As we approach Spring semester I wanted to take a moment and respond to “The Arts in Transition,” an article by Andrew Sondern that ran in the Nassau Weekly last term. I appreciate the lengths Andrew went to express his frustration with the state of the arts at Princeton, and take his frustration—and its public airing in the Nass—as a good sign. Yes, the visual arts are indeed in transition at Princeton, and only for the better. Unfortunately, many of Andrew’s frustrations are aimless and misinformed.
First, facts: I began my term as director of the Visual Arts Program in Fall of 2009 and introduced the first graphic design course the following year. I never overlapped with Andy Chen ’09, nor did P. Adams Sitney at that time, or ever, succumb to anything. I introduced the study of graphic design at Princeton because I think it is an essential part of contemporary visual culture and bedrock to the most disruptive examples of Modern art. Russian Constructivism, Dada, The Independent Group, Pop Art, Conceptualism, American Postmodernism and the Pictures Generation are all indebted to the principles of graphic design. Further, and more broadly, contemporary life is not possible without it. Just about anyone living in the developed world today engages graphic design on a daily basis, so I felt it was incumbent on the Visual Arts Program to increase, and even teach, that awareness at Princeton. In my view, the forms of visual thinking inherent to the arts are as intellectually essential as math, rhetoric, and code.
Second, pedagogy: I disagree with Andrew’s assessment of how and why graphic design is taught at Princeton. He is right to notice that course offerings have increased: I have expanded the area of study gradually to cover what the graphic design faculty and I think are its key aspects, in consort with my being able to free up FTE (Fractional Teaching Equivalent, the metric that dictates how many courses a department or program can offer) from other areas of study. Indeed, our graphic design courses have been a testing ground and a model for how a subject might be taught in an egalitarian (rather than hierarchical) fashion. Instead of the usual 200/300/400 academic progression, our graphic design courses move laterally, demonstrating that the field’s key aspects are equal and interrelated. Typography (the legible design of language); visual form (language in the form of images and shapes); and circulation (how language and images get shared with others) represent these tenets and are taught as separate courses at the 200-level. In Advanced graphic design, all three concepts—typography, visual form, and circulation—are integrated and informed by field research in a specific topic.
Skill, especially skill in computer programs, is fleeting. In all of the visual arts, learning how to reason integrally and think creatively is more valuable in the long run than acquiring in-depth technical know-how. To use graphic design as an example, if I had been teaching the subject since my first computer (in 1987) I would have taught at least six different techniques (MacPaint, MS Paint, PageMaker, Illustrator, Quark Express, and Indesign) at any given time in order to have been technically relevant. It’s worth noting that only half of those platforms still exist, and even those three in such radically upgraded forms that figuring out the current version from scratch is no less effective than having learned an earlier version in depth. Simply put, learning how to think critically for oneself and navigate evolving interfaces is far better than learning a particular technical moment in detail. That will be true for as long as there are programmers who think they have a better idea for how graphic design software should work— which is to say, forever. Therefore, learning how to think on your feet is what we emphasize in the Visual Arts Program.
Third: naivéte. As a group, Princeton students can be overly verklempt about pedigree, Andrew Sondern included, as when he expressed concern that the graphic design lecturers at Princeton had all either attended or taught at Yale. That is true, but the relevant fact is that the graphic designers teaching at Princeton are doing so because of their achievements in the field. Period. The reason I hired David Reinfurt is that he is one of the more innovate type designers working today; Alice Chung in that she is a top identity concept designer for such clients as the New Museum, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and the Princeton School of Architecture; and Danielle Aubert in that she is on the leading edge of graphic design as a form of entrepreneurship and sociological inquiry. I couldn’t care less where any of them went to school. As recent studies have shown, having matriculated from an elite university has a shelf life of about three to five years. After that, what you’ve accomplished in the real world is of far greater importance than where you went to school. This is also something we emphasize in the Visual Arts Program; in fact, it might be the most important thing we teach.
Last: camaraderie and optimism. For me, the best statement in Andrew’s article is when, in regard to the Arts Weekend that was organized last fall, he writes that “it seemed like the University tried to make ‘art happen’ with only a cursory understanding of the process by which it is made.” This, alas, is true, and I sometimes share his frustration with the way Princeton adores the arts so long as they don’t become too incomprehensible (Art & Archaeology Program 2), too inconvenient (all the way over there), or too in-your-face (The Surface). Nonetheless, my experience is that the Princeton administration is incredibly accommodating and supportive of anything that the visual arts students have desired: from installing half-ton concrete sculptures on the front lawn of the Lewis Center to sexual harassment tours in Frist, from performance artworks about racial injustice to the disruptive energy of The Surface.
Therein lies the crux of the visual arts at Princeton. Just about anything that has happened in my tenure has happened because a student or group of students wanted it to. And that’s the way it should be. As much as my fellow VIS professors and I want the visual arts to thrive on campus, there is nothing we can do beyond teaching excellent courses, planting seeds of desire and aspiration, and then getting out of the way. Ultimately, Princeton students are responsible for making the visual arts matter on campus, along with the immeasurable benefits that come with them. The arts are indeed in transition, and Princeton students are doing a great job of making it happen. However much I disagree with it, Andrew’s article is part of that process.