Peter Rose: Witness

William Penn Foundation Retreat, March 5, 1998

I must, first of all, be very clear about the position I represent here. Although I am a professor at the University of the Arts, and have played a significant role in that institution, and although I’ve been a curator and consultant in a variety of institutional contexts, I believe my most useful function here is to bring some sense of the individual artist’s perspective to bear on the issues we’ve been addressing. I want to be very clear about this: my comments are entirely my own and do not represent any particular constituency other than my own contradictory, rambunctious and unruly inner voices.

I want to comment on the distinction between institutional and individual agendas and to offer some gentle criticisms of the former; I want to discuss the nature of measurement, the notion of “vitality”; and the limits of institutional language; the fragility and morality of art; I want to offer some metaphors and impassioned theoretical reflections and then to offer specific constructive recommendations about the problems and possibilities for art and culture in Philadelphia.

Let’s start with what might appear to be a terribly 19th century idea. I want to resurrect the idea of “duty.” We don’t hear the term bandied about very much these days but I think it’s a perfectly useable term. The staff of every foundation has a responsibility to distribute its resources in an ethical and constructive manner. I would be very surprised if you did not often use terms like “should”, as in “what should we do?”, along with correlative terms like “needs to be done” and “ought to support”. All of these fall under the rubric of “duty”- taking the word in the sense of “obligatory tasks, conduct, service, or functions that arise from one’s position in life or in a group.” When one is in the position of allocating substantial funds one is obliged to speak the language of duty and this is necessary, inevitable, and laudable, but it is also limiting.

With some major, and, arguably, noble exceptions, artists do not operate out of duty. We operate out of desire. I might make an equation and say that the institutional agenda is to the artist’s motive as duty is to desire. They are equally dialectical and equally difficult to translate or convert into one another. The terms used in formulating institutional agendas are only with difficulty commensurate with the activities being supported. Let me give you an example.

Several years ago I was honored to have been nominated for a $35,000 Rockefeller Foundation Intercultural Fellowship. The stipulation was that one’s work had to address intercultural issues, that the intention “should” be to cross cultural boundaries, to give voice to the heretofore unvoiced, to provide an understanding of other ways of being. I honestly felt that my work didn’t easily fit into this rubric, but I respected the appraisal of the anonymous nominators, accepted the challenge and formulated a proposal. I’ve done a fair bit of work with invented languages, with deconstructions of intellectual and cultural paradigms, and with analyses of the forms of communication and so I proposed to invent a culture from scratch, and to investigate its language, its morés, its politics, even its body language from a sympathetic if critical perspective. I did so in the spirit of Swift, of Carroll, of Borges, of the Poirers, and of a brilliant man, whose name I’ve forgotten, who invented the civilization of Lhuros, which was on exhibit at the University Museum about twenty years ago. I called the Foundation to see if this was compatible with their intentions and I offered the following: Who, I said, was more underrepresented, more marginalized, more invisible than the fictive? From whom did we hear less than the imaginary? Was it not our obligation to bring them into being and to give them fair voice? Might this not be considered an act that crossed cultural boundaries?This sophism was offered with no little tongue in cheek, but I thought it a fair comment on precisely this issue of institutional agenda versus the pure creative act. Not only were they not amused, they were deeply not amused, and on the strength of their disapprobation I chose to decline to make an application.

My point is very simple. Whether we look at it from the perspective of the left, whereby artists are “cultural workers” enacting a progressive agenda geared towards social change; or whether we look at it from the right, whereby artists are the arch-conservators of that which has been deemed “the good”, artists are required to make sense of a dense matrix of responsibilities and obligations. The discourse about this is deafening and we can all hum the melodies in our sleep. Lost in the brouhaha, however, is any sense of what artists themselves take their agenda to be, of what art-making, as opposed to the Art World, is really about. Do artists have what one might call “an interior,” separate from the social matrix to which I’ve alluded? Is there anyting “intrinsically” valuable about the process of making art? Does the word “soul” have any relevance here? Art does not necessarily serve a social agenda, is not necessarily socially useful, and cannot necessarily be measured instrumentally. This leads us into a rumination on “vitality.”

I think we’ve got to acknowledge that artists, audiences, and institutions may have differing criteria for “vitality.” Institutions are social phenomena and a language is inevitably spoken in such settings that tends towards the instrumental- things have to be justified within a hierarchical system. One has to be able to explain one’s decisions and to appeal to a common set of values. This is difficult to do, so one resorts to easily commodifiable terms: audience profile, attendance figures, demographics, economic impact, social utility, etc. These can all be measured and can be applied to the project of justification and explanation. But they’ve got nothing to do with the term “vitality” as it is understood by artists. Let me give you an example.

