Artists in colleges: 60th anniversary revisiting of Ben Shahn’s, The Charles Eliot Norton Lecture, 1957

Oliver Watts (SCA)
2017 Conference

This paper critically revisits the Ben Shahn six part lecture series for The Charles Eliot Norton Lecture, 1957 at Harvard. Harvard had only a year earlier argued for the visual arts within the university; the Carpenter Centre designed by Le Corbusier opened in 1963. Also published as a book in that year to commemorate Shahn’s contribution to Harvard life, the book is itself a beautiful entente between art schools and the university. The position of the studio school within university life is always an ongoing negotiation. What is the duty of the art school to the greater university community? What is the place of the studio and the autonomy of practice within a research institute.

In 1957 at the height of post-war modernist humanism, Shahn makes a strong case for arts value in a university education. He does also have reservations though about the “loneliness” the artist might feel within the university system cut off as he says from his artistic community. Shahn on the whole is even handed about the place of the artist in the university, and his opening line is, “I have come to Harvard with some very serious doubts as to whether I ought to be here at all.” The faith in art, in art’s cultural value, as later embodied in Corbusier’s own deeply humanist architecture, is taken as read by the Harvard lectures.

By returning to this moment, before the art school was integrated in to the university, at the height of modernist certainty about the value of art in the university, our own contemporary position can be brought into relief.

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About the author

Oliver Watts is a theorist and artist. His work explores the connections between art, law and power. Watts looks at various issues where art and ideology meet: how images create authority and power; how we are brought to the law as psychological subjects by legal institutions; the connection between aesthetics and ethical acts; the importance of fantasy and irrationality to power structures. Through his studio practice Watts has recently looked at the formation of subjecthood and the markers of class. He has also interrogated the critical place of the artist within the structures of power rather than always maintaining avant-garde position outside it; his paintings use a contemporary form of irony and satire that often merely takes ideological structures at face value. These interdisciplinary connections offer new imagination and insights into our thinking about law and justice and personal subjecthood.