Art and Interpretation in Public Life

June 2017

This exploratory seminar will consider two complementary approaches toward developing the humanities and creative arts as vital contributions to civic life. The issue is urgent, because without humanistic training in the pleasures of multiple interpretations, it may be impossible to sustain democratic politics. And conversely, in the absence of demonstrable contribution, the humanities cannot depend on economic and political support during these skeptical times. Democracy depends on citizens who can judge freely and imagine innovative responses to social and economic limitations—in other words, on humanistic training toward disinterested judgment and creativity. Yet humanists seldom count this nonpartisan political and economic education as a social contribution. And though economists and managers acknowledge the market's dependence on creativity, they have been slow to locate arts and humanities at the core of appropriate training. Meanwhile humanists remain either shy about claiming a practical value for interpretive arts or reluctant to make them amount to measurable contributions. Critique has been the preferred focus for academic studies, as if freedom and creativity always lead to opposition. This seminar will help to balance the account, building on collective experience and reflection. One approach toward deepening the connections between the humanities and development is to design a "Mid-Career Institute on Creative Leadership." The complementary approach is to develop opportunities for graduate students in the humanities to bridge arts and interpretation to careers in public life, including, as a possible outcome of the seminar, a proposal for a secondary concentration in civic humanities at Harvard. The seminar will explore these two complementary approaches in tandem, cultivating a new generation of leaders in the public sphere and a new generation of humanists eager to pursue creative collaborations to address the pressing challenges of 21st-century societies. We will formulate clear arguments for the importance of collaborations between humanistic disciplines and professional education and propose practical models for pursuing such collaborations.