In his essay, “Passionate Histories,” Benjamin Filene makes the persuasive claim that institutional outsiders often produce the “most creative work” in public history. A sociologist established the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, for example, and a sculptor launched the City Museum of St. Louis.
“Can we teach boundary-breaking creativity?,” he asks. And can we sustain creativity under the demands of school? I suppose this is something that most of us will grapple with in the coming months and years, feeling the tug of “professionalization” rites while trying to deepen our attunement to the vital collective imaginaries of our communities.
That tension is real, but it needn’t be a matter of choosing between scholarship and artistic practice. I agree with Filene that the disconnect has a lot to do with institutional media biases: namely, the academic paper or monograph as the highest, if not the only legitimate, end goal of serious research; and more fundamentally, the precedence of the written word. I wonder if artists-turned-academics, under these expressive constraints, simply fall out of practice with other media, and fall out of touch with their extra-institutional collaborators.
This situation seems to be changing quickly, however, as a sense of urgency about the need to communicate and engage more widely presses upon academics concerned with social justice, as well as attracting artists and activists to scholarship. Still, the structural divides persist, and it seems like we are in a moment when they could either collapse or harden.