Tag Archives: MacArthur Fellows

Does Jersey City have more Creative Potential than NYC?

21 Oct

Can Mana Contemporary make the transition from NYCArt in Jersey City to scene weaver?

It’s time to revisit a question I posed a couple of months ago in the wake of Steven Fulop’s ground-breaking election as Mayor of Jersey City: is Jersey City a 21st Century Florence?

A Time for New Institutions

First let’s once again review a crude little story I’ve been telling for years. It goes like this:

In the Medieval West the Catholic Church was the institutional center of intellectual life. Then the West underwent a massive cultural change, the Renaissance, and new life ways and new institutions emerged. A new system of colleges and universities supplanted the church as the central institution of intellectual life. That system served us well up through the end of the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century.

But the world is once again changing. And this time it’s not the West alone that’s undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s the whole world, kicking and screaming.

So, just what are the possibilities for new institutions? Are any emerging?

On the latter question, sure, I guess. But the basic institutions of life in the West, if not the rest, have been inherited from the 19Century and before. This is overlaid by large international corporations and various international treaties, pacts, and NGOs. And the web has emerged in the last 20 years as a vehicle of communication and dissemination, and it’s certainly changing the institutions of higher education.

But the deepest kind cultural work needs to be done face-to-face. What are the prospects there?

Well, of course, I don’t know. But let’s think about the three institutions I’ve been examining recently: Mana Contemporary, the MacArthur Fellows Program, and the SUNY Buffalo Department of English for roughly a decade or so in the 1970s. Can we make something new out of that? What? How? Continue reading

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The Hunt for Genius, Part 5: Three Elite Schools

15 Oct

I grew up in western Pennsylvania in a suburb of Johnstown, a small steel-making city. My father was from Baltimore and he worked with Bethlehem Mines, the mining subsidiary of the now-defunct Bethlehem Steel Corporation. My mother was a native of Johnstown, had been there for the 1937 flood, and was a full-time housewife and mother. That was typical for the time, the 1950s and into the 60s.

Mother loved gardening and she was an excellent cook and seamstress. Father was more intellectual than most engineers. In addition to playing golf, collecting stamps, and woodworking, he liked to read, both fiction and nonfiction. Both parents played the piano a bit and enjoyed playing contract bridge.

I spent many hours happily immersed in books from my father’s library (which contained many books from his father’s library): Arthur Conan Doyle, Rafael Sabatini, Rider Haggard, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain among them. I went to school in Richland Township. The schools were above average, but not special. They did not regularly send students to elite schools.

I’d applied to three Ivies, Harvard and Yale, which turned me down, and Princeton, which wait-listed me. I’d also applied to The Johns Hopkins University, my father’s alma mater. They accepted me. That my father had gone there no doubt weighed in the decision.

A classmate of mine, quarterback of the football team, was accepted to Princeton. I believe he was the first student from the school to go to an Ivy League school. I don’t think he was very happy there.

I can’t say that I was happy at Hopkins either. But then I didn’t go there for happiness. I went there to get an education, which I did.

The Johns Hopkins University

Hopkins is probably the most distinguished of the elite schools I’ve been associated with. I did my undergraduate work there between 1965 and ’69 and then completed a Master’s degree in Humanities between 1969 and ’72 while at the same time working in the Chaplain’s Office as an assistant. This was at the tail end of the Vietnam War era and I was a Conscientious Objector to military service. I thus had to perform civilian service instead of being drafted into the military. That’s why I worked in the Chaplain’s Office.

After a so-so high school outside a small city in western Pennsylvania the intellectual life at Hopkins came as a welcome revelation to me. Ideas seemed important. Well, sorta’. Continue reading

Cultural Factors in the Hunt for Genius

12 Oct

Here’s the main point of my previous post on The MacArthur Fellows Program: It is strongly biased by the social network in which it is situated. The simplest thing it can do to blunt that bias and thereby name more interesting and challenging classes of fellows is to stop giving awards to people on staff at elite institutions. Those institutions are too deeply rooted in the past to serve the future well.

