Carol Becker has been Dean of Columbia University School of the Arts since 2007. Before this she was Dean of Faculty and Senior Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Prior to that appointment she served as the Chair of the Graduate Division at SAIC and as its Associate Dean of Faculty.
Becker joined the School of the Art Institute of Chicago nearly three decades ago as an English and Philosophy professor. Up to that point she had taught at the University of California, San Diego; San Diego State University; Northeastern Illinois University; and the Ionian University in Corfu, Greece. She earned her B.A. from State University of New York at Buffalo and her Ph.D. in English and American literature from the University of California, San Diego.
She is the author of The Invisible Drama: Women and the Anxiety of Change; and Zones of Contention: Essays on Art, Institutions, Gender and Anxiety. She is also the editor of Surpassing the Spectacle: Global Transformations and the Changing Politics of Art; and Artist in Society: Rights, Roles, and Responsibilities. Her most recent collection of essays is Thinking in Place: Art, Action, and Cultural Production.
I first became acquainted with Carol Becker at the time of the publication of Surpassing the Spectacle. That was ten years ago. With that book, through words, images, emotions and impressions, she connected artists to history and to the world at a time when most of us were still unaware of what she called (in the subtitle of that book)Global Transformations and the Changing Politics of Art. Since then, many equally revelatory moments have followed when Becker communicated the world to us. She’s a mediator–connecting the creative world to the material one and vice versa–while challenging both.
Carol Becker is a sage; she is nurturing and unusually attentive to all aspects of life and the world. She has a sharp sense of humor. And, in the middle of a conversation, I always await expectantly for her to pull out her Lilliputian notebook from her handbag to record what is being said–something important to her that may appear in an essay to come.
It is an absolute privilege to present to you Carol Becker, Inside the Artist’s Studio.
Georgia Kotretsos: You’ve given many years to building schools of art–first at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and now at Columbia University in New York. What has motivated you to do this?
Carol Becker: My education was focused on the study of literature–all my degrees are in English and American Literature, so people often wonder how I even ended up in art schools.
After I got my PhD in California, I moved to Chicago to be a journalist. But after a year of that, I realized journalism was not where my heart was. I am a writer but also an intellectual and I tend to be philosophical. I need time to think and process ideas. Most journalism doesn’t allow for this. You have to be quick and you have to keep up the pace each day. It just wasn’t for me. But it got me to Chicago and that was a great thing. Through various connections, I began teaching part-time at several universities but the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was the place I came to love the most. I found a wonderful home there and over many years became Dean of Faculty and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs.
I enjoyed the openness of the art school environment, the sense of experimentation. It was so different from Humanities at the university where the acquisition of past knowledge is so prized. Art School was more like the atmosphere I imagine in the sciences. It was about creating new bodies of knowledge and also about crossing disciplines when needed to actualize ideas. This innovative environment helped me to understand myself as a writer, not just as an intellectual or critic. It was here too that process became very important to me.
So I became committed to this type of imaginative learning situation and to the pedagogy it encouraged. I spent many years at the School of the Art Institute and learned a great deal. I think I helped build an amazing institution. By the time I left for Columbia, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was in great shape and I was ready for a new challenge.
During my years in Chicago I wanted to help develop a more intellectual environment—an art school involved in production of course, but also involved in the thinking about art and its contextualization–its relationship to society. Coming to Columbia I wanted to enter that historically very intellectual world and help to make the university value the production of art and culture, not just the analyses of these entities. So in each instance I was able to add something to the mix.
GK: What would your ideal school for artists be like today?
CB: I’d like to be part of an institution that didn’t have to spend so much time worrying about facilities, money, and space. This wears us all down and keeps us from focusing on the big questions about what is the place of art and artists in 21st Century global society. What are we doing and why are we doing it? I’d also like to be part of a school of art that is truly global in its orientation. Columbia becomes more and more global all the time, but I’d like to see even more openness to learning about the role art has played in multiple societies and how this might allow us to rethink the production of art in a U.S. context. This type of give and take would really make for an extraordinary school. I also think art schools now need to work closely with design, science, and engineering. These disciplines need to come together. I’d be happy at a school that had minimum resources if it had this level of idea give and take.
GK: As a writer, you’ve written about the position of women in leadership. Has your understanding or the world’s view of this complexity changed?
