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The Meaning of Being Human

Marquette's Curtis Carter on art, philosophy and China

Jun. 22, 2011
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Curtis Carter came to Milwaukee in 1969 as an assistant professor in philosophy at Marquette University and has long since become a full professor. Climbing the academic ladder, however, was never a sufficient objective for the tireless Carter. Against some initial opposition, Carter organized the Haggerty Museum of Art and became its founding director when it opened in 1984. He is currently president of the International Association of Aesthetics and writes prolifically from the perspective that scholarship without practical application is dead.

Which interest came first, art or philosophy?

I've been interested in art from childhood and explored it in various ways through life. I became interested in philosophy in college. Aesthetics provided a nice place to merge those things. By the time I finished graduate school I realized that although I loved philosophy, I'd like to see practical outcomes. It's not enough to be a theorist. I had to make a difference in the world by engaging art and philosophy in life situations outside the academy.

Some people erect impressive buildings without much sense of purpose. What was your perspective in starting the Haggerty?

My vision architecturally was a building that would be a work of art and serve a broad range of art, from the most traditional to the most experimental. It was to provide a laboratory for learning through the arts—and not just the visual arts—for Marquette and the entire community. I traveled internationally to develop communications with artists, galleries and museums to identify ideas for exhibitions and lectures. Along with that, it was necessary to develop a museum friends group to contribute the necessary financial support.

Why did you step down as director in 2007?

I felt that after having established the museum and putting it on solid financial and aesthetic footing, it was time to move on. I was interested in new challenges—to broaden my involvement internationally in the art world. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of my work at the museum, but it had come to a point where I would be repeating the cycle of what I had established—and that's not in my nature.

Has China been your focus since leaving the Haggerty?

Yes, I've been developing connections with contemporary Chinese artists and scholars. I've lectured at Beijing University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts. I've contributed my work on aesthetics to Chinese art and philosophy journals and written catalog essays for a dozen artists. My book on art and society is being published in China and I'm working on a book on 20th-century Western aesthetics for a Chinese publisher.

I was also part of a delegation organized by Julia Taylor and the Greater Milwaukee Committee to develop cultural exchange between Beijing and Wisconsin. In addition, I've been working with Cuban artists. I recently finished an essay on Agustin Fernandez for a book on his work.

What is the situation for artists in China?

Since the 1980s there has been a growing realization that artists should have the liberty to pursue their work without undue interference from the government. One of China's leaders said that a great nation can't stand on one leg—meaning economics. A great nation also needs a strong cultural foundation. As I see it, Chinese artists are pretty much able to do what they want with the understanding that if they attack the state, they will run into problems. In Chinese culture citizens earn rights by fulfilling their obligations—loyalty to family and community. Following Confucius, community rights take precedence over the individual. There is an assumption in Confucianism and Maoism that art has an important social purpose.

Can you sum up your philosophy?

My aim has always been to communicate the role of art and philosophy in developing a life that is more than economics and politics, but addresses the value of what it means to be human.


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