In which value structure does an arts university move? How political is art? Is it systemically important? An interview with ZHdK President Karin Mairitsch.
Sylvia Battegay: Is art political?
Karin Mairitsch: I would neither speak about art in the abstract nor generalize, let alone formulate postulates. How does art come into existence? Through people. Thus, first of all, we are talking people, who, being diverse, produce and disseminate art and design just as diversely. The fact that we are involved in social contexts, have political views and a voice in a democracy may sometimes be unpleasant, but it is our task. We take different positions on different socio-political issues. What we produce thus resonates socially.
What about the neutrality of higher education in this respect?
Universities are the ground on which we move. This ground must be neutral so that students can be completely different — as individuals and as artists. The plurality of life can thrive only if diversity can be ensured. This requires neutral ground.
Can an institution like ZHdK be completely neutral?
An institution cannot be completely neutral insofar as it must engage. Engagement in the sense of adopting a stance. In my opinion, human rights are fundamental, as are a democratic constitution and autonomy.
Human rights, democracy, autonomy. Are these the values of a university?
Our university has a mission statement. When we speak of “cultural, social and economic responsibility,” about “openness, critical curiosity, respect and self-critical reflection” and about “sustainability and autonomy,” we also mean human rights, democracy and autonomy. I am glad that ZHdK has formulated and is committed to values. I am also pleased that we keep exposing ourselves to today’s discourses. This socio-political approach continues in the arts. And I am happy that the current generation of ZHdK students is critically reflective and thus politicized in a certain way. We live in exciting times.
What about woke culture? How will ZHdK position itself in this respect under your leadership?
We need to address this explosive socio-political issue — as individuals and as an arts university. In the long term, I want to develop a position together with ZHdK staff and students that is broadly supported and by which we feel represented. We need to position ourselves with a stance that is also anchored in our mission statement.
How do you assess ZHdK’s sustainability potential?
My impression is that ZHdK approaches sustainability very consciously, in its operations, teaching, research and artistic production. Take the sustainability dossier: it makes an important contribution to the fact that teaching, research, outreach, design and the arts keep opening up new possibilities for making ZHdK sustainable in the long run. The fact that sustainability is and remains anchored in everyday campus life is also a credit to our students: they are keenly aware that we live on a planet with limited resources. This generation cares about how our actions impact society, the environment and the economy — on both a small and a large scale. As far as I can tell, this generation aspires to be human. Not only individually but also collectively and globally. The arts have great expertise in making an important contribution in this respect.
To what extent are human beings human without art?
Not at all, in my eyes. The value of art is to produce meaning, to help us become aware and be with ourselves, in order to go out into the world.
So art is highly important to being human. How would you explain the discrepancy with the common perception of art, which does not accord art this status?
I suspect that this is about discourses of power. As a human being, it is important to be authentic, reflective, meaningful, creative and able to imagine things. But imagining can be dangerous: for oneself, for institutions, for everyone. Art is based on a diagnosis of the times. This diagnosis can be critical of prevailing systems and structures. It can contradict the zeitgeist or reveal blind spots and much more. This is sometimes unpleasant. History has repeatedly shown how dangerous the imagination can be. Many artists have been ahead of their times but were unable to connect with society: their art was often perceived as a threat to the prevailing order. Today, we consider them very progressive. And precisely that is the point: the imagination brings about a shift in interpretation, a change of course, in terms of what becomes foregrounded.
Is there any hope that art will be considered systemically important?
I trust in us realizing that everything is connected and that we live together, that nothing is more important than anything else. Ultimately, drawing an analogy with nature is also interesting: if we take away bees, nothing remains. If we take away the arts, things will falter. But this is a strange question: What is relevant to the system? Which discipline or tool? The truth is: the human being is systemically important.