“Study Abroad at Home” would be a good idea today for students of world literature. Residential stays or regular visits with the range of immigrant communities close to home throughout the industrialized world would prepare students to engage as readers in today’s world, whether or not they plan to specialize in the languages and cultures of their nearby hosts. It is an idea generated by the Cultural Agents Initiative whose mission, along with many programs in Public Humanities, is to reconnect the Humanities with its tradition of civic development. Maybe this study abroad proposal, or variations that similarly bridge home and elsewhere, will thrive if adopted by administrators and professors who choose to take seriously their encouragement of students to become global citizens, to read and to think and feel beyond their inherited frameworks.

Today more than ever, language, literature, and related fields of cultural constructions cannot fit into the compact and self-perpetuating notions of culture that still inform the social sciences. For humanists as well as for artists, culture has an almost opposite value. It means the interruption of shared practices; and it generates the kind of disconcerting delight that Immanuel Kant appreciated as the stimulus for candid unscripted conversations. Those disinterested and delightful moments develop into exercises of free judgment which lead to inter-subjective agreements. This faculty of judgment, that pauses to step back and take stock, is basic to all disciplines. But the best training ground for judgment is the carefree area of aesthetics. The reason is simple: deciding if something is beautiful requires responding to an intense experience without obeying any established principles. Therefore, the decision is therefore free from prejudice. Aesthetic judgment is an exercise in unbiased evaluation, a knack that science and civics need as much as art does.

Kant wryly called the new agreements based on judgment common sense, "because we come to sense something in common." To his lasting credit, he framed the process of constructing something in common as a response to surprise, to interruptions.  (Habermas’s communicative action follows close behind.) Agreement depends on initial confusion, when one way of thinking interferes with another. Today, in multi-cultural environments that beg questions of meaning and values, Kant’s hope for the process of Enlightenment makes even more sense. We are all comparatists now, inevitably, caught among competing systems that surprise one another.  Humbled but also exhilarated by the complexity of our local and far-flung worlds, we read classics and contemporaries in the few languages we can muster, and we modestly depend on translations for other traditions that allow us only hints at the riches we will never attain.

The Enlightenment project, in other words, depends on a rhythm of taking the kinds of risks that aesthetic judgment requires. Risk unhinges us from inherited opinions and it experiments in the way that Samuel Becket formulated for Endgame and that artists have adopted as a slogan: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  It was Friedrich Schiller who added this dimension of freedom to Kant’s responsive approach to judgment.  Beauty and the sublime stimulate judgment for Kant; but for Schiller beauty and the sublime are also products of hands-on engagement with words and with things, engagements that require pauses for aesthetic judgment during the creative process.

Learning to read across languages and traditions is training in the ethics of surprise. This risky practice implies the acknowledgment of different references and traditions as well as the potential construction of shared interpretations.  Broad reading is also an introduction to the pedagogy of global citizenship. One lesson to take away from transnational habits of reading is the availability of disparate traditions to often excluded readers. We are all excluded to different degrees from one tradition or another. Knowing this enables a variety of engagements. Traditionally underprivileged readers may have the advantage here; they don’t miss the cues of competing values and norms, or the signs of targeted ideal audiences. Readers who may be resentful, perhaps put off by works they associate with colonial or elitist practices, know the advantage of mastering those works and turning them into grist for other mills. Enjoyment is one incentive to read, but use value and even revenge are other incentives.

I learned how to teach mastery of classic texts to even reluctant readers by combining lessons from masterful artists in Latin America. My teachers are cultural agents who effect significant social change through creative interventions.  One maestro is the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Antanas Mockus. Elected in 1995 to the most violent and corrupt city of the hemisphere, Mockus developed a participatory program in Civic Culture which turned ordinary citizens into co-artists. He revived a major city from the top down, by replacing corrupt police with mimes, by vaccinating against violence, and a series of other inspired pranks. Another maestro is Augusto Boal who worked from the bottom up. A theater artist from Brazil who returned after the dictatorship and joined Rio de Janeiro’s city government, Boal staged public co-productions of urban life, including “legislative theater.” He also multiplied himself internationally by training many more facilitators for inter-active explorations of conflicts, mental illness, and unfair laws. Both the top-down mayor and the bottom-up artist linked creativity to humanistic interpretation in ways that make them model agents. They are masters in the double sense of artist and teacher, creator and philosopher. Mockus and Boal knew how art and interpretation overlap with civic education when they treated entire cities as their classrooms.

