Published on 29 May 2019
Le futur théâtre. RPBW Studios

Pierre-Paul Zalio, sociologist, university professor and president of ENS Paris-Saclay, recalls the importance of cultural facilities in universities.

On April 19, at the Centre Pompidou, the École normale supérieure Paris-Saclay launched the groundbreaking project of a research scene designed by Renzo Piano. A system of collaborations between artists, scientists and students, this place displays the ambition to "project" the work platform and all the resources of the Saclay campus. The result of the desire to provide a major training school searching for a structuring cultural facility, this gesture, which is still rare in the French university context, highlights the importance of cultural facilities in universities.

The delay of French universities

For singular historical reasons, the largest American universities have exceptional cultural facilities that are an important element of their reputation, particularly because they attest to the universal values that these universities intend to proclaim. Harvard has more than twelve museums. In 2017, Stanford named a Vice-President for the Arts. This university houses two major museums and no less than six performing arts venues.
Anyone who arrives at Yale sees the Beinecke Library, a kind of museum of rare manuscripts. The same can be said of the Johnson Museum of Art in Cornell, built by Pei, which overlooks Lake Cayuga. To cite two British universities, Cambridge is home to nine (rather scientific) museums and Warwick, a more recent creation, owes part of its reputation and international attractiveness to the programming of the Warwick Arts Centre in the heart of the campus.
In the 1990s, a friend of mine who went to Harvard for a master's degree returned enthusiastic from her American experience, but her strongest memory was of having participated, as an amateur chorister, in a performance in John Adams' Nixon in China on the campus. In this respect, French universities are lagging behind. If displaying an ambitious cultural and artistic policy is consistent with the international claims of the Université Paris-Saclay and may seem logical, it is not self-evident in France.

Cultural vocation of the university

However, it is one of the missions of public research and higher education institutions to develop a cultural policy. Universities are "public scientific, cultural and professional institutions" (EPSCP); the word cultural appears in their acronym since the 1968 Faure law. In 2009 Valérie Pécresse entrusted Emmanuel Ethis, then President of Université d'Avignon, with a mission that would lead to the book "De la culture à l'université". 128 rather heterogeneous proposals combined the development of artistic practice and production at the university, the development of digital cultures, the articulation between cultural diversity and socialization at the university, the promotion of the acquisition of a general culture, the role of culture in anchoring and opening up to the territory, and finally, the affirmation of the place of universities in the art world.
In 2013, the Fioraso law confirms this orientation: article L123-6 of the Education Code stipulates that :
"The mission of the higher education's public service is the development of culture and the dissemination of knowledge and research results. It promotes innovation and individual and collective creation in the arts, humanities, sciences and technology."
The result of a typically political-university compromise, this article puts under the same heading cultural policy and dissemination of research, sports activities and development of regional cultures, action against gender stereotypes and development of university museum collections... But it puts culture and science on the same footing, as belonging to the same family of thought activities. It underlines the continuity, possible but problematic, between all acts of thought into works of the mind - whether artistic or scientific - where results "something that has remained in the shadows and that it is a question of knowing how to find and grasp", as Agamben writes.
A number of initiatives exist in France. In very different categories, we can be pleased to see the existence of associations (in particular A+U+C, the TRAS network), places (for example the Théâtre de la Vignette in Montpellier), training (for example the PhD in Arts and Creativity from PSL). Beyond these few initiatives, the weakness of artistic challenges within higher education and research institutions persists.

Art and culture as "alibis"

Several factors contribute to this situation. First of all, the separation between the schools under the Ministry of Culture and those under the Ministry of Higher Education (or other ministries). This segmentation tends to reduce the cultural mission of universities to mediation or enhancement of scientific and technological culture; it also reinforces a theoretical conception of artistic training in universities. For cultural schools, this separation weakens the link between research and schools for training in artistic practices.
In addition, there is still a prejudice that artistic disciplines are not quite on an equal footing with knowledge-producing disciplines at the university level. Cultural activities are confined to the role of disseminating a general culture or legitimizing it. For a university president or school principal, hosting an artist residency is (sometimes) like having an apiary on your roof and an AMAP in the lobby, it's part of a whole range of "funky" communication. But universities lack places where, in a shared requirement, real joint processes of intelligibility, between artistic practices and productions, scientific, pedagogical and innovation practices and experiences, can be found. This absence is also the trace of a powerful pattern of thought that opposes science and art, technology and culture.
Culture is justified if it distracts us from a technique that would dehumanize us; it is useful if it accommodates us (by promoting acceptability). As if one could not think that artistic practices can continue or precede, in a work, intelligibility, criticism and meaning of science and technology. Placing culture at the heart of the university makes it conceivable that science, technical objects and technological research are not the enemies of humanism, but reservoirs of sensitive meanings.

An ambivalent trend

Yet, paradoxically, culture has perhaps never been so much in demand in recent years by the worlds of higher education and research. There are ambivalent tendencies here, where sincere awareness and various forms of opportunism can be found. The slogan "art and science", for example, is very popular and carries the risk of simply making a type of work. In a context of competition in the worlds of art and scientific institutions, it has created a niche with artists who specialize in working with scientists and even with scientists tempted by the need to reconvert to the worlds of art. The encounter between "art and science", often based on a mutual ignorance of the two worlds, can then generate the best and the worst.
Another trend is that the desire to introduce creativity into academic institutions can take forms modelled by management, outside a desire for disruption through art and culture. Far from giving free rein to artistic languages' specific exploration , it is a question of exploiting well-established methods and devices in the service of innovation. The fab labs, the mythology of makers and hackers, the craze for design, all these schemes and devices, however useful they may be, are now part of this creative toolbox which is part of a desire to de-ringard the academic world.
Establishing a place of culture that truly makes a "research scene" is another matter: it means breaking with these paradoxical injunctions to creativity. The autonomy and the level of artistic requirement are not subject to the expectations of institutions or communities.
Such a place must make, in the same gesture, link and rupture: rupture with any idea of instrumentalization to give free rein to sensitive explorations, rupture with school culture (often prevalent among the most brilliant students) to cultivate an approach of research and risk-taking; rupture with disciplinary culture (often prevalent among academics) to promote the transgression of the boundaries of knowledge.
The scene we are talking about breaks up and welcomes, questions and explores. It makes us work together. Through the experience of artistic practices, it confronts students and scientists alike with the uncertainties of the world to come. Culture therefore calls for strong places at the heart of universities. Places whose physical, iconic, functional presence renews the ways of forming, seeking, teaching, exploring.
Pierre-Paul Zalio, sociologist, university professor, President of ENS Paris-Saclay, Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay – Université Paris-Saclay
This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article in French.