Transcription of George Smith for the show Designing Anew #293

Lisa Belisle: It is my pleasure to have with me today George Smith, who founded the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts in 2006. Headquartered in Portland, Maine, the Institute is the first and only school in the world to offer a PhD in Philosophy especially designed for visual artists, curators, and creative scholars. Thanks so much for coming in.
George Smith: Thank you, Lisa, for having me.
Lisa Belisle: So, I’m really kind of fascinated by the fact that you are so dedicated to the visual arts, that you actually are putting out there something that nobody else is doing. Why would you do that?
George Smith: A man will do anything for a job, as we all know.
Lisa Belisle: That could be true. Yes.
George Smith: Aside from that, Lisa, I started an MFA Program at the Maine College of Art that was unusual if not unique in the country, so as far as it was kind of a 50/50 between theory and practice, so our philosophy and studio study, and the students really rocketed out of that experience into zones that they hadn’t really anticipated, and people got very excited about it and they were writing for me dissertations, and I said, you know, you really ought to go turn this into a PhD, because it’s absolutely phenomenal. They’d come back and say, there’s no place in America, in fact, there’s no place in the world where artists can go get a PhD in Philosophy without having to start all over again. So, when I got fired from Maine College of Art, I said to myself, this would be a perfect time to try out the idea, and I did. Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Okay. Talk to me about that firing thing, because I think anybody who has been fired, and I have lost a job, before, it’s kind of painful. There is some amount of time where you spend thinking to yourself, how do I go back and remake something that existed rather than, how do I go forward and make something that hasn’t existed yet.
George Smith: Yeah. It was a great experience for me. It was very painful. And yet like all painful experiences, it may have been one of the best in my life. Certainly it forced on me a lot of reflection. It was just one of those things. It was a fit situation; we had a new president who wanted to do something with the MFA Program, that I didn’t see eye to eye on, and it was her prerogative to find others to lead that charge, and I could come to understand, but it did force me into a necessity that I had never anticipated, and that is, what will I make of my life? I was 55 years old. I was a white guy. Getting another job in academia was about null, so what did I really want to do? And, I knew that I couldn’t give up on my life as a scholar, as an academic, and someone that was deeply invested in visual culture, visual art.
So, I decided that the thing to do would be to try to get this school off the ground. One of the things that I committed myself to was coming up with an idea that would reflect what I would do if I were going to do a PhD again. What I would want as a student. What I would want to experience. What I would want to get out of it. What I came up with I absolutely vowed that I would not change, if someone said, we’ll let you go for it, but you have to change this, or you have to get rid of that, or you have to do this instead of that, I wouldn’t go forward. You know? Luck would have it, we went all the way with no changes.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about that, I mean, explore a little bit your own background, your own PhD, your own kind of progression academically. Then, how you came to this new place.
George Smith: Yeah. Life is, we learn more from life than we certainly do from academic study, and that was my experience in graduate school. I went to Brown, and I studied literature there, and as you probably know, RISD, one of the nation’s great art schools is next to Brown, but it’s down the hill, and everybody at Brown teaches you to look down at artists, because the Brown people are intellectuals and the artists work with their hands, and that was never said, and I never knew that I recognized that until I wound up at the Maine College of Art, and I said to myself, oh, these people aren’t going to like me and they’re not going to be able to do what I teach, because they’re not trained in intellectual rigor, they’re trained in something completely different.
What I discovered is that wasn’t true at all. In fact, they got theory much faster than students at Brown that I was teaching. They were much more interested in it, they’re relationship to it was an authentic and not, well can I bring this phrase [inaudible 00:07:18] to a cocktail party and impress somebody. It was really dedicated interest. What came out of their experience was tremendously impressive. It was changing the way they saw the world, because they were seers. To me, two things came out of that: one, I did not recognize that I myself was prejudiced. I only discovered that when I discovered it in my attitude, and to my surprise, oh, these people are so smart, I didn’t think they would be. Then, secondly, I got from them the demonstration of what it means to change. That maybe freed me to the experience that I had when I was fired. Okay. Now, it’s time to change.
Lisa Belisle: Okay. You were in literature, and now you’re doing visual arts, so where was the turnoff here?
George Smith: You ask very pointed, insightful questions, Lisa. You’re a great listener. Well, when I was at Brown, because I was interested in art before I got there, I actually wrote a dissertation on the relationship between art and literature. The dissertation committee back in those days people were very conservative, as you probably know, especially at the Ivy League Schools, and the dissertation committee rejected my dissertation proposal on the grounds that it was interdisciplinary dissertation, one had never been done at Brown, and the people in the English Department worried that with that I would never get a job, and that would reflect badly on the department. It turns out they were right. I pushed through and got the dissertation approved and got it done, but no English Department would hire me. They said, well, you know half about English, and half about Art, we need somebody that knows all about English, because that’s what we teach here.
