In a well-written response to my letter to the editor last week arguing for the live, radical space of the arts while questioning the monumental architecture of the new Lewis Center for the Arts complex, I was accused of threatening “to obscure the great good that the existence of this new center will do for the University.”
The thing is, I never once call into question that the new center will do good things for the University, at least by the standard metrics of success used here. Certainly we will woo more students from Yale and attract more world-class artists. But to what end?
The entire point of my initial letter was simply to question the narratives of competition, progress, and pedagogical success that are quite literally built into the new Lewis Center. To question, not to answer! What’s the point of an education, anyway? What about the arts? Might it be that art can occupy the spaces of the everyday, radically awakening us to the world that already surrounds us? Because my criticisms were in part architectural and aesthetic, they were said to be insubstantial, illegitimate, and unimportant.
And so I must ask: Are we still not at the point where we can all acknowledge that the aesthetic (including the architectural) is unavoidably and politically consequential?
Ultimately, my critics and I agree: let’s make use of the fabulous space we now have, dynamically and with heart. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also question it.
And so here we get to why I’m writing again: I am not normally inclined to get in a tit-for-tat in the 'Prince' and indeed did not initially plan on responding to the criticism of my letter, but I wanted to make the case for the ethics of even “vague” critique.
Besides my articulate (and snarky) critic in the 'Prince,' I received numerous private messages from (rather less articulate and equally snarky) alumni telling me essentially the same thing: How dare you criticize such a great project, you spoiled brat. I was struck by the vitriol of these messages. If only alumni were so quick to passionately respond to other (real) injustices as they were to respond to an “unjust criticism” of their beloved University.
Rather than refuting point-by-point critics’ response to my piece — which, though I could, would probably be very minimally productive — I would like to make two general assertions inspired by the response.
Firstly, I wish to argue for a different mode of care that motivated my initial letter. In virtually all of the responses I received was the implication that because I criticized the new Lewis Center and the University’s system of values (as expressed in its structures), I somehow showed a terrible lack of gratitude and respect and care for the institution and the people within that had already given me so much.
To my mind, however, it is precisely in the act of criticism that I express my utmost care — and, indeed, my gratitude and respect — for this place. If I didn’t care deeply about this institution and the people who have labored to make it what it is, I would not engage with these issues. It is only because I am invested enough to want our shared world to be better that I dare to criticize it. And, as my loved ones can tell you, I criticize most sharply those I love most.
To my mind, care is not expressed through deferential thankfulness; it is manifested through actions of serious engagement — a live criticism, if you will, akin to (and probably part of) the live arts.
Care does not require the rhetoric of gratefulness — or at least not of a gratefulness without qualification — which is usually tiresome and misdirected in the context of the University. Let us not forget that education is a right and not a privilege: to say this is to care, not to be ungrateful.
Secondly, I would like to argue for the importance of an unlikely, idealistic criticism. As was argued in the 'Prince' response, and as many others pointed out, “no matter how much we wish, the University won’t be donating a quarter of a billion dollars to [a] philanthropic organization” anytime soon. We should be glad, therefore, that this incredible amount of money went to an arts center and not some other new campus complex; I should face the facts and appreciate what I’ve been given.
This is, of course, undeniably true. That doesn’t mean, however, that I ought not highlight the stupefying inequities the University contributes to or question the design decisions of a famous architect and the Board of Trustees. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t dare to imagine a world in which our state’s capital, which serves nearly 100,000 people, has an annual operating budget that is more than a fraction of the cost of a new arts complex for 5,000 elite students.
It’s true that a letter to the editor of the campus paper will not usher in a more egalitarian, justice-minded world in which the University (or, for that matter, anyone) is not fabulously wealthy and the arts primarily promote radical social change; words will not undo concrete walls that have already been built.
But I hope that because we care — from the aesthetic right down to the personal — the words of us idealists and caring critics, stupidly shouted into the unfriendly institutional void, may maintain the sliver of a space in which such a world would be possible.
Kyle Berlin is a senior studying Spanish and Portuguese from Arroyo Grande, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.