President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Princeton in the Service of the Imagination
March 21, 2007
In the spring of last year, Paul Muldoon, the Howard G. B. Clark ’21 University Professor in the Humanities and a celebrated poet, assumed the reins of Princeton’s new University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, which will spearhead our efforts to integrate the arts into the mainstream of University life. I can think of no one better equipped to accomplish this task than Professor Muldoon, and I have invited him to share his expansive vision of the arts at Princeton with you here. — S.M.T.
When Peter Lewis ’55, chairman of the board of The Progressive Corporation, one of the nation’s leading auto insurers, gave $101 million to support the arts at Princeton, he was underwriting more than a University center; his generosity has ensured that the centrality of the arts to Princeton will have national, and international, ramifications. As President Tilghman put it in Princeton: With One Accord, “We aspire to create a distinctive educational model that seamlessly integrates the creative and performing arts into an undergraduate liberal arts program that is second to none. Peter’s confidence in Princeton will make this goal attainable.”
To understand what lies behind this aspiration, we must remind ourselves of the fact that the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts is designed to put the creative and performing arts absolutely at the heart of the Princeton experience. This initiative is based on the conviction that exposure to the arts, particularly to the experience of producing art, helps each of us to make sense of our lives and the lives of our neighbors. This reflects the idea proposed by another great insurance man, Wallace Stevens, in a lecture first given at Princeton in April 1941, that poetry “helps us to live our lives.”
This presidential initiative represents a major rededication of Princeton to the arts. I write rededication because, when Wallace Stevens lectured here in 1941, the creative writing program had already been in place for two years, founded as it had been by the poet-scholar Allen Tate. As we embark on a significant new era in the arts at Princeton, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that much has been done here over the last 70 years. In the spring of 2007, the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts is already able to offer 45 courses (many with multiple sections) in creative writing, theater and dance, visual arts, musical performance, and the Princeton Atelier. But because of Peter Lewis’s gift we’re able, in this first year of the center’s existence, to offer courses that, until now, we hadn’t been able to incorporate in our curriculum. Among these is a course on “Theatrical Design” taught by Anita Yavich, who has worked with the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Shakespeare Festival and won a 2006 OBIE “for sustained excellence in costume design.” There are also two new courses taught by Philip Haas, director of The Music of Chance, Angels and Insects, Up at the Villa and The Situation, on “Screenwriting” and “Special Topics in Film: Documentary Film.” For the first time our dance program has been able to offer students a course on “Chamber Dance: Repertory and Choreography,” taught by Ze’eva Cohen.
In the meantime, Fanny Chouinard, associate director of the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, and I have been hard at work building a support staff for our expanding project, including a major Web presence. We are about to turn our minds to begin developing our new Society of Fellows in the Arts, in which early career artists in a wide range of areas will come to work with our students. We plan to identify and nurture the artists and artist-scholars—the Allen Tates, one might say—of the next generation.
While the center is itself a work in progress, one that will occupy some of us for the next 5, 10, or 20 years, our present students (and prospective students) should know that, while they may be concentrating in molecular biology or mechanical engineering or mathematics, they already have the opportunity to find that chemistry and physics, not to speak of mathematics, are all central to the idea of art-making and that the experience of art-making is already available to them. The growing number of Princeton students who are primarily interested in choreography, costume design, screenwriting, printmaking, photography, painting, or poetry, or indeed any aspect of the creative and performing arts, will discover that Princeton’s faculty and facilities, which will eventually be second to none, are already very highly developed.
Our twofold mission, to build a curriculum in which the opportunity to make art is available to each and every student, whatever her or his major, and to make Princeton the university of choice for each and every student seriously interested in the arts, is a daunting one. Even more daunting, in its way, is the building of an awareness of how the arts truly do make us understand who we are and what we’re doing, truly do “help us to live our lives.” Central to this experience, I believe, is the development of the ability—a sine qua non for all art-making—to be humble before some “other,” to embrace “unknowing.” In other words, the actor’s ability to imagine what it is like to be someone else, the choreographer’s to put her- or himself in someone else’s place, the novelist’s to accept that not every plot has a ready denouement, the cellist’s to be at the service of the score, is one that helps us be viewers as much as visual artists, readers as much as writers, creators of civil society as much as creators of silkscreen prints or sudden fiction or kinetic sculpture or a string quartet.
I took on the job of helping to develop the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts only because I am confident that the sense of openness to experience has clearly become, particularly under President Tilghman’s leadership, more central to the University’s idea of itself. One might say, indeed, that Princeton is now not only in the nation’s service, nor even in the service of all nations, but in the service of the imagination.