Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Artful

Today's session of New School Century was about the arts and/as social research. We started class in the Orozco Room, and, back in our classroom, did a little dancing. The arts have arrived in our class!

The Orozco Room was originally a public cafeteria but is now used only for special events (ostensibly for preservation reasons). Created by José Clemente Orozco for the New School's first building in 1931, it plays an important and distorting role in our collective memory. Most people know that a yellow curtain was drawn across the Lenin-Stalin mural in 1953 to student protest, but not that the internationalist peasant-revolutionary Orozco murals had from the start a pendant in the American modernist and industrialization-high murals by Thomas Hart Benton two floors below: sold in the 1980s, they've vanished from collective memory. You've heard me natter on about this before.
 
But it's time to face the music: what were the arts doing at The New School? The original proposal for a "New School of Social Science for Men and Women" makes no mention of the arts in discussing its mission and intended curriculum. Horace Kallen started lecturing on aesthetics already in 1920, it's true, but there was no indication that by the later 1920s The New School would mainly be offering courses in arts and psychology. This was as or after most of its founders had drifted away, too. What happened? How to tell the story?
 
One version of the story is that after the seven-semester itch The New School lost focus, and offered lectures in whatever students would pay for just to keep from going under. Had students wanted courses in craniology or motorcycle repair we would have offered that. Only with the University in Exile a decade later could it return to itself, a research institute in social sciences. This brutal form of the story appears only by implication, but you hear it a lot. The arts at The New School were an accident, a distraction, if not an embarrassment. Who takes the arts as seriously as social sciences, after all?

A slightly nicer version of the story is that offering courses students would pay for was consistent with at least part of the school's mission, educating adults in new fields, student demand confirming relevance - even if James Harvey Robinson et al didn't imagine that what students would demand would be literature and psychoanalysis and the modern dance. This fits with the Clara Mayer story, too, since it was apparently at her suggestion that courses in psychology and the arts were first introduced.

There's some truth to this "in the meantime we'll offer courses in the arts" story, probably more than I'd like to concede. But the story I'd like to be able to tell (you've heard it already) denies there's any mission drift at all. Surely "social research," what the school was named after, was a broader and more pliable category than "social science," and included in its scope efforts by artists to grapple with the challenge and promise of modern life! Dewey and Kallen were talking about art all the time (Kallen even at The New School!). In support or corroboration of this view one might also consider the way modernists in the arts took on the spirit and terminology of the sciences (laboratory, experimental, method, etc.).
 
I say I'd like to be able to tell this story because it feels, still, sadly, like a a bit of a stretch. But slightly less stretchy and in its way at least as satisfying would be to say that, whatever the reason for the move to arts lectures, the result of offering courses in social sciences and arts together at The New School, especially in the close quarters of the original site in Chelsea, was the discovery of affinities. If the writers of the "Proposal..." didn't see the arts as social research, that's because there wasn't a New School around yet to show them! As you know I sought support for my view in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, which included the arts among the areas it covered (admittedly mentioned last among a dozen areas), but that's 1930. I'm willing to consider that the arts wouldn't have been mentioned in 1920, but had demonstrated their relevance by 1930 - especially if the place where that relevance was demonstrated was The New School!

But I'm sure you want to hear about the dancing. One of the new arts introduced at The New School was modern dance, on which the New York Times' John Martin, the first dedicated dance critic in the country, gave "lecture demonstrations" at The New School. He was a critic, not a dancer, so he did the lecturing while dancers (including Martha Graham) did the demonstrating. But my co-teacher J is a dancer as well as a historian, and we're all a little high on Dewey, so we let the students do the demonstrating!
Asking half of the class to line up along each of the walls flanking the lecture hall, J told students they were to notice their bodies as they moved, as well as those of the students facing them across the room. First we all spread our feet (first position), arched our hands over our heads, and rose to our toes. This was the feel of ballet, dignified, straight, solid-torso, elevated. Then we placed our feet parallel, bent our knees and contracted as if someone had hit us in the stomach. The modern dance, grounded, rounded, twisting the torso, expressive...
Martin's lectures-demonstrations were both an explanation of the modern dance and advocacy for it. Many thought it ugly and too serious - wasn't dance supposed to be beautiful and lighthearted? - but in his lectures (and the book which grew out of them (The Modern Dance, 1933) he suggested that dance expresses things we cannot put in words, some of them among the most important things. In modern life dance has become a mere pastime, and we have forgotten its true significance.
 
In his lectures as also in his article on Dance for the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (...yes of course!) Martin discussed the role of dance in "savage" societies, and suggested that, in the face of the discoveries of modern time (think Robinson's Mind in the Making, etc.), serious dance was becoming necessary again.

Whenever the primitive mind came into contact with something that happened without his having had anything to do with it, something with the element of mystery and supernaturalism, he danced. ... As time went on these dances in many cases became traditional, and if we were astute enough and perceptive enough (which we are not) we could find in these rituals an incomparable treasure, for they are really the record of man's discovery of nature. Few of them survive to-day, however, and those that do have become too stereotyped to offer us sufficient clue to work upon. ... Nevertheless, this spirit is the animating spirit of the modern dance. ... Civilisation has taken the mystery out of ordinary life to a great extent and consequently has mitigated the necessity for expressing, as the primitive dancer did, the things one's understanding cannot grasp. But to-day we are reaching farther and farther ahead into uncharted regions of thought, which, though not alarming to us as nature was to the savage, are just as far from being reducible to rational terms. And it is these grasped but intangible emotional and mental experiences that the dancer of to-day finds himself forced to express through the irrational medium of bodily movement. (The Modern Dance, 9-10)

One of the legends of The New School is that Martha Graham was important here, indeed that she and Aaron Copland developed "Appalachian Spring" here. Not true - they'd both moved on from The New School by that time. But another modern dancer was much more important to the New School's experiments in art as social research: Doris Humphrey, whose work J introduced us to (and whose pictures I've posting here, including her Shaker-inspired piece). There are interesting tie-ins to social questions, too, as, J suggested, Graham's work is about the individual vs. society, but Humphrey's is always about relating to others; even where there is a leader she emerges from and returns to the group. The body expresses itself but seeks harmony with others.

Movement research as social research! If the social scientists didn't experience the importance of this, I say so much the worse for them!

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