That was the general message. Nowadays of course, you cannot get a job unless you do interdisciplinary studies. But anyhow, I was really tough, hard up for a job, and I wound up teaching a little Art History course at Westbrook College, and then wound up teaching a theory course at the Maine College of Art. It was the first theory course they’ve ever offered, and it just so happened that the following year their dean left for another job at the Maryland Institute. They were desperate for an interim dean, they begged me to do it. I needed more income, so I took it and the next thing I knew I was stuck in that job for over 12 years.
Lisa Belisle: An interim dean for 12 years?
George Smith: Well, I became the permanent dean after the first year. Yeah. They did a search and then they made the great mistake of selecting me as the final candidate. Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: It sounds like you’re very committed to the things that you believe in. You didn’t back down when the people at Brown said, no, we don’t want you doing this, this way, and you didn’t back down when the people at MECA said, well, we need you to fit better. Talk to me a little bit about that. It would be easy enough, because many of us do make compromises in our job lives, for example, to just say, okay, fine, I’ll be who you want me to be, but it sounds like that’s not the direction you took.
George Smith: That’s a great question, too. I grew up in a family of eight kids with a single mother, and we were all raised to stick by our conditions, and I think most of us have, if not all of us.
Lisa Belisle: Where were you in the lineup?
George Smith: Second oldest.
Lisa Belisle: So, I’m imagining having a single mother you probably had a lot of responsibilities.
George Smith: I did. She and I worked in a restaurant together. I mowed lawns. I took care of the young kids. I had a lot going on. Plus, I played sports. I had every excuse to do poorly in school.
Lisa Belisle: Somehow you made it into Brown.
George Smith: Well, that was the luck of the accident, I suppose.
Lisa Belisle: I’m guessing that’s probably not as much as hard work, just reading between the lines, but did it feel once you got to this place where you had this great education in front of you, did it almost feel not as hard, because what you had been doing as the second oldest in the family of nine, with a single mother, was so challenging to begin with?
George Smith: That’s a great question, too. You know, when you come from a family of that size, with those economic dynamics…. By the way, we grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, and we were poor kids because of the consequence. I knew a lot about difference, I knew a lot about struggle, but when you grow up in a family that size with one breadwinner and a couple of kids trying to bring in some extra bucks, there was a lot of chaos, and doing well at school really is not a promising prospect, so I wasn’t a great student. In fact, I loved to skip school. But I knew that I had a fascination with literature, and I knew that I had a fascination with visual culture, and visual art. My mother was a painter. My father, who was a good guy, was very much interested in literature, so even though we were poor, we were raised to take a deep authentic substantial interest in the world, especially through literature and visual art and culture.
When I got to Brown, I actually was deeply intimidated, because everybody that was there with me had gone to Choate and Exeter, and then had gone to Yale and Harvard, and I had more or less bumbled my way through a state school education. I really had no idea what I was doing there. I spent the first year trying to prove to my professors that I knew an awful lot and that’s why I was there. Finally, at the end of the first year one of them took me aside and said, how long have you been in graduate education? I said, oh, a year. He said, how long do you think I’ve been in graduate? I said, oh, 25, 30 years? He said, yeah, the other people on the committee that admitted you had about the same amount of experience, so that’s almost a century of experience against your one year, why don’t you stop trying to tell me what you know and start learning what I have to give you and we’ll get along really well. He turned out to be my dissertation director and my mentor. Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: That’s a certain amount of stark honesty in that comment to you.
George Smith: Yeah. He said it in a beautiful way. I’m not conveying to you the sentiment that it came with because it was really done in a loving way.
Lisa Belisle: Do you think that when one is that age that that is often the approach? I’m just, I think about my own children, and both of my older ones who are now in their early 20’s went through a stage where they knew a lot more than me and needed to kind of work it out.
George Smith: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: I’m not saying that they’re wrong. They probably do know a lot more than me.
George Smith: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: But do you think that’s a developmental stage?
George Smith: In that case, it wasn’t. Of course, I was certainly an example of retarded development, but I was in my 30’s by that time, so it really was a matter of feeling less than, and being afraid to show what I didn’t know, so I wasn’t really prepared to learn. It was that first year that actually taught me the lesson, because I did not know. Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: That takes a lot of vulnerability to be able to admit that, because you have to trust that the people around you are going to accept you for whatever of knowledge that you have.
George Smith: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: And be willing to work with you.
