Some reflections on the Role of Critical Theory in Arts Schools’ Liberal Arts Programs

by Adam Berg, Faculty L.A.S.

I would like to offer some thoughts following my presentation of “Equivocating Aura: On Benjamin’s Essay on Mechanical Reproduction”, at the International Conference of Critical Theory, “Nostalgia for the Future”, at John Cabot University, Rome in April 2007. *

There were four key sessions in the conference, which were dedicated primarily to the early Frankfurt School’s works of Benjamin and Adorno and some later interpretations of their thinking. However before relating more specifically to the ideas connected to these sessions I would like to outline few reflections on the general on role of critical thinking within our liberal arts education context, specifically at Otis.

Too often the notion of Critical Theory is conflated with that of Critical Thinking. Specifically in art colleges it results in assuming a “formal” and not “substantive” weight to Critical Theory. As such, the works of critical philosophers such as Benjamin and Adorno, and later post-structural thinkers, are assumed to provide a critical dimension to the students’ cultural and creative education. As is, such assumption is not false, but is often problematic and misleading in assuming that “something” about these theories contains an answer or a solution to students’ needs. Historically, the academic situation was quite the opposite. For example, Marcuse, who played a key role in the 60s in the US, was not a stable protein in the students’ academic diet but rather quite to the contrary. Marcuse and the students’ movement converged into a political plane precisely because Marcuse’s work and ideas inspired students. In Europe, say in France and Germany, the same can be said about Foucault’s and Adorno’s respective roles in inspiring students to take an involved and critical stance in society.

Art Schools and the academia in general, tend to be rather conservative about critical engagement and seem to view students’ critical engagement in the institutional life as at least marginally agitating if not problematic. This pathology has transformed the teaching of critical thinkers into contained (perhaps tamed) prescriptions for good and sophisticated art making. Such institutional strategy, which is surely in part unconscious, works the magic of simultaneously legitimizing critical thinking and deflating it. Critical theories, now in their “artsy” rendition, are thus construed as a good ingredient for generating sophisticated art and not as a critical tool.

My contention is thus twofold:

  1. That academic institution should see, in their own benefit – material and social alike, students’ social-critical engagement as an invigorating source for education which is by market’s forces marginalized and relegated to service economic needs. Instead, academic institutions may find it beneficial to introduce to the market place, on their terms, a dynamic and critical force, that may or may not shape the aesthetic and political role of culture. This possibility, at least to an extent, is present at the moment in Otis with the introduction of Integrated Learning and communal projects. Nonetheless, the rigor with which such practices are based on is often lacking; neglecting the more challenging task of the intellectual component as critical to critical thinking and engagement.
  2. Equally, we, as educators and students alike, must be aware of wrongly or over-prescribing remedies in the form of critical theories as substantive themes. There is no gain in obscuring the verbal and textual communication in art schools and turning it into an esoteric code, or jargon. Accordingly, an effective way to approach the teaching of Critical Theory would be to carefully integrate it into the pedagogical fabric (both curriculum and colloquiums and other campus and off campus activity) by emphasizing its historical and critical vantagepoints. The historical vantagepoints would introduce students to the cultural heritage of being critically engaged, whereas the critical would be a more dynamic practice of finding ways to merge with the “outside” world not simply relate to it as a destination for marketing. (The latter, as mentioned, had been already pursued at Otis).

Last, I would like to briefly mention some of conference’s ideas, which may serve as potential insight into furthering the role of Critical Theory within the academia.

  1. The first session dealt with the political dimension of primarily the work of Adorno and Marcuse. The notions of cultural production (“Culture Industry”, Adorno’s term) and normativity play an equal role in the commodification of cultural output and its reduction to sheer consumption. Adorno suggested, Brian O’Connor expounded on the topic, that it is art’s (and artists’) pursuit for autonomy that immunizes culture to its economic or political objectification. However, since the demarcation of such autonomy is in constant flux one has to adapt the notion that our thinking – private and institutional – should be based on a “negative dialectics”: on an on-going mapping of the critical role of action in relation to artistic production and civic spaces.
  2. The second session dealt with the legacy of Benjamin. What stood up in this session is the relevance and poignancy of Benjamin’s thinking in respect to modes of production in relation to new technologies and the spectacle of consumption. Here, Benjamin’s work on early photographic reproduction and cinematic language (montage) informs us about the transient character of art since the early days of mechanically mass reproducibility. Given the addition of digital and cybernetic communicative means in our days we may view Benjamin’s work as a perpetual critical inquiry into the unique role of art in forming our experiences in a world exceedingly affected by technological alienation.
  3. The third and fourth sessions profusely dealt with aspects of Adorno and Marcuse in connection with aesthetics and art. It was Andrew Feenberg’s presentation that threw new light on Marcuse’s last work on the “aesthetic dimension” and its pertinence to ecology. More specifically, Feenberg revisited key junction points in Marcuse’s theory that triangulated together art, technology and the environment.

* The proceedings from the International Conference of Critical Theory, “Nostalgia for the Future” will be published in a book.