the arts, is commodified. This is here to stay.
"But even though we're up against these larger cultural forces well beyond our control, what we can create is at least an atmosphere of expectancy. Our everyday lives are diminished when we can't move in the world with ever-deepening humane capacities."
A.O.A.