George Smith: Yeah. It took about a year to get to that trust, but with that came that conversation that was really conducted with love, and love is always the key to vulnerability. Isn’t it?
Lisa Belisle: I think so.
George Smith: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: What is the philosophy of visual arts? When you talk about theory, give me some information. I mean, I am someone who has been trained in science. I have some background in literature, and all I know about art is what I have picked up through working with Art Collector Maine and the artists and the people I’ve interviewed. I don’t even know where to start on this idea.
George Smith: Yeah. I don’t think very many philosophers know where to start on that idea, either, quite frankly. I think we’re all pretty much confused about that and struggle in the dark to figure it out. But, what I would say there is certainly there has been a history of ideas that has accumulated over centuries and thousands of years in the struggle to understand the human spirit in relation to the world. Traditionally, artists have been relocated to a side role in that human aspiration as visually representing how those ideas might be translated into images that could then be symbolically interpreted by human beings in such a way that it could be a benefit to their lives. My feeling has always been that artists are themselves by definition philosophers, and because we deny them that kind of training, A, it limits the kind of work that they were thinking that they can represent and be. It also denies us the advantages that come from that kind of thinking because we don’t pay attention to them as thinkers; we only pay attention to them as makers, going all the way back to the experience that I had at Brown.
For me, it’s not so much what is philosophy, the real question is what can philosophy become? My feeling is that philosophers today are mostly trained in logic, which is really the elemental foundation of science, and what we need to do is to reinfuse that kind of thinking with creative dynamic thinking that is intrinsic to the creative imagination of the artist philosopher. What we, shall we say “push” that idea at IDSVA is what we call new philosophy and new philosophy is the kind of philosophy that is made by the artist philosopher. That may be a person who’s trained in philosophy that also thinks as the artist, or it may be the artist who’s been trained in philosophy and thinks in that way, too.
IDSVA is the only school in the world that trains people to think as artist philosophers, and we think that, that’s so important because of where we are in the world, today. We are confused. We are absolutely lost. Our politicians don’t know the way. Our economists don’t know the way. Our sociologists and academics don’t know the way. In my view philosophers have lost the way. The hope is with a new way of seeing we can find a way and to that end we bring philosophers from around the world to join in with our artists that come to IDSVA. To think about how do you think? To practice new ways of thinking.
Lisa Belisle: It seems as though there would be an applicability to lots of different areas. I mean, we are so confused right now about issues of diversity and gender, and we’re trying to see these issues through the same lens we’ve always seen them through, but what you’re describing is, okay, lets change our thinking, which then would enable us to change our lens, which might actually move us a little bit further than where heading, now.
George Smith: I wish I could say it so well. But, that’s not to say that we’re not interested in questions of gender, and race, and all of the other issues that immediately dog our lives, today, because we are and we work on those questions. But, again, we try to work on them from the kind of point of view that you’re describing, so eloquently, and I struggle so hard to say, as clearly.
Lisa Belisle: As a student with IDSVA, what types of things would one learn? I mean, what are the tools that you use? Do you use literature? Do you use art? Do you use both? I mean, how does the learning take place?
George Smith: That’s, again, a good question. All of those things and then more. For one thing, our students travel around the world. They go to the places in the world where historically art and ideas have come together in such an intersection that it’s changed the future of civilization and history. They travel in such a way that they actually retrace the evolution of the relationship between art and ideas, so they start in Rome and study classical philosophy, and obviously architecture, culture, visual representation, and certainly aspects of aesthetics. From there, they spend about two weeks in a feudal castle in Tuscany, so they go from the classical to the medieval and feudal, and while they’re in this castle they study contemporary philosophy and we fly in some of the great philosophers from around the world to work with them while they’re there.
Meanwhile, they’re also looking at the relationships between classical and feudal culture because now they’re on a feudal agrarian estate. It’s about a 1,100 acre farm, it’s a beautiful place. While they’re there they study in Siena, which is a medieval banking city in Florence, which is renaissance, of course. Then, from there they go to either Venice or Paris, Venice as a Baroque city, but also the Venice Biennale, which is the most contemporary moment in world art, and while they’re there they work with the curators and artists. They’re representing their nations at Venice. Or, they go to Paris, where they study modernism, Paris, the city of lights, French impressionism, post impressionism, so forth and so on, but also French post-structuralism, Deleuze, Guattari, Sartre and all that sort of thing.
Second year, they go to start in Berlin, and they study the neoclassical classical, Kant, Hegel, all those people we don’t like to hear about, and then to Heidegger then from there they go to Athens and go all the way back to the pre-Socratic thinking and look at that through the lens of Nietzsche. So it’s that kind of experiential work they do in the summertime that allows them to grasp the actual concrete relationship between the history of ideas and visual representation. I should say as they’re traveling around the world like that they go to about 60 of the world’s preeminent museums. In addition to the street life and the architecture and the music and the fashions and the living philosophers and artists that they work with they are also studying the history of visual representation that way.
