Microutopias and Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century

In January 2011, I was asked to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. This invitation was a bit unnerving, since art school deans are not usually invited to this very high-powered, often-protested forum of corporate leaders, heads of state, and deans of business and economics schools. It came as a result of sessions I had worked to organize with others for the World Leadership Fellows at Columbia University in 2010 and then again in 2011. Sixty young, talented individuals from all over the world, who were being groomed for leadership by the Forum, came to Columbia University to engage in theater and voice training for a week. We called the workshops “Taking the Stage.” The participants also attended lectures by artists, curators, and art historians, and engaged in conversations about art, art-making, and the place of art in transforming society. These week-long sessions represented the first time the Forum took art seriously enough to consider it core to the education of their fellows and did not marginalise it with other such practices as “soft skills”—a term used in professional business contexts to describe all experience and information related to “emotions.”

At Davos, I was in public conversations about leadership and creativity with the deans of the London School of Economics, Harvard Business School, INSEAD, and the Skolkovo Management School in Moscow, all led by the CEO of Ernst & Young. I learned that these business leaders wanted to discuss the homogenization of difference in their own institutions or, as one dean bravely put it: “All the students we accept are interesting when we admit them, but by the time they leave us they appear all the same and they want the same job.” These institutions know that something is missing in how they think about educating their students. Perhaps the practices of art schools might have something to teach them.

How do art-making environments secure the sustained originality of their students? How do they think about process and the creation of new bodies of knowledge? To attempt to address these questions and their implications for society, I begin with some of the originary and unspoken premises that are at the foundation of schools of art. These presuppositions might not match those of other institutions, or those of my colleagues, but they represent how I personally think about Columbia University’s School of the Arts. They also offer a useful place to begin.

Nine Assumptions About Educating Artists

  1. The admissions process is designed to locate the most unique, committed, and talented students. Then we accept their uniqueness. In fact, we demand it, and we foster their desire to develop this uniqueness as essential to producing interesting work.
  2. Because art making can function as a particular form of problem solving that attempts to resolve, or comment on, the relationship between the individual and society, we encourage our students to cultivate their subjectivity in relation to the collective, the art-historical context, and history.
  3. We respect the insights of youth. We understand that the most startling ideas might emerge from the youngest artists. In this assumption we are like the sciences.
  4. Unlike the sciences, however, we do not ask that this newly generated knowledge be “proven.” We accept the work that artists produce as art and move on from there to discuss the work’s coherence and effectiveness. While the ability to replicate results is an essential element of scientific verifiability, we know that the best art cannot be replicated.
  5. We encourage risk taking and promote the value of shaking up what might be considered “safe.”
  6. We respect innovation—which could be understood as applied creativity—and the expansive exploration of form.
  7. We encourage the mixing, blending, reconfiguring, and intertwining of forms. We believe that such hybridity creates new knowledge.
  8. We know that such experimental practices sometimes lead to failure. We understand that anxiety often results from failure, but we know that a refusal to conform to established rules is one of the keys to innovation. Samuel Beckett wrote: “Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.” Indeed, we encourage risk taking that could lead to failure and are often more interested in an ambitious failure than in more modest success.
  9. We encourage ambiguity and understand that there is no one clear interpretation of most artwork. If the work is rich, there will be a multiplicity of meanings embedded in the juxtapositions that determine its effect. This commitment to an open-endedness of interpretations is vital to creative thought.

Out of these assumptions evolves a process of working that approaches the acquisition of knowledge in unexpected ways. It assumes that the entry point for knowledge is not the mind alone, but also the senses. Those with the most cultivated philosophical minds are not necessarily the most able to access the work, create the best metaphors, or perform the most engaging actions. It is often those who use their minds in conjunction with their senses and intuitions who achieve the greatest success.

In these pedagogical environments, we do not necessarily talk about creativity, in part because, like air, it is behind, underneath, and in front of everything we do. Yet we revere it.

Creativity and Process

What constitutes creativity? Why is it so highly prized, romanticized, and even feared? Creativity relies on the cultivation of the individual’s imaginative resources, even when groups, collectives, or collaborators are involved. It also depends completely on the courage of each person to live in the hardto-articulate space of flow, or the zone, where multiple consciousnesses—often hidden and unknown to the conscious mind—are manifested and given shape. What emerges often surprises even the artist, or artists, that imagined the work into being.

How can that be? How can artists at times be so uncertain about the work’s direction and writers so unclear about where the story will go and yet also able to complete the work? Such practitioners allow themselves to be led by parts of themselves that might be unknown to their conscious minds. D.H. Lawrence wrote, “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.”1 Artists simply don’t always know what a work is about, nor do they always want to make its meaning easily visible to their audiences. The process of creating the work is therefore fundamentally irrational. Theosophists might say such work emanates from the subtle body; Buddhists might call it the primordial in contradistinction to the acquired; Freudians might refer to it as the unconscious; Jungians might name it the collective unconscious or the active imagination; and formalists might insist the meaning or the utility of the work emerges from the form itself—the colors, shapes, textures, and juxtaposition of materials that combine to create images that generate meaning.

It is often only in the editing process that the “sense” of the piece, its inherent order, makes itself known to the artist and then recognizable to the viewer/receiver of the work. But sometimes the meaning of the work eludes the artist completely.