CB: Although the aggression against women is usually now less overt, the rejection of women in roles or leadership continues. And unfortunately, it’s not just men who reject women in these roles. It’s also certain other women. They don’t even realize they are doing it. They just can’t accept leadership from women and always find excuses for their rejection of them in these roles. But eventually this deep unconscious prejudice will dissolve. I like to talk to young women about what they will encounter when they assume certain roles since the discourse about these issues is now so out of fashion, yet the problems remain. They/we need to be honest about how slow society has been to transform these prejudices. This is also very true about race. More women now are in positions of leadership and eventually, these old prejudices will disappear—but it will take more time than anyone in the early days of the Women’s Movement ever imagined.
GK: Thinking about the creative process, I’d like to ask you what are your thoughts on failure? What role does it play in art making?
CB: Art schools encourage risk. This is essential to a creative environment. But risk often leads to failure. Sometimes a painting or a theater piece works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes there are epic failures of great interest to all, but still the work is flawed. There are even Rembrandt paintings that great contemporary artists note could use an adjustment here or there. But the overall effect is still magnificent and this is what counts. There has to be room to try things and to know that something might come of the trial and yet, there might need to be many new iterations before the work is perfected enough that no one stops to question its validity. Of course we know that in art so much that we have come to value was once considered a failure—the work of Van Gogh, Beckett, James Joyce to name a few. We are often not ready for the new, for what we haven’t seen before, read before, heard before, and we react by rejecting it. This all represents failure on the part of the collective audience to see the new. Over time the work is accepted, lauded, appreciated even, but artists suffer in the interim. Art schools are places that embrace this type of daring, yet even they at times, reject what is either out of fashion or not yet in fashion.
GK: I’ve always embraced failure–but looking around me lately in Greece, I’ve become frightened by its contagious defeating symptoms. If failure is taken for granted in people’s consciousness, what then? Isn’t the demoralization of this society too high of a price to pay? You’ve spent a lot of time in Greece and you know it well. Where do artists fit in all this? Is there anything we can learn from practices in other parts of the world that you’ve seen?
CB: I think at times like this, artists must demonstrate what it means to be fearless. For Greece to survive all this, so much will have to transform in the society but also in the attitude about the society. Greeks themselves need to be encouraged. They must regain pride again in their own society that has been so unfairly diminished in the media and in practices that have weakened it so desperately. Artists can help to bring this conversation forward. In the 1930’s in the U.S., for example, artists represented workers’ struggles to survive and to build a new society. Mirroring back the efforts of regular people in multiple forms had a very powerful immediate effect as well as an historical one.
The most creative and courageous people need to step forward beyond their own fear and anxiety and embrace the complexity of the situation and show that out of this morass can come something extraordinary. One need not look to the past but to the future to accept new forms. I know this is easy to say, but no one person or group can save Greece at this time. It is going to take a transformation of consciousness and an embrace of society by all its members for this to work. I would say Detroit in the U.S. is a place to look. What are artists doing there to help rebuild a shattered economy? What gestures help rejuvenate the fallen spirits of people? How can artists, musicians, writers, actors, playwrights, filmmakers help? What historical models of the role of artists at times of crisis might be useful to artists in Greece? It’s a very difficult time but Greece’s most creative people have a chance to lead the way out of this defeat. First there has to be a sense that the future is possible. I know this feels impossible right now. But artists can help, must help to bring new forms into the society and to take risks. When everyone else has become fearful or angry, they need to find a way to transform these states of consciousness.
GK: What are you thinking and writing about now?
CB: I am writing several things but most apropos to the above conversation would be the writing I’ve been doing about utopian and micro-utopian thinking. I am very interested in public conversations that engage difficult questions and how these conversations generate new ideas. I did an interview with artist Krzysztof Wodiczko [featured in the Season 3 episode “Power” of Art in the Twenty-First Century] that just appeared in the June/July, 2012, “Art in America” issue about art and activism. There he talks about one of his new projects—the “Abolition of War: Arc de Triomphe.” This project idea reflects his desire to encircle the Arc de Triomphe with a museum about the history of war that will transform this monument to the Napoleonic Wars into a tribute to the end of war. I understand this as a micro-utopian project in its attempt to shift consciousness through the gesture of bringing back the conversation about the end of war and the need for the species to evolve beyond war.
I think the Occupy Movement in the U.S. is also a great model of micro-utopian thinking. It does not attempt to transform the organization of society but to create ephemeral moments and actions that demonstrate the ability of society to reconfigure in new ways. These actions needn’t last forever to be effective. Just the fact of their existence affects consciousness and the possibility of humans to rethink their relationship to each other and to the State.
It’s not a failure when such movements devolve; I would say rather it is a triumph that they exist at all. Once ideas come into society they cannot be permanently erased and their existence, if only brief, still gives hope. Artists understand this, which is why they can be so essential at such times.
And, that’s a wrap!