Five questions with: Steven Tepper

Creative Matters Lecture Series: Steven Tepper, Suspended in a Web of Meaning

240 Art Building West — Tuesday, April 9 at 5:30 p.m.

Dr. Steven Tepper, Dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. — courtesy of Dean Tepper’s office

On April 9, as part of the Creative Matters lecture series (hosted by the University of Iowa’s Office of the Vice President of Research), Dr. Steven Tepper will share his views on art, creativity and their roles in social change. This lecture, like all other Creative Matters events, is free and open to the public.

Art is defined by a number of things: the consensus of the academic community, the appreciation of the public or the space on mom’s fridge. Regardless of perceived tier, there is one thing that ties all media and forms of art together: the ability to inspire feeling, sometimes very strong, in the observer. The way people react to art has the unique power of enforcing or completely contrasting the artist’s intentions, and can create conversations about culture and the human experience.

Tepper’s lecture, Suspended in a Web of Meaning, will touch on both his perspective as an author and critic of U.S. cultural policy as dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, as well as his own view of what happens when art and culture collide.

How do we separate art from the everyday? For example, the line between fashion and clothing, etc.

I am a radical democrat when it comes to art. I think we have done ourselves a disservice by trying to create boundaries between art and everyday life or between art and popular culture. Art is about shared human creative expression.

Hierarchies (art–non art; high and low; fine and commercial) only stand in the way of the critical function of art in our lives and our democracy — to connect people around identity and meaning. I guess I am an apostle of John Dewey’s Art and Experience, which fundamentally connects the experience of art with how we experience beauty and story in everything around us — from walking into a restaurant to watching a baseball game.

Getting down to the root of it, what aspects of art do you think incite controversy? What makes this unique to the arts as opposed to other forms of expression and assertion?

Art involves the manipulation of symbols and symbols are unbounded — they are materials that we are all free to use, re-use, recombine and interpret to say something in the world. So, in that way, no one has a monopoly on art and its meaning. The public tends not to fight about tax policy. We leave that to the experts. But art, that is something about which everyone feels permission to express an opinion. And this is good. It is what makes art such a great vehicle for democracy.

And, if art shows up in our community — in a museum, on a stage, in a library, in a public space — then it is assumed to reflect something about the community: its values and identity and tastes. So we fight over public art when we feel it doesn’t represent our idea of our community — when it feels foreign or when it challenges our sense of belonging.

In your 2011 book, Not Here, Not Now, Not That, you speak to the effect of local experience and concerns on perception of art. In an increasingly globalized world, how do you think these identities may or may not persist?

This is a rigorous debate: globalization versus localization. I think both are happening simultaneously. We are certainly more connected globally around culture and economics and certain social and political movements. But, just as when we go off to college we might find a renewed commitment to our pillow or blanket from home or to other things that anchor us to a place, I think the same is true in a globalized world.

Bill Ivey once said that a healthy expressive life requires a balance between heritage and local roots and our ability to be free in a global context to create new identities and new forms of expression. Most of us will continue to live in a place. We will walk out our door and see other people, both familiar and unfamiliar. And we will want our local community to reflect our identities and tastes. So art will always be a source of conflict and a source of connection.


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On the other side of the coin: for artists (and/or everyone else), how does creativity lessen the burdens of an evolving society? Does it add to them? Do you think that it is more the release valve of the hose or the water behind it?

Creativity can be a release in a world where many people feel an increasing sense of uncertainty about the future. An escape or an antidote. But I think it’s more important role is as an agent of social change. I mean this in two ways. First, change is difficult for everyone. It is disruptive. Our brains seek routine and familiarity. So creativity, and art in particular, can give us some scripts or stories that help us find meaning and connection in the face of social change. Not an escape, but rather a story that helps us understand and feel grounded.

Creativity is a way of connecting the seemingly random dots to create a legible picture. Second, when confronting change we need to imagine different futures. What else is possible? How might we live differently? So creativity is essential for productive imagination about possible futures — both for individuals and for communities.

Can you give me a short outline or introduction to your talk on the 9th?

The talk will try to situate the role of art and creativity as key drivers and responses to accelerated social change. Work is changing, with most adults believing they will change jobs within three years and with automation changing what jobs will be available 10 years from now; the demographics of our communities are changing; global migration patterns; rapid urbanization; and, importantly, ubiquitous computing. Creativity and cultural engagement are perhaps the most important assets we have to help people navigate these changes and push back against the anti-democratic impulses that such rapid change unleashes.

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