“The Work of Art”

In her book The Work of Art in the World, Doris Sommer tells a remarkable story about the transformation of Bogotá, Columbia, which in the early 1990s was the most dangerous city in Latin America. In 1994, the city elected a new mayor, Anatanas Mockus, and Mockus did partly as one would expect: he implemented a program designed to curb corruption and promote civic well-being. What’s interesting is how he did it. Instead of pouring money into law enforcement, Mockus turned over the city to artists. He deployed mimes to direct traffic; he dispatched painters to design stars on the road where pedestrians had died, bringing elegant attention to safety issues; he instituted a periodic “Women’s Night Out” and ordered the men to stay at home, thus partly returning to women a city whose violence had largely expelled them from the urban scene. Bogotá enjoyed a renaissance through these initiatives, and Sommers remarks that “[o]ne important lesson we learn from Mockus is that without pleasure, social reform and political pragmatism shrivel into short-lived, self-defeating pretensions.” But the reverse, of course, is also true: art has the power not only to change the perceptions of other artists and devoted aficionados, but also to exert a force on the public sphere.

This year, the Humanities Center brings the subject of the work of art in both private and public sphere into focus with its annual theme: “The Work of Art.” Our interest here is to explore the broad influence of the arts (that is, of literature, music, painting, cinema, photography, rhetoric, and more). As a reflection of this theme, one of the Center’s new research groups, an “applied humanities” consortium of faculty and students, is assisting people in Cambodia, a nation ravaged by genocide a generation ago, collect, preserve, and analyze family histories. The questions such histories raise are profound: What work do they perform? What is the role of the imagination in that work? How do we negotiate the permeable boundary between imagination and memory given not only the animation of the past, but also the gaps that have been blown into the historical record by the traumas of the past?

Our Annual Symposium and Annual Lecture will bring a different kind of attention to the work of art. Caroline Levine of the University of Madison-Wisconsin will talk with us about her book Forms, which makes the powerful case that the structuring principles one finds in a work of fiction—say, the technique of repetition, or binary opposition (e.g., protagonists and antagonists)—also order the world around us. If the kinds of networks that inform the “real world” also structure literature, then literary study becomes a template for recognizing, and perhaps reconciling, real world challenges. Then, later in the year, Nicholas Mirzoeff of New York University will speak to us about his innovative work on the ways art helps us reframe our perception of the life that surrounds us—a principle he puts to poignant effect in discussing the art, politics, and social phenomenon of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

We hope these events, in concert with a busy slate of other Center activities, collectively underscore the work of art as, indeed, an important act of labor—as an instrument of public and political as well as a personal and spiritual significance.