Thanks to them and to several more agents of change, I now use my training in literary studies to develop sturdy citizenship. Literary classics from the canons of Europe, the Americas and Africa have been recruited as the core of a Cultural Agents teacher training program for underserved public schools in Boston, throughout Latin America, and several sites in China and Africa. Along with other academic theorists of literature, I know that one art can interpret another. And after training with artist-activists, this element of theory became the practical inspiration for a program called Pre-Texts. The gambit is to use a fragment of great literature as raw material to fuel the challenging pleasures of making art. Even if students may resist reading a poem by Emily Dickinson or a play by Socrates, they will gleefully use the stuff to create a dance, or a drawing, or a song, or a decorated cookie. I learned to decorate cookies as literary interpretation, seriously, in a session devoted to interpreting Antigone.

In the process of art-making, and then pausing to ask “What did we do?” students and facilitators explore as many interpretations of a text as there are participants in the room. Diversity becomes a pleasurable experience of appreciating a range of artistic interpretations rather than an imposed social value. One of the lessons to be learned from cultural agents is that pleasure primes positive change, whereas change by other means breeds resentment and resistance. Workshop participants also learn to value literary theory as user-friendly distillations of creative practices. Everyone notices, for example, that literature is recycled material, since words, tropes, plots, references, and characters are regularly borrowed, plagiarized and re-purposed for new creations. This makes the vocabulary of intertextuality, traces, and anxiety of influence almost laughably self-evident. Reader-response theory is equally easy when children account for their interpretive drawings by explaining their personal preferences for particular colors and forms, or through references to their own experience. As for deconstruction, each time a young student notices that critical and creative thinking go together, or that differences of opinion depend on each other, facilitators smile with recognition of what had seemed abstract.

Pre-Texts uses world literature as cultural capital for anyone who gets to play. Children who exploit a scene from Shakespeare to make costumes, or a tale by Cervantes to spur a spoken word slam, feel empowered to engage with privileged interlocutors. For too long, we have seen well-meaning humanists derail the process of empowerment. They sometimes consider great literary works to be inherently objectionable, the exclusive inheritance of elite stakeholders. Populists snub what Angel Rama called “The Lettered City” in response to its unhappy history of snubbing popular classes. The antidote to snobbism has been to cultivate a form of cultural studies that celebrates extra-literary practices. One unfortunate result of this academic populism is that men and women of letters have become reluctant to impose, or to share, the classics with non-elite publics. And the paradoxical effect has been to perpetuate the divide between privileged and popular sectors. A more democratizing approach is to treat the classics the way any good writer does, as pre-texts to play with.

This desacralizing and creative approach to world literature takes inspiration, as I said, from arts projects of cultural agents that merit more sustained reflection than they have gotten. These are creative works on grand and small scales that morph into institutional innovation. Reflecting on them is a humanistic assignment insofar as the humanities teach interpretation of art (to identify points of view, attend to technique, to context, to competing messages, and evaluate aesthetic effects). Part of the work is to train free, disinterested judgment. That’s why humanistic training is a fundamental contribution to general research and to social development.[1] Training free thought is an extension of teaching appreciation for art, along with care for the world that art constructs and enhances. Therefore, interpreting art, appreciating its power to shape the world, can spur and support urgently needed change. This is not a deviation from humanistic attention to the mechanisms of art production and reception. It is a corollary and a homecoming to civic education.

All of us would do well to consider art’s ripple effects, from producing pleasure to triggering innovation. And acknowledging art’s work makes us cultural agents: those who make, comment, buy, sell, reflect, allocate, decorate, vote, don’t vote, or otherwise lead social, culturally constructed lives. But humanists can fulfill a special mission by keeping aesthetics in focus, lingering with students and readers over the charmed moments of freely felt pleasure that enables fresh perceptions and fosters new agreements. More apparently practical people may rush past pleasure as if it were a temptation to derail the progress of reason. We are haunted, it seems, by a Weberian superstition about enjoyment being close to sin and a deterrent to development.[2] But a countervailing lesson we could learn from Antonio Gramsci is that social change begins with incremental work to change hearts and mind, what the Enlightenment called taste or aesthetic judgment.

The appropriate question about agency is not if we exercise it, but how intentionally we do so, to what end and what effect. "Agent" is a term that acknowledges the small shifts in perspective and practice that Gramsci described as a war of position in which organic intellectuals—including artists and interpreters—lead moves toward collective change (North, Institutions and “A Transaction Cost Theory of Politics”). It won’t do to indulge in romantic dreams about art remaking the world. Nor does it make sense to stop dreaming altogether and stay stuck in cynicism. Between frustrated fantasies and paralyzing despair, agency is a modest but relentless call to creative action, one small step at a time.

