As a faculty member and Chair of the Art Department, I have the extraordinary privilege to be able to think about art almost all the time. As artists who teach, we often get lost in the responsibilities of our teaching and other aspects of our university life over less pressing, but equally important questions. However, what if, for the moment, we allow ourselves to think about the possibilities of art? What if, for today, we think about art as a kind of agreement or social contract in which we agree to allow ourselves to be touched, to have our hearts opened to the gracious gifts of the creative spirit? What if art was a gift, an offering of hope, of love and of transcendence?
What does it mean to be Utopian; to be idealistic? To believe that art and art practice does not simply add value to life, but actually has the potential to alter the human landscape; to make humanness a sustainable, creative endeavor? It seems an overwhelming question. To be such a utopic idealist ;may mean that one’s expectations are often undermined by the realities of contemporary life and that, at times, the desire for transcendent creative experiences may be met with less than transcendent outcomes. It may mean exquisite failure. However it also means that at times, when the numerous possibilities for failure are overcome in some mysterious way, transcendence does indeed occur; the spectator is moved beyond words and the alchemy of creativity produces a momentary portal through which pours a kind of divine connectedness. I think these moments actually occur more than we imagine but they are contingent on our ability to be present and mindful.
I was thinking about such things recently while teaching. The hour that I spent with my students is such a gift; to be in a room where we are all singularly focused on the creative ambition of artists throughout history is perhaps the best part of the day and I am reminded again about the possibilities of art. One of the recognizable traits of art in our contemporary era is the idea of Borderless Practices. That is to say, that we see in contemporary art, a tendency in which previously discrete disciplines overlap and merge into new multi-disciplinary modes of expression. We see painters painting on things rather than painting an image of things; we see sculptors using real live bodies to create spatial relationships and patterns in real time; we see dancers and choreographers collaborating with visual artists to create huge visual spectacles; we see visual artists turning to film to create expressions of rhythm, pattern, and optical illusion. We see artists using visual means to illustrate psychological states and the dream-like subconscious, and we see artists creating systems of language and sound scores that echo the cacophony of everyday life.
Art is rhizomatic. That is a statement I have often made to my students. I encourage them to think about the systems of art as radiating outward from each point of tangency and overlap. As in a rhizome, knowledge, about art or other things, radiates out from each point of understanding; knowledge-making is a scaffolded process. One thing stacks on top of another to make meaning, but each stage of the scaffold must be stable enough to support the weight of history, culture, memory, and the tensions of differing ideas about what art is. It is clear that the intermingling of disciplines in the 21st century has inexorably altered both the conditions of and understanding of art. We are lucky to be a part of an Art Department that embraces such diversity and encourages you, the students, to take risks with your creativity and to think about the possibilities of a life where such things matter.
*This is republished from an essay due to today’s observance of Rosh Hashanah.
Chair, UW-Madison Art Department