<< Front page Arts April 9, 2004

James Keller, the new face of Emerging Arts at Oberlin

Wednesday night over a beer at the Feve, Radiohead’s “Karma Police” lilted in the background as I discussed Oberlin’s Emerging Arts program with its newly appointed director, James Keller. Keller was in the midst of explaining to me that only “art music” with “technique” would be included in his syllabus, not pop music. Minutes later, as OK Computer was winding down, I asked him if he liked what we heard. He put down his beer, smiled and said, “I wasn’t listening.”

Keller, a recent convocation speaker and a 1975 Oberlin double-degree graduate, has recently accepted the Oberlin College faculty position of Luce Professor of the Emerging Arts. Previously held by art critic Linda Weintraub, the professorship began in 1999 through a grant application to the Henry Luce Foundation. It is the only faculty position in both the College of Arts and Sciences and the Conservatory of Music. Keller is a music critic and historian working currently as program annotator for the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony.

Marci Janas and Linda Grashoff gave the first word on the original proposal for the Emerging Arts professorship in 1998: “Unprecedented modes of seeing require new interdisciplinary models of arts education and intellectual frameworks for examining the criticism, theory, ethics and aesthetics of new modes of making art. An entirely new sort of arts curriculum is required. How do we prepare for the new models made possible by technology? How do we study them? Critique them? Interpret them? What aesthetics do we apply to them? What ethics?”

The questions engaged by the authors of this proposal underscore the experimental nature of new art criticism. The emergence, or better, the emergency of new technology, issues, media, categories, differences, politics and subjectivies in art require a relentless appetite for re-theorization. In the Luce professorship, this trajectory is given a structure and a salary. The experiment itself is, by definition, planned but never guaranteed.

Wednesday evening, I had the chance to talk with Keller about how his work as a classical music critic and historian might interface with the 1998 proposal. Keller spoke earlier to Oberlin Online on his approach to the job: “I’m a historian by training and bias,” Keller said. “I believe that new creations are born out of traditions, and I want to place them in a context that makes them approachable.” In Keller’s curriculum, the method of evaluating approachability will involve teaching the canon of aesthetic theory. “I will try to focus on certain enduring principles
that have informed aesthetics over the ages.”

But the 1998 proposal reminds us that the Luce professorship was written with “new interdisciplinary models of arts education.” One could argue that the categories of identity politics that came to prominence in the 1980s of gender, class, race, ethnicity and sexuality might create difficult questions for canonical aesthetics. When asked point-blank if the canon of aesthetic theory might be timed rather than “timeless,” Keller responded with an anecdote about Montaigne. He covered his walls with quotations from the great ancient thinkers and they became his source of discourse. Keller went on to assert that the social context of historical ideas was not a necessary component to criticism, that ancient thoughts are “malleable.”

It is impossible to know how Keller will experiment in the classroom, though the planning for next year’s coursework seems to signal a radical departure from the original proposal of the Emerging Arts Program, where emergence and experiment were its fundamental characteristics. The language of the original 1998 text almost suggests that the job might best be filled by the anti-historian: the true critic of the moment, where categories of thought are continuously interrogated, revised and refashioned.

But Keller, for better or for worse, is not the anti-historian. If Wednesday night’s lecture is any indication of Keller’s work he is, in fact, the pre-concert lecturer. His presentation, titled “A Minute with Stravinsky,” was a one-hour look at a one-minute string quartet written by Stravinsky in 1914. He divided it neatly into two 30-minute halves. In the first, Keller was the historical musicologist who sketches a charming biography, quotes a handful of scholarship and elegantly punctuates it with an archive of dates. In the second, Keller played music analyst, unpacking the structural poetics of the quartet through the parameters of rhythm and melody. He left the audience around 9:10 p.m. without an answer to the big question: “What does this have to do with art at Oberlin now and the way we think about it?”

The summary question has to be something like, what was the search committee thinking when they hired Keller? Were they aiming to hire a classical music critic whose accolades include published articles in Travel and Leisure, Chamber Music and Bon Appetit? Who is an experienced oboist of early music? Whose hobbies include “gardening, cooking and wine collecting?” I asked Keller if he met with any students in the process of interviews, both in person and on the phone. He said no.

Regardless of whether or not the mission of the Emerging Arts program has changed somewhat since its inception, the job description fundamentally demands a skilled interdisciplinarian. It is difficult for sure to find the right critic, the right scholar who is willing to be a resident faculty member in Oberlin for a four-year contract. But Keller’s self-proclaimed intellectual conservatism, his status as a journalist of classical music and his relative lack of a publishing record in other media (not to mention other music) seem to be at odds with the most fundamental elements of the 1998 Emerging Arts Proposal and, worst of all, suggest that the administration is willfully out of touch with the activities of student artists.


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