Dean Carol Becker Talks to 'Flash Art' About the Visual Arts Program

August 5, 2014

Excerpted from Flash Art, written by Carol Becker, Dean of Faculty at Columbia University School of the Arts
Most schools of art in the US invariably reflect the collective influence and history of a diverse and layered faculty. There is no one voice determining their direction. The Visual Arts Program of Columbia University School of the Arts is no exception. It is an amalgam of unique points of view embodied in a brilliant full-time faculty with varied expertise and orientations. Adding to this full-time roster are a strong adjunct faculty and a mentor program that brings additional artists into the mix to spend concentrated time, sharing their process and projects with students. Other extraordinary artists living in or visiting New York City also are invited to participate in studio visits and critiques. And, of course, the program’s orientation is constantly recalibrated by new ideas brought to us by talented students from around the world.

In my writing, I have posited certain elements that should be in place for a school of art to function well in relationship to its students. These are not necessarily theories about how to educate artists as much as observations about what is needed to map a creative environment for the twenty-first century, which, ultimately, is what we do.

I think most faculty would agree that art schools need to establish what psychoanalytic theorist D.W. Winnicott calls a “holding environment” — a safe place where students can move between the conscious, the unconscious, dreams, the material world and play. Negotiating such states hinges on risk taking, and, because there is no risk without the possibility of failure, such an environment also has to embrace failure as part of the process of discovery. Some corporations like to reference the importance of risk and failure to a culture of innovation, but, in truth, most don’t actually want or expect anyone to fail. An art making program, however, has to give its students permission to leap, no matter the consequences.

This is the spirit of place so essential to the production of interesting work. Such an environment also should be truly interdisciplinary. Columbia’s Visual Arts Program is intrinsically that. This is not to say that all students need to work across disciplines. But artists should have the experience of such fluidity, to observe how others construct and conceptualize the range of possibilities available to them. Even if they ultimately return to their initial form, their approach will be different.

Art gives materiality to ideas. To enter into the contemporary world, students increasingly must be conversant in the ideas that are being discussed. They need a strong theoretical foundation to give them confidence to engage the thinkers of their time who inadvertently inspire their work. We have seminars that provide such a foundation and we also are part of a first-rate University where students can study with experts in many fields. Most art schools understand that this symbiosis between thinking and making requires balance. If the equilibrium is unsettled, tipping too self-consciously to the theoretical, it can be immobilizing.

In the end, a truly creative educational environment is dependent on a working faculty challenging themselves in all these same ways. We, too, must be willing to engage this moment of history with intelligence and passion, not focused exclusively on what other art schools are doing or on what the art world is doing, but rather on what the world is doing — what issues need to be understood and acted upon. Such engagement guarantees that a school, by reimagining itself constantly, will continue to be relevant to its students, global society and the evolution of thought.