As spring began this past weekend I was burning off a part of my garden and, in a momentary lapse of focus, the flame from my asparagus patch bit me and quickly regained my attention. The scent of my own burnt hair stayed with me all day, reminding me how important it is to be in the particular moment I am meant to be in and to stay focused in that moment. It seems increasingly difficult to be of singular focus given the significant and constant options for a wandering mind.
I have noted that I seem to be quoting the following with regularity lately: Think globally, Act locally. I say this often when describing various methodologies for thinking about art or for engaging with an “art world” or its histories and practices.
I find that I lean on the same idea as my son begins to think about the world and his part in it; what he will do in the future, what he can do in the present, and how to negotiate the space in-between. He has grown up in an extraordinary span of time, with large swings of political realities, social upheaval, and changes in the way that we think about culture in general. The world, in its expansiveness, its scope, and its breadth of possibility, can be simply paralyzing. Often I look to literature to get myself unstuck.
One of the most insightful writers of my generation is Rebecca Solnit, whose essays and longer prose pieces cover an exhilarating range of topics. I first encountered her writing on art but have been entranced by her pieces on culture, technology, and the politics of our era as well. In a recent piece called Whose Story (and Country) Is This? On The Myth of a “Real” America, Solnit addresses the idea of “the bubble” and what it means (or does not mean) to live in one. Bubbles are, in Solnit’s essay, partially a construction of choice, partially of circumstance, and partially about controlling a particular narrative around which groups of like-minded individuals might convene.
Solnit’s essay made me think about my own particular bubble, and I began to ruminate on the idea of intentional communities, in their most progressive application. Intentional communities, by their very nature, include a high degree of thoughtful consideration. Amongst whom do I want to live? In what manner do I wish to interact with my neighbors and who do I want those neighbors to be? Solnit addresses the more disturbing outcomes of such bubbles that come from the kind of purposeful and often misguided clannishness that we find in our country, but I was moved to think about what my own experience has been lately in my bubble inside of academia and in particular within a university art department in a major research institution. (I am acutely aware of the privilege of that statement, by the way).
As we move from teaching and mentoring to the responsibilities that come with institutional governance and varying levels of administration, we also have the privilege of witnessing the outcomes of our students’ immersion in our shared creative community, our bubble, if you will.
An academic year has a very distinct rhythm, and as we near the end of each year we are privileged to see our students creative output in an escalating array of exhibitions by both undergraduate and graduate students. Solnit’s essay focuses on the way in which bubbles become ossified and tend to be built around ideas that have seen their day (generally a day in the past) sometimes becoming recalcitrant and angry. My bubble is a University Art Department in Madison, Wisconsin. How different is that from any other intentional community? It is imperfect of course, as are all intentional communities, however our community is refreshed each year as new students force us to remain flexible and nimble while they push back at the institution to remake it in their own vision.
The outcome of this creative and constantly evolving community can be measured in the work of the students. I have attended more openings that I can count this year, and I am constantly astonished by what is produced from in the crucible of this particular bubble. Our undergraduates dig in to develop technical and skillful applications of nascent ideas and by the time we see the work of our graduate students at the MFA level, we are challenged and moved by the depth of both their vision and its execution. While Solnit’s essay dwells perhaps in the dystopic tendencies of “the bubble,” our bubble feels quite the opposite; it feels aspirational and responsive.
Chair, UW-Madison Art Department