First, while the search for genius, as conducted by the MacArthur Fellows Program for example, is conceptualized as a search for attributes of individuals, even an essence, that’s not how it works out in fact and in our world. If our world were culturally uniform and static, then, yes, the search for genius might properly be conceptualized as a search for essence. But that’s only because every individual would be surrounded by the same culture and thus the possibilities for a ‘fit’ between individual capabilities and accomplishments would be the same for all.

But that’s not the world we live in. In the first place, it is not culturally uniform. Culture varies by class, geographical region, and by ethnicity and religion. In such a world a search for genius will almost inevitably be biased by the interests and understanding for those conducting the search. In such a world the ONLY way to escape bias is to recognize the problem and take explicit steps to correct for it.

Just what those steps would be, I don’t know. Two obvious suggestions: 1) Make sure the selection process includes people from all sectors of society. 2) Conceive each class of awardees as a sampling of the cultural space.

And in the second place, our world is not culturally static. It’s changing rapidly for various reasons. Globalization is driving workforce changes that affect educational requirements and skillset distribution and needs. Computer technology has changed the media world and is itself making many jobs obsolete while creating new classes of jobs. Ideas in every sphere are changing and new expressive forms are emerging in the arts. And globalization is moving large numbers of people from one country to another. Continue reading

MacArthur Fellowships: Let the Geniuses Free

9 Oct

I’ve been following the MacArthur Fellowship program from the beginning. Like many, I’ve thought it too conservative in its pick of fellows. I long ago decided that the foundation could improve matters by adopting a simple rule: don’t award fellowships to anyone who has stable employment at an elite institution.

My reasoning was simple: if they’ve got an elite job, they can eat and they can work. Depending on the job, they may not have as much time for creative work as they’d like to have. But they’ve got more time than they’d have if they had to wait tables, do temp word-processing, or teach five adjunct courses a term spread across three different schools. They can function creatively.

That puts them ahead those who are so busy scratching for a living that they cannot function creatively at all.

When I set out to write this post, that’s all I had in mind. I’d reiterate the standard complaint about MacArthur’s programmatic constipation, with appropriate links here and there, and then offer up my one simple suggestion. I figured it for a thousand or maybe fifteen hundred words.

But then things started getting interesting, and more complex. So I’ve had to write a much longer post. I’ve not given up on that simple idea, nor have I augmented it. But I have a richer and more interesting rationale for it. That’s what this post is about.

The Genius Grants

I don’t know when I first heard that the newly formed Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation would “be looking for gifted but impecunious poets, promising young composers, research scientists in midcareer and other ‘exceptionally talented people’”, as The New York Times put it in 1980, but, like many creative people, I thought to myself: At last, a foundation that’s looking for (people like) me. The article went on to say:

Many foundation programs have sought to assist scholars and artists…but most have required that the would-be fellows already have achieved some public recognition. Unlike most others, the new fellowships will permit the recipients to choose entirely new fields of interest, with no requirement that the fellowship lead to the completion of a project, publication, or even a progress report.

Just what I need, thought I to myself, just what I need. It would allow me to blow this pop stand and get some real work done.

As Roderick MacArthur, son of the foundation’s benefactor, John D. MacArthur, would put it in 1981:

“This program,” Mr. MacArthur said, “is probably the best reflection of the rugged individualism exemplified by my father – the risky betting on individual explorers while everybody else is playing it safe on another track.”

“If only a handful produce something of importance – whether it be a work of art or a major breakthrough in the sciences – it will have been worth the risk.”

My name wasn’t on that list or on any subsequent list.

Nor, I tentatively decided in that first year, was the foundation deeply interested in people like me, people whose work did not fit into conventional categories and thus would be ineligible for conventional foundation largesse. Rather, given the foundation’s actual practice, it is clear that the MacArthur Fellows Program has been funding pretty much the same people funded by every other foundation and government agency. Continue reading