If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Yes, but it isn’t art. Contemporary art is not just about the artistic object itself — the poem, sculpture or dance performance — but about the dialectic between artist and viewer, writer and reader, musician and listeners, performers and audience members. Whether that dialectic engages or alienates the audience, it is a crucial component of both the artistic experience and of the work itself.
As Marcel Duchamp said in a 1959 interview, “A work of art exists only when the spectator has looked at it.”
Visibility matters. Art must be seen. Or heard. Or read. Or something else along those lines.
Indeed, the overhaul of the Cornell Council of the Arts aims to increase the visibility of Cornell’s profile in the international arts community by redirecting funds towards an annual, high-profile event and eliminating the small grants traditionally awarded to students, faculty, and staff. According to a report chaired by AAP Dean Kent Kleinman, the CCA's “limited resources would be leveraged to maximize visibility.”
Certainly, the annual “Grand Project” ideas envisioned by the CCA Committee would draw much attention from the international arts community. Bringing Martin Scorsese to campus or planning a series of artistic events around a Boeing 787 tends to have that effect. But, when the international art world’s gaze is directed towards Cornell, what would they see? Martin Scorcese. A Boeing 787. Not the independently-initiated work of Cornellians themselves.
Cornellians should applaud the committee’s efforts to reduce administrative overhead, create a more efficient budget, and to increase the visibility of Cornell’s arts community. But, while the CCA is right to stress the importance of visibility, their gaze is misdirected. Rather than relying on celebrities and directing funds towards a high-profile event, the CCA should increase the visibility of student and faculty artists as well as campus arts organizations and clubs.
If the CCA funds an annual event, it should celebrate the works of actual Cornellians. Just as Duchamp drew attention to ordinary objects — bicycle wheels, urinals — and re-contextualized them as art objects, we need to turn our attention towards what we have so far overlooked. The short stories written in creative writing classes; the poetry chalked on sidewalks and treaded by thousands of feet daily; the theatrical performances at the Schwarz Center; and the comedy sketches at Risley. A Cornell professor putting the finishing touches on a piece of fiction. The smell of turpentine and oil paint seeping out the windows at Tjaden as students finish their theses. The buzzing of Rand’s workshop. Movies screened in Cornell Cinema. Exhibitions at the Johnson Museum. A cappella sung under arches and the solemn notes of a violin piercing the night air from an open dorm window.
The work of these individuals and campus organizations deserve our attention and that of the greater arts community. It is their ideas, their initiative and their creativity that should command our focus. However, if the CCA eliminates small grants, will there be enough to show? Currently, the CCA devotes 37 percent of its budget to these small grants. Over the past two years, the CCA has awarded an average of 52 grants, including 13 to students or student organizations, and the majority of the other grants to faculty and staff.
After the CCA report was released several weeks ago, Provost Fuchs acknowledged the concern over the elimination of the small grant program, expressing optimism that individual colleges and departments would continue funding the small grants. However, considering the current economic climate, is it really realistic to expect individual colleges and departments to pick up the slack and continue funding the small grants after they stop receiving funds from the provost’s office two years from now? In the past year alone, many arts organizations and departments — including the Theatre, Film and Dance department as well as Cornell Cinema — have faced funding cuts and had to adjust and restructure their programs accordingly. Who knows how many works by fellow Cornellians have also gotten cut?
“Until [a spectator looks at a work], it is only something that has been done that might disappear and no one would know about it,” said Duchamp. “...We probably have lost works by many, many other artists ... that are as beautiful, or even more beautiful [than the works consecrated in museums].”