Campus Focus: Oakland University (Rochester, Michigan)—First Annual Symposium on the Arts

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40373109

October 24, 25, 26, 1962

Among the most difficult of the many difficult tasks facing a new educational institution is that of establishing a reputation for quality and excellence. Even more difficult is the task of establishing such a reputation in the fine arts to the local artistic constituency. Most difficult of all is establishing such a reputation nationally among one's professional colleagues in the arts. Scholars have seen the announcement of too many bright and optimistic suns in the fine arts which have risen and fallen without ever reaching the hoped for zenith.

Such thoughts have been much in the minds of the faculty and administration of the country's newest state-supported liberal arts institution. Oakland University (originally Michigan State University Oakland) was established in 1959, with the gift by Mr. and Mrs. Alfred G. Wilson of their 2,000-acre estate and mansion in Oakland County on the northern edge of Detroit. Even before it opened its doors, the recipients of the $15 million gift were resolved that this new institution should not be just another state university branch established only to help absorb the impending crush of the war babies on American institutions of higher learning. For three years before the first student arrived on the campus, Oakland held a series of seminars involving leaders in every field of activity in American education and society. The question was posed to them: "Knowing what you do about American education and the future needs of the society, what would you hope to see in a new institution that would avoid the mistakes of older universities while keeping their virtues?" Their answers were both interesting and valuable but too lengthy to be described in detail here. The result was, however, the establishment of an institution which Time magazine has described as "Michigan State's remarkable new liberal arts branch . . . an avowedly intellectual school."

Ever since the foundation of the university there has been a commitment to the more scholarly aspects of the fine arts. Evidently unique among state institutions in this country is a requirement that virtually every student take a full four-hour course in music and another in art. In order to support this commitment and to establish its reputation among the artistic academic community at large, the university began to plan in the winter of its third year the First Annual Symposium on the Arts. Since more than one field of art was involved, the need for some unifying theme was apparent. After considerable discussion, the organizers finally agreed on a subject that was both topical and broad enough to encompass various specialities: "Public and private support of the arts."

Also immediately apparent became the needs for sizable financial support for the Symposium. In order to accomplish something really worthwhile, more would be needed than departmental and even university funds could provide. With the help of many good and active friends of the university and of the arts, $8000 was raised. Without this superb support, the Symposium could never have taken place.

It seemed to the organizers that many symposia talk about the arts but that few also do something about them. An early decision was made that Oakland's Symposium should result in the creation of works of art, not only for their own sakes or to help support artists, but also to enlarge the university's artistic capital and to provide a concrete and lasting heritage for the Symposium. Although such action would be particularly appropriate to the patronage theme of the Symposium, it was the hope that future symposia, regardless of their themes, might also make a similar decision.

In preparation for the commissioning of a musical work, twenty-five leading American composers were asked in March if they would be interested in accepting a commission to compose a piece of chamber music of moderate length within the seven-month period before the Symposium. Inquiry was made as to what they would consider a fair fee for such a work and for coming to the Oakland campus to participate in the Symposium. Finally, they were asked if they would consider making one movement of the piece suitable as an academic march which could be used for future ceremonial processions of the University with no restrictions implied or stated as to its style. Of the twenty who replied, about one third felt able to accept a commission, though several rather condescendingly stated that their muses could not submit to any such restriction as an academic march. The decision was finally made to award the commission to Henry Cowell who, with only half the allowed time elapsed, sent his Trio for Flute, Violin, and Harp. The sixth and last movement of the Trio was indeed written in the form of a dignified march, which the University subsequently used at its first commencement in April 1963, re-scored for brass. Mr. Cowell came to the campus for the Symposium and participated in an evening concert devoted exclusively to performances of his music, including the world premiere of the Trio. During his stay he met and talked with members of the faculty and student body, the community, and other participants in the Symposium.

The principal offering in the creative program of visual art at the Symposium was a one-man exhibit of paintings and pastels by Wolf Kahn and the purchase of his oil on canvas, The Pond. Kahn, a young New York painter born in Germany, works in an abstract style reminiscent in color and handling of Turner and Bonnard but distinctly contemporary. The Pond was selected for the Oakland University Art Collection by a jury of which Willis F. Woods, then newly appointed director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, was chairman. Kahn's exhibit was the first presentation to be held in the recently established University Art Gallery. It was forwarded to the Kansas City Art Institute following a successful and controversial three weeks installation at Oakland.

A second event in visual art was the commissioning of a fountain sculpture later to be located somewhere on the university campus. A limitation accompanying the grant of funds for this competition (a private donor specified that the contest be confined to entries by Michigan artists only) resulted in the submission of only twenty models. The award went to Berthold Schiwetz who is presently resident in Italy but who formerly worked in Oakland County. The sculpture jury was headed by an off-campus local painter.

In addition to the presentation of these three new works of art, the Symposium consisted of a concert by Gyorgy Sandor and a three-day conference by five distinguished visiting scholars and the Oakland University faculty on the general subject of Public and Private Support of the Arts. During their stay on the campus, the scholars participated in discussions with students in and out of class, presented scholarly papers, took part in formal discussions, and generally enjoyed the informal mind-meeting that comes with geographical proximity.

Professor Robert J. Goldwater, director of the Museum of Primitive Art in New York and a member of the faculty at New York University, gave the first of five formal papers. An internationally recognized writer on modern and primitive art, Dr. Goldwater is best known for his Primitivism in Modern Painting (1938). His theme at the Oakland Symposium was "Support of Art Among Primitive Societies." His discussion centered upon the religious and secular arts of Africa and Oceania. Comparisons and contrasts were established between European and non-European sources of patronage of painting and sculpture. The institution of ancestral worship in Oceania and Africa and its sponsorship of the creation of masks, figures, and fetish objects was discussed in relation to not dissimilar practices in the Western world. Dr. Goldwater also discussed several types of secular primitive sculpture and indicated that the prestigiousness of collecting works of art as such was by no means unknown in parts of Africa. Accompanying Goldwater on his visit to the Oakland University campus was his wife, widely known professionally as the sculptor Louise Bourgeois.

