Five Questions with Professor Michael Cadden: The Importance of “Making Art”

July 1st, 2013 / Advancement

Michael Cadden with former student Brooke Shields '87

Michael Cadden, chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts, has taught at Princeton for over three decades. He was the director of the Program in Theater -- previously known as the Program in Theater and Dance -- for 19 years. He is a recipient of the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching.

1. How do the arts benefit Princeton and its students?

In the same ways they benefit us all. This “life” thing we share during our time on earth is more than a little mysterious. We make art -- and open ourselves to the art others make -- in the hope that the process will help us understand some aspect of life just a little bit better. (Of course, we often walk away thinking that art is more than a little mysterious itself!) “Creativity” has become such a buzzword that I’m disinclined to use it, but there’s also a lot to be said for the educational and social importance of making things. The Greeks called this “making” process poiesis -- from whence our word “poetry.” Making art is the archetypal version of all the other forms of making that universities engage in.

2. What do you find most exciting about the increasing importance of the arts at Princeton?

A world-class liberal arts university should be in a position to boast about its world-class arts scene. Students at Princeton should feel overwhelmed by their unrivaled opportunities for making, experiencing, and thinking about art. Thanks to Shirley Tilghman, Peter B. Lewis, Roger Berlind, and countless other alums -- to say nothing of our faculty, staff, and students -- we’re getting there!

3. How would you describe Princeton students?

Infinitely educable. Every spring, on Class Day, I go into deep mourning because our artistic colleagues and collaborators are moving on; by their senior year, our students don’t feel like students anymore. Then freshman orientation rolls around in the fall and I’m in mourning once again: “Who are these baby-faced creatures and how can they ever hope to fill the shoes of those who have gone before them?” Four years later, it’s their departure I’m mourning. That’s because education works and our students have come to Princeton to be educated. You’ll be relieved to hear that between orientation and Class Day I’m really quite cheery.

Student thesis production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, 2013

4. What is the most satisfying element of teaching?

To steal an idea from Brecht, I enjoy making the strange familiar and the familiar strange by asking questions and telling stories that might require students to rethink what they think they know. (It’s the stories people seem to remember.) My friend and colleague Paul Muldoon talks about how important it is for artists to work from a place of unknowing -- even of ignorance. That’s a hard lesson for anyone even to want to embrace -- harder still for our students, who have been admitted based on their successes in mastering areas of knowledge. I guess Socrates is the great role model for most teachers, the one who claimed that the only thing he knew is that he knew nothing.

5. What do you hope students take away from your classes?

An even greater love of learning. I bless the memory of those teachers who sent me away from their classes with more questions than I had going in. Most of my courses are theater-related, so I obviously also hope to encourage a greater knowledge of what theater has been and can be. I’m very proud that some of my former students have proved lucky and talented enough to make lives in the arts, but I also want to boast about those I know who are patrons of the arts and trustees of arts organizations -- to say nothing of what I trust is, after 30 years, a massive hoard of intelligent playgoers! The ecology of the arts scene is a delicate one, and we all have a part to play in keeping it healthy!

For more information on how you can support the Lewis Center for the Arts, contact Laurie Russen, senior associate director for leadership gifts, at 609.258.5374.