This interrogative process can generate anxiety for the artist until the nature of the investigation has been revealed. Living with such uncertainty of resolution is part of the experimental nature of the process—the “unknowingness” inherent in the work that artists do. Art schools are the places that recognize the value of a process whose inherent nature is constant flux. This process is essential, yet it often remains hidden in the “finished” work. This aspect of artists’ work could be understood as research—not just the preparation for the actual making of the work but, rather, the entire endeavour, which allows for the open-endedness needed to complete the work and the constant evolution of knowledge that results. It creates space for the use of intuition.

Although art making, like scientific inquiry, is based on discovery, unlike science, artists’ research and the findings that result are often understood as “subjective.” Therefore they are usually not as valued or supported. What is valued—literally, given value—is the art object that is usually tangible and can function within systems of exchange.

While process—the giving oneself over to the possibility of developing new knowledge—has typically been less well understood than the completed work, process has recently become more visible as contemporary artists increasingly insist on involving their audiences more directly in the making of the work. This type of art making is related to the notion of public space and how to create it. Can artists work with communities outside those they normally address? What is needed to achieve success when working beyond the traditional ecosystems of the art world?

Through writers like Jacques Rancière, Nicolas Bourriaud, and others, artists increasingly understand that, ultimately, the artwork is completed by the spectator. Many artists now talk about incorporating such an anticipated audience response directly into the work. The concept of process has therefore moved to the foreground, gaining a more visible profile as artists increasingly consider the potential impact of their work on multiple audiences. Such considerations are made more complex by a public sphere that changes daily.

The media floods us with images and an overabundance of information, and effects an unprecedented conflation of public and private, as well as a confusion of past, present, and future. Artists, many of whom are very attuned to the wiliness of the media—its use of visual representations and how it achieves its results—are often less susceptible to the seductions of the spectacle that overwhelms twenty-first-century society. As a result, they often know how to interpret and critique what is happening in the public arena and how to use it to achieve desired effects.

In response to the current complex state of the public sphere, artists are attempting to create public space where people can interact in very intimate ways. These efforts have taken the form of community gardens, green roofs, bicycle repair shops, and innumerable other neighborhood-based initiatives, as well as interactive public sculptures, mass actions, and their equivalents in the virtual world.


Institutional structures that are concerned with educating the next generation of artists, thinkers, and researchers need to recognize the idealistic nature of these types of contemporary practice. Such projects function as micro-utopian environments that might only last for a short time, but that are nonetheless essential to the development of consciousness and to how we envision our future societies. They have the ability to make individual and collective desires visible and understood. And they use enormous imaginative capacity to bring people together.

Art and the practice of art making can create an “interpretation of that which is—in terms of that which-is-not,” as Jean-Jacques Rousseau might say.2 They bring into society that which they fear does not exist. As Ernst Bloch said to Theodor W. Adorno, “The essential function of Utopia is a critique of what is present.”3 No matter what the content, the fact that such ideas could be imagined and given coordinates—a latitude and longitude externalized by the imagination—means that the particularity of individual seeing has been brought into the public sphere. Believing that a unique interpretation of the world can occur through externalizing an interior vision is a utopian prospect. This desire to give form to what Ernst Bloch might call “the not-yet-conscious” reveals a key imperative of utopian thought, to always “anticipate” and “illuminate”4 what might become possible within a societal situation.

Utopia always implies a change in the communal way of organising and understanding the world. It is never just a re-presentation of a personal desire. Art allows for an individual vision to become communal by giving it narrative, shape, color, texture, complexity, sound, movement, or whatever other elements are needed to translate its intention to others. Such a belief assumes the utility of art making to demonstrate that the material world begins in ideas, in the incorporeal.

This notion of dreaming the world into being is an ontogenic, archaic, wishfulfilling practice, and it is also a revolutionary one. The desire to present an individual transformation of the material world that also posits a collective vision of reality, while standing in juxtaposition to the dominant collective will, is an undisputedly naïve, utopian practice, but it is also one that must be promoted and supported more strongly if the species is to survive.

As others today look to environments predicated on such consciousness, there is recognition that those traditional models that isolate forms, reify categories, and focus solely on product while ignoring process inhibit the natural evolution of thought and do not allow the world to be constantly reimagined. This is why art-making environments that insist on a cross disciplinary approach and hybridity to solve problems are unique and especially significant for this moment in history.

Whether corporate environments can ever truly embrace a pedagogical model that is so fundamentally non-utilitarian and essentially critical of the existing structures is yet to be determined. Perhaps this is why creativity is often feared. At its best, it shakes up the existent social order and implies the possibility of another. Still, as the shortcomings of global capitalism continue to engender great uncertainty, it is not surprising that those most attuned to its failures, and committed to educating the leaders who will inherit them, would seek out different forms of interrogation and models of practice that might foster profoundly creative problem-solving. It would seem there is no other choice.

  1. D. H. Lawrence, “Studies,” in Classic American Literature (London: Penguin, 1923), 8.
  2. Alain Martineau, Herbert Marcuse’s Utopia (Montreal: Harvest House, 1968), 35.
  3. Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), 12.
  4. Ibid., 17–29.