Professor Claude Palisca, Yale University, then spoke on "The Nature of Musical Patronage in the Late Renaissance." He pointed out that if patronage as understood today means support of the arts for their own sakes, the sponsorship of music by the Italian patrons of the late sixteenth century fits this concept only partly. During the reign of Grand Duke Ferdinand I of Tuscany (1587-1609), for example, the elaborate entertainments produced for weddings, such as those of 1589 and 1600, and other state occasions, were aimed chiefly to impress foreign visitors with the wealth and resources of the ruling house. The creative artist in such a scheme was often an executor of an idea conceived by an amateur or patron. Because of the number of artistic personalities involved compromises prevented any unified artistic conception. The result was often colossal, brilliant, and impressive but artistically of small significance.

As compared to the early Renaissance, court composers in the late sixteenth century gained very modest public recognition and monetary compensation. On the other hand, the centralized establishments kept by the princes made possible a coordination of efforts that has rarely been equaled. Large resident musical staffs offered composers unusual opportunities for experimentation and there was a constant demand for new music which fostered unrecognized talent. While the artist's place in society was not an exalted one, it was an essential and integral role that he often lacks today.

This first regular session of the Symposium was introduced by Chancellor Varner and the chairman of the Art Department and was summarized by Professor Damie Stillman, university art historian. Dr. Stillman skillfully excerpted Goldwater's comparisons between primitive and non-primitive arts and furthered certain of Professor Palisca's analogies between late Renaissance art and Renaissance music.

The second set of papers on the next day was opened by Professor Karl Geiringer, the University of California at Santa Barbara, speaking on "Patronage of Music of the Nineteenth Century." Dr. Geiringer began by pointing out that the church, and the aristocracy had traditionally controlled musical patronage. Such patronage gave the composer security of tenure but also poor pay and little freedom of movement. In the eighteenth century, middle-class patronage developed through societies, concerts, and large numbers of amateur performers, giving the composer freedom and sometimes considerable fortune but little security. Independence, therefore, became a tenet of the nineteenth-century composer's philosophy. He was faced with several possibilities for making a living. He could live on royalties, as did Brahms, since publishers began to pay composers more honestly. He could become a virtuoso as did Chopin and Liszt or a conductor as did Wagner, Mahler, and Brahms. Other composers were critics, writers, and teachers. Finally, prizes and awards became important sources of patronage as states and private foundations gradually began to participate in the support of the artist.

The fourth address at the regular sessions of the Symposium was given by Professor Harry Bober, a specialist in the field of Mediaeval art at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University. Dr. Bober had been chosen to speak on "Dimensions of Art Patronage in the Twentieth Century" because of his capacity to relate ideas of older art history to contemporary situations. Moreover, Bober is a thoughtful collector of art whose taste is so schooled that he finds parallel delight in acquiring an abstract-expressionist picture of this year, an African figure of the early 1900's, or a French baroque work. His remarks concerned the great increase in the influence of fine arts upon popular arts in our own time. He referred to the most imaginative of advertising cartoons in television, for example, as being made possible by the faceted, explosive surface treatment of Cubist and Abstract styles. It was the sense of Bober's remarks that the arts today have an astonishingly wide popular support even though many consumers are not "patrons" in the traditional sense.

Dr. Robert Holmes, assistant professor of music, deftly summarized and compared the contents of Professor Geiringer's and Professor Bober's papers. The phenomenon of the purchase of occasional paintings or original prints by sensitive individuals in low-income brackets was touched upon as an example of present-day patronage. The chairman of the Art Department pointed out during the discussion that in the 1870's and the 1880's certain enterprising Parisians of modest means, one of them a civil servant, were the first to collect the then avant-garde paintings by Impressionists; and today such persons are famous for their daring support of a new movement in art.

The final formal conference session consisted of a major address by Professor Howard Mumford Jones, Abbott Lawrence Lowell Professor of Humanities (Emeritus), Harvard University, on "State, Society, and the Artist in Mid-Twentieth-Century America." Following a compressed but lively review of the essentially public and impersonal nature of great artistic achievements historically, Jones drew attention to the characteristically private and subjective impulse of modern art in most of its configurations, asserted the ineluctable right of any artist at any time to independence of vision, but denied his right to create intentionally indifferent to a public audience and then to hold that audience in contempt for failure to understand or applaud.

In sum, the First Annual Symposium on the Arts at Oakland University far exceeded the expectations of the official campus planning committee. The professional character of the conference was outstandingly strong from the two chief creative events—the Wolf Kahn exhibit of paintings and the premiere performance of the Cowell Trio to the specialized papers offered by Professors Goldwater, Palisca, Geiringer, and Bober. A distinctly modern tone prevailed throughout the various sessions. The one regret was that funds were insufficient to support the publication of the papers and reproductions of the new works.

The Symposium brought to a new campus with many local community ties a meeting of distinctively high professional quality of national or even international significance. The choice of speakers and creative artists required no regional or community explanation, perhaps largely because it was arrived at by professional members of the disciplines of music and art on campus with as few concessions as possible to local dictates of "off-campus development," "community relations" and so forth. It is not unreasonable to anticipate that the next Symposia at Oakland University will prosper or decline in proportion to the assertion or abandonment of the same principle.

Read 4319 times

Last modified on Thursday, 15/11/2018

Go to top