In the fall and the spring, they do live seminars by video conference, so there they are all spread around the world with, faculty that are spread around the world that come together and they study the regular syllabus of seminar analysis. When doing those live video conferences, by the way, not only do we have a philosopher or an artist teaching the course, but also we have people from around the world drop in by live video, so if we’re reading a book by a philosopher who lives in London, she can drop in and say, well, we’ve got a few questions for you about how this text fits in with Derrida and blah, blah, blah. So, it’s pretty exciting.
Lisa Belisle: How many students do you have?
George Smith: We have about 75 students, which is very small for a school, and very, very big for a humanities PhD program today. We have about 45 students in the three year course of study, and then another 30 or so writing dissertations.
Lisa Belisle: What do you see the future of this institution being?
George Smith: The future that I’m hoping for is an endowed institution that will live in perpetuity along the lines that it’s so far developed. It’s been tremendously effective. When I was in graduate school, I don’t know about you, but my primary job was to complain about how lousy the program was, and how ineffectual the faculty was, and how other faculty, other schools were so much better. We get letters and emails and telephone calls from our students all the time saying, I cannot thank you enough for this experience. Most of them are themselves professors; maybe half to two-thirds of our students are faculty in studio departments at American universities and colleges, so they are educators themselves and they so appreciate what we’ve come up with.
Lisa Belisle: How about you in your own life?
George Smith: Couldn’t be better.
Lisa Belisle: No future thoughts? You’re happy exactly where you are right now.
George Smith: I’d have to be bigger to feel any better. But again, if I had one big next dream come true it would be to endow the institution. To me, that’s the real key. We compete against some of the great institutions in the world who fund their students completely and then give them usually some kind of a fellowship, and our students have to pay tuition because we’re a small institution and we don’t have the undergraduate tuition to depend on to fund. My next project, actually, now that we’ve got the school accredited and really flying is to focus on endowment.
Lisa Belisle: It’s really interesting to me that you are literally building this from the ground up, and in Maine we have this tremendous history of institutions doing exactly that, because we’ve talked to the College of the Atlantic, we’ve talked to Unity College, and of course the other schools, which are now a couple hundred years old.
George Smith: Sure.
Lisa Belisle: But it seems like people don’t necessarily feel held back by the fact that something educational doesn’t currently exist. Does this in any way feel comforting to you as you’re moving through this process?
George Smith: You know, I have to say that from the very beginning I was convinced that what I’m doing could only happen in the state of Maine. I am an academic, so I just know that you cannot start a school, you cannot start a program like this with an existing school. If you tried to do it at Harvard or even USM it would take ten years to just get through all the different committees, and then it would have to go to the provost for funding and then to the board of trustees. It would be fifteen years and then eventually be shot down, I’m sure of it. Therefore, my first major decision in developing this program was to say, it has to be standalone. People said, well, that means you’re going to have to get a bill passed through the Maine state legislature and signed into law by the governor, are you sure you want to do that? Much easier than going through the academic bureaucratic process. Much easier. In fact, it was a relative piece of cake.
From the day that we decided to do this to the day we delivered our first lecture at Spannocchia Castle in Tuscany it was eight months. Eight months. We started with no money and no students. But I had to give a lot of credit to the state of Maine for that. That was an amazing process. We had to speak before the education committee of the state legislature, we had to speak before the board of education, and these people were farmers and fisherman and gardeners and truck drivers and school teachers, and we’d go in and we’d say, oh, my God, they’re not going to even want to talk to us, and they were amazing. Amazing. Then we had to speak before the committee on education at the legislature, and again, what an amazing experience. Glenn Cummings, who is now the president of USM, was the speaker up at the house at the time, he took this on as a personal aspiration, and got it through both houses, and then before the governor with a unanimous minus one vote, combined between the house and the senate. Unanimous, minus one. If I had tried to do this in Massachusetts where I’m from, I would not be talking about it today.
Lisa Belisle: Well, given the amount of effort and energy you have put into this, and given the amount of success you have had, I can only imagine that your next quest to get this fully endowed will be successful. I hope people who are listening will find out more about the Institute for Doctoral Studies and the Visual Arts. I’ve been speaking with George Smith, who’s an internationally recognized scholar and has long been a leader and innovator in American education and the founder of this wonderful school. I really appreciate you coming in and talking to me, today.
George Smith: Thank you for your hospitality, Lisa, really wonderful to talk to you.