This essay was selected as the faculty winner in the UNM College of Fine Arts “Future” essay contest and published in the Fall 2011 College of Fine Arts Newsletter.
Imagining the future can be a perilous task. As a historian, I appreciate how completely the future lay beyond our cleverest speculation. Consider, as brief example, today’s everyday technologies (smartphones, GPS systems, DVRs, skype) and how utterly fantastical they seemed to most of us only a decade or two ago.
So, when challenged to imagine the future, and how a College of Fine Arts might create a path to that future’s new reality, I am, somewhat paradoxically, reminded of a favorite aphorism about the past: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This articulation of the past’s relation to the present (offered by novelist L. P. Hartley) I can understand. Extending Hartley’s formulation a step or two, I can also see that we are our future’s past. We do things differently now than we will in the future. This we can know for sure. Yet, as one who works and studies among others in a College of Fine Arts, I might also say I know something else for certain. We of today might not be fully able to imagine future technologies, but we are likely already familiar with the creative techniques that will guide their application. Put another way: artists understand that technology changes but technique endures.
Throughout the College of Fine Arts, practitioners at every level of expertise rehearse techniques of creative inquiry, many of which emerge from hundreds (even thousands) of years of tradition. Cultivated through discipline, these techniques serve as the artist’s embodied archive, a bag of tricks to be carried anywhere the artist might go. Whether applied in the dancer’s studio or the painter’s, at the pianist’s keyboard or the digital storyteller’s, artists work in the present using techniques drawn from the past. Each artist’s creative intellect then applies those techniques in ways that reach toward (and often reconfigure) the future.
More than any other workers in contemporary life, artists understand that, for those of the future, we are the past. Artists know that the techniques they carry, if cultivated and maintained with mindful discipline, can remain supple, useful and ready for their as yet unforeseen applications by the creative intellects of the future. This is why artists studying today remain so devoted to techniques rooted in the past – so that those techniques might be available as tools for future innovation.
Perhaps this is why even a historian like me can see that the College of Fine Arts is where the future lives today. Passing through the Center for the Arts, you can see and hear how those who study here are practicing for a future in every moment. Today’s artists may or may not show us exactly what the future will look like, but today’s disciplined cultivation of technique rehearses the creative intellect that we, all of us, will be obliged to use in that not too distant moment when the future becomes now.