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

Join the discussion

Taking Center Stage?
The role of the performing arts in Emory's intellectual life

"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

The Academic Exchange How do you think the culture of Emory values the arts?

Professor Don Saliers Let me first say something about my philosophy and then about Emory in particular. I do think the arts represent a necessary presence for a university, because the intellectual life of the university can so easily devolve into sheer cognitivity and rational productivity, particularly with the overload of data. The arts touch that part of the human intellect deeper than rationality and cognitivity--where imaginative power suffuses knowing and feeling. The arts are always dealing with that which is beyond reason--you might say above it and below it.

Now, I'm not making an invidious contrast between the life of the imagination and the life of the mind because I think the best research requires imagination. People working in the neurosciences, for example, have to have a certain kind of imagination in their inquiry. Patterns of interpretation require imaginative capacities in these disciplines. And the strong presence of the arts in the university can prompt and remind people in the so-called non-artistic research and writing life that imaginative capacity is required for the best research in any field.
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. And that, to me, is disturbing. It's a sign of parochialism about the life of the human mind. What I think has been missing is the critical discussion of these works of art and their performance in our midst. 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.

AE How do you think the new performing arts center will change things?

DS One thing I hope it will do is bring certain of the arts into more proximity, so that there will be new interdisciplinary artistic endeavors that haven't been possible. Glenn Memorial Auditorium is great for certain kinds of recitals and concerts, for instance, but it can't do some things that combine theater and music.
What I think we yet lack, to go back to my earlier point, is a kind of ethos of appreciative and critical discourse that makes the arts part of academic and critical discussion. For example, three years ago when we had the International Bach Society meeting here, I would love to have seen some preparation in relevant classes-in German, in sixteenth-century studies, in theology--building in an anticipatory kind of way so that students and faculty would come in at the next level of preparedness to really celebrate an event like that.

It isn't that we lack people who appreciate the arts. It's about making the arts much more central to our the assumptions about our work. A big factor here, I think, is that this university has been so accelerated in so many dimensions simultaneously that people just haven't thought about the centrality of the arts.

AE Why do we accelerate in all these other directions yet not that one?

DS Well, let's be realistic. Very rarely are there research funds for composition or avant-garde theater. In this sense, we are a mirror of the society. Think of the travail of the NEA. Except for a few patrons who are really interested, the money is going elsewhere. Research funders don't think of the role of the arts or the imagination in the discipline first. It's much more pragmatic and political. For example, there are all kinds of things that could be done between say the psychology, philosophy, or history departments and the arts, but they take time and effort beyond the standard topics.

AE How do we perceive artists at Emory?

DS I think a lot of people still have a romantic view of the artist as genius on the margins. That is an uncritical notion. While there are pockets in the university where the artist isn't thought of as lonely genius and gadfly, what we need are exemplifications of the centrality of the arts to the intellectual and cultural life
of society. The Carlos Museum, for example, is a great gift to us.