Art, of course, has no obligation to be constructive, or to be good or bad, ethically speaking. And politically, artists can be progressive, regressive, or in between.[3] Not necessarily useful or useless, art is instead provocative, a bit ungovernable, with a loose cannon kind of energy. It excites many and varied interpretive approaches, which leaves critics free to choose among them, unless extra-artistic considerations interfere. Were the already war-torn world not in urgent need of constructive interventions, and were explosive tensions not pointing toward more conflict (about race, gender, class, religion, language, drugs, borders, banks, water, oil), cultural agency might not occupy my interpretive efforts. In happier circumstances, the arts projects featured here would not even exist, since they respond to apparently incorrigible conditions. But here they are—intrepid projects that interrupt those conditions and stimulate collaborations. I invite you to share some of the burden and the excitement, to accompany the brilliant moves that cross and double-cross nervous checkpoints between art and everything else.

Like Lucy Lippard’s art criticism, which shared revolutionary ambitions with New York’s Conceptualists, we can keep company with great artists in order to discover patterns that inspire creative apprenticeship (Surrealists on Art and Six Years). And like John Dewey’s pragmatic recommendation to promote broad-based art-making in order to shore up democracy, we can acknowledge creative contributions of many active participants, from philosophers of aesthetics to vegetable farmers on rooftop gardens (Art as Experience). But staying close to literary masters will offer academic facilitators useful distillations of trial and error; it will also spike humanist interpretation with provocative questions. Admirable cultural agents consider the practical dimensions of public response to their art. Shouldn’t the question also arise for interpretation? If humanists ask after creative processes and recognize interpretation as creative, it makes sense to pause alongside artists and to consider what interpretation does in the world (Damrosch). So much depends on how we read literature, objects, and events that commentary often codetermines art’s effects. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet, 2.2).

More than a decade ago, while increasing numbers of talented students were leaving literature to pursue something “useful” (economics, politics, medicine), I paused to think about the disappointments. Bereavement is a familiar feeling for humanists, and stopping to ask why made me wonder about being left behind. Is what we teach useless? Of course we can and do defend literature as serious business. Along with other arts, creative writing shapes our lives by generating assumptions, private desires, and public ambitions. At the core of human practices—from nation building to health care, from intimate relations to human rights and resources—art and interpretation affect practical interests and explore possibilities. These worthy but stock responses were not persuading disaffected students to stay, nor were they convincing administrators to reallocate support.

Less conventional responses would better perform our celebration of creativity. They occur to particular creators before they can generate public effects. One was Friedrich Schiller’s approach to coaching artists and interpreters in the construction of political freedom through indirect aesthetic practices. He addressed his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) to a single reader and published the one-on-one mentorship in order to multiply generations of apprentices. We can count ourselves among them. None of this seemed obvious to students who abandoned the humanities to do more practical work, maybe because art’s work in the world is not yet a core concern for an academic field that remains skeptical and pessimistic.

Pessimism has been intellectually gratifying in a world where, admittedly, disparities grow, wars multiply, and natural resources wane. It feels good to be right. But an optimism of the will, beyond the despair of reason, drives life toward social commitments and creative contributions (Gramsci 12, 474-75). Teaching despair to young people seems not only tedious but irresponsible compared to making a case for cultural agents. The case includes apprenticeship to risk-taking artists. Evidently, the humanities have important work to do throughout universities and civic institutions. Civic life depends on aesthetic training to develop imagination and judgment. This training in free thinking is normally what humanists say they do. It’s a good start.


[1] See the reference to Martha Nussbaum in a response by Alexander Nehamas, “An Essay on Beauty and Judgment."

[2] Classical philosophy also dismisses pleasure and displeasure as distraction (see Arendt 27).

[3] Communist André Breton and fascist sympathizer Salvador Dalí both identified as Surrealists, along with anarchists and reformists (Rosemont 28).


Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. Ed. Ronald Beiner. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982. Print.

Damrosch, David. We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995. Print.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Perigree, 2005. [1934]. Print.

Gramsci, Antonio. “Discorso agli anarchici.” Prison Notebooks. Vol. 1. Ed. Joseph Buttigieg. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.  Print.

Lippard, Lucy. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. Print.

---, ed. Surrealists on Art. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970. Print.

Nehamas, Alexander. “An Essay on Beauty and Judgment.” Three Penny Review 80 (winter 2000): 4–7. Print.

North, Douglas. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990. Print.

---. “A Transaction Cost Theory of Politics.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 2 (1990): 355–367. Print.

Rosemont, Franklin. “Introduction.” What is Surrealism?: Selected Writings of André Breton. Ed. Franklin Rosemont. New York: Pathfinder, 1978. Print.