A bit over a year ago I was inveigled by John Clauser to direct a residency at the Yellow Springs Institute to consider some of these very questions. We gathered a small group of artists from a variety of disciplines whose work seemed to be engaged with some of these issues and we asked them to do two things. We gave them space, time, and facilities to carry on with their own work. And we asked them to meditate on their process and to participate in conversations about some of these questions. These conversations, which were recorded, and which lasted hours at times, were stimulating, enlivening, empowering, and profoundly decent and came to be seen as the primary “work” of the residency. I think it fair to say that the two weeks we spent there were among the most wonderful experiences we had had as artists and that they served to establish the vocabulary and syntax for a heretofore somewhat invisible community of interest. Our association with each other has continued to the present and a number of authentic collaborations have resulted. None of this would have registered on any meter used to calibrate cultural vitality. The entire residency, which I have here applauded, was funded by the William Penn Foundation.

So, with all of this in mind, let us now consider the morality of art, its position in a larger calculus of ethical imperatives. I use the term “moral” expansively, preferring a European, rather than American, take on the term. How is making art, and by implication, supporting art, moral? How might it be seen, even, as necessary? I believe that there is a relationship between artists and their work than is a model for a kind of labor. I would like to think that inscribed within the work are not only the vestiges of various ideologies and economic forces, but that, at the very least, the work bears the imprint of a caring that has its locus in an idealist realm. I would like to think that this relation is rare and valuable, that the very act of making art, when seen in this way, has a moral dimension. My work and I inhabit the same space; we work on each other symmetrically. It is both an act of love and a battle; ultimately, we separate and the work enters the world of objects and leads its own life, becoming a phenomenon, one with which one sometimes experiences a nourishing identification and from which one sometimes stands back in complex amazement. It’s historical and social function is a given and is apparent to any who look for it. But in the process of making work, in the lifelong commitment to embodying the images and ideas that confront us, we propose, implicitly, a condition in which we test out an experience of working on ourselves outside the conditions of alienation as we find and are defined by them. If we can’t get it together, given our at least imagined inner freedom, who can? To quote Joseph Brodsky, the poet, in an essay on the subject of exile:

“..given an opportunity, in the great causal chain of things, we may as well stop being just its rattling effects and try to play at causes. The condition we call exile gives exactly that kind of opportunity.”

All right, let’s get practical. Issues and trends. Yesterday, while on a class trip to New York, where these kinds of questions are put into an interesting relief, I spoke with a young, highly respected, savvy photographer and asked him the same questions you’ve asked me. He said, “You know, I really can’t complain.This is a great town to work in as an artist.” There are some wonderful things happening in Philadelphia at this time: The Fringe Festival, the Phila. Festival of World Cinema, the American Music Theatre Festival, the Spoken Hand Society, the Avenue of the Arts, the redevelopment of the Schuylkill River waterfront, Mark Lord’s Last Monday venue, First Friday, the work being displayed at the prison, Jane Golden’s, Penny Bach’s and Marcia Moss’ public art projects, the work of the Foundation for Architecture, Lily Yeh’s work, .. I could go on. With these as backdrop I’d like to make the following observations and recommendations:

1. As institutions come under increasing financial pressure, they will tend to pull back from community-directed uses of their facilities and redirect them towards more internal objectives. The University of Pennsylvania, as I understand it, is going to be redeploying the Annenberg Center principally for academic functions, pulling back from the promotion and presentation of work by outsiders, and the University of the Arts will be assuming total control of the Arts Bank. I’m very worried about this. Where will we go to see innovative, off Broadway and off off Broadway performance work? Where will artists go to present work that is technically and aesthetically challenging? The Bride is a noble institution, but it has its limitations. I’d like to see something here on the order of the Milkweg, in Amsterdam, which is a very lively multi-purpose environment that includes a film theatre, a video screening space, an installation environment, a cafe, a disco, and a gallery. Let’s call this the alternative museum proposal.

2. There is nowhere to go once you’ve made your mark in Philadelphia. Nothing leads anywhere. There’s a William Penn’s hat-like ceiling set on achievement here and it resembles a kind of provincialism. We ought to find a way to broadcast the talents and energies of the artists here by setting up national presentation tours, by putting work on the radio and on the internet, by supporting respectable outlets for intelligent criticism. Part of what makes a scene vital and nourishing, for artists, is the presence of a community that understands and appreciates our work in a non-condescending way- I alluded to this when I disussed the residency at Yellow Springs- and I’d like to see that model taken further. Let’s call this the broadcast proposal.

3. Earned income will never supplant some kind of institutional support. The notion that most cultural institutions can become self-sufficient over a short period of time really doesn’t wash, so the question is how to broaden the base of support. One tactic might be to use the resources of the Foundation to help lobby City Council for an increase in the funding allocated to the Phila. Cultural Fund. Conservative institutions certainly don’t shrink from exerting political muscle in the service of their agendas. Why should you? I would also suggest that the Foundation use its influence to encourage the City to appoint capable people to the position of cultural commissar in the next administration. I’ve already named at least three people who could do the job quite magnificently. Let’s call these the advocacy proposals.

4. Finally, I think we can all agree that the audiences for current and future work are being educated in the schools now and that support for the arts there is woefully inadequate. Anything you can do to support enlightened arts education would be to the good.

I want to thank you for the opportunity to engage in what I hope has been illuminating rhetoric, at the least, and substantive suggestion, at the most, and invite you to use my comments in any way you see fit. Thank you.

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