What is public life? How does it differ from political life or public service? Who is entitled to participate in it, and why? Is there a particular language or vernacular that ought to be used in public life?
In the RCAH we are concerned with public life in the broadest sense, that is, the life of the political communities whose cultural identities have emerged, coalesced, and come apart. Public life is a struggle for political recognition that includes what goes on within official political institutions like legislatures, courts, and political parties. But even more importantly for our purposes, it includes what goes on in civil society: the neighborhood associations, clubs, and support groups; the many associations that have formed through the Internet; and many more groups who are all, at one time or another concerned, with how the public good is defined and who can have a say in this process.
The roles of art in this process of public life are as different as the forms of art themselves, and even more ephemeral. Monuments to great political leaders and memorials to fallen soldiers are objects of veneration that can quickly become targets of revenge as political tides turn. In other words, the role of a particular work of art in public life is not always what it was intended to be. It may grow in importance beyond the cultural boundaries in which it was conceived, and it may acquire an entirely different political meaning than it originally had. But, art is more than simply the object of competing interpretations of public goods and purposes. It can just as easily be the active agent itself. Greek tragedy's role in the political education of democratic Athens has been a rich source of inspiration for subsequent societies. The films of William Kentridge (Ubu and the Truth Com-mission) and Claude Lanzmann (Shoah) provoke and prompt as much as they report and remind. Music can inspire protest, reinforce loyalty, or rally the troops. Art in this active sense can also create public space, not just public sentiments. It can make it possible for citizens to gather, but it can also exclude others from participation in public life. For example, the history of suburban architecture, as Dolores Hayden has shown in Redesigning the American Dream, is the story of a better life for some and the loss of opportunities for others. The creation of suburban shopping malls—single-minded public spaces—has narrowed public discourse and become a foil for critical cinematic representations.
An important part of the RCAH major is to learn how to see, hear, read, and feel our cultural environment. Students study the transcultural histories of our world through the objects that link societies together such as gold, cotton, silk, and even salt and ice. These are as much objects of art as they are economic commodities. Deciphering the peculiar impact of art on public life requires that we think of the familiar in unfamiliar terms, for example, suburban housing, handmade quilts, comics, and other crafts are laden with cultural significance for public life. Similarly, we must learn to re-think the cultural significance of the more traditional and iconic artistic productions, for example, sculptures, symphonies, and portraiture. We must learn to read these famous objects historically, not just as exquisite works of creative genius, whose significance sometimes changes dramatically.
Students choosing this pathway may decide to pursue dual majors in Art History or Urban and Regional Planning, and my be interested in a museum studies specialization or a minor in music or theater. They will have opportunities within the RCAH to explore art and public life through special studio and performance co-curricular activities.