Before the Revolution

Article00 In Artforum, Arthur Danto remembers the protests of 1968 at Columbia:

As I left the building, I was told by several students that I didn’t understand what was happening, that this was the revolution! Well, revolution was much in the air. How was I to know? How was anyone?

Early the next morning, the phone rang. Someone said, with great urgency, that I had to get over to campus immediately, that the black students had taken over Hamilton Hall. I asked what he thought I could do, and he answered: “Negotiate!” It was still pretty dark, and I remember seeing Mark Rudd, the leader of the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), loping across the campus. He was heading toward Low Library—the university administration building, home to the president’s office—which I was shortly to find had been occupied by the white students who had been thrown out of Hamilton. “Are the blacks still in Hamilton?” I asked. Rudd answered, “I wish I were in there with them!” From that point on, the event becomes a blur to me. I remember a meeting at Lionel Trilling’s apartment, the gist of which was, What could we do to save the university? That was the first meeting of what came to be the Ad Hoc Faculty Group, which met throughout the crisis in the Graduate Students’ Lounge in Philosophy Hall. Living in history has, in retrospect, something of the form of a partially restored mural, in which irregular islands of painted incident are all that remain, set into a wall of blank white plaster. There is no better example of what I mean than Fabrizio’s disconnected battlefield experiences, in Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma, in what he afterward learns was the Battle of Waterloo.

What I did learn from the meetings of the Ad Hoc Faculty Group was how such groups move in increasingly radical directions. It was like it must have been in the French Revolution. Initially, you have moderates making impassioned but rational speeches to one another. But then the Jacobins move in and discourse takes a more and more vehement tone. At Columbia in 1968, at least, this phenomenon was the consequence of external uncertainties.