High Art Deserves a High Place in Higher Education

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on April 24, 2014.

How do the fine arts fit with the liberal arts?  Not as well as one might think. Painting, music, photography, and other arts are often part of today's jumbled curriculum, but they seldom have the academic status of disciplines such as English and art history.  The situation is reversed when it comes to public status, where having a prize-winning composer, novelist, or painter on the faculty is a matter of institutional pride. 

The tensions between those who study the arts and those who practice them are very old and perhaps very deep.  Two different sensibilities are brought into play and neither really trusts the other, even if they are found in the same person.  The urge to explain and the urge to create are both powerful, but they pull in opposite directions.  Plato famously exiled the poets (and other artists) from his imaginary city ruled by philosophers.  But Plato held that tension very close, since he too was a poet.  The tension continues to run right through many individuals on either side of the nominal line.  The artist who doesn't also philosophize and the critic who doesn't yearn to create art are rarities.  But the "old quarrel," as Plato called it, persists.  

Art vs. Entertainment

I had a chance to observe that persistence recently.  The occasion was the inaugural conference of the University of Arizona's Center for American Culture and Ideas (CACI) held in Tucson.  Titled "The Future of (High) Culture in America," the two-day conference was a forum for more than two dozen artists, artists/academics, and arts establishment folk, such as museum curators.  The arts in question were music, photography, and dance—invitations to the other muses were deferred to some future event.  Given the desert location, I thought CACI would have been more felicitously named CACTI, perhaps as the Center for American Culture, Tradition, and Ideas. But then again, "tradition" was not conspicuous among the values espoused by the conferees. 

The concept of "high culture" that held sway was the notion that some art, real art, reaches for the ecstatic moment.  It is art that aims at transcendence, and its paired opposite is art that aims at mere enjoyment or pleasure that touches no higher note.  Mass entertainment seldom reaches that ecstatic height. 

The conferees were not—or not generally—disdainful of entertainment or of art that fails to aspire to the "high."  They were simply hoping to map out a place in American democratic society where the high arts could hold a place of their own.  This proved unexpectedly contentious. 

                                Students Shrug, Faculty Hostile

In his keynote address, Wall Street Journal theater critic and now successful playwright Terry Teachout, averred that we all know the diagnosis: university faculties are actively hostile to high art and students are indifferent.  The task, he advised us, is to look for solutions.  Subsequent speakers tended to show the "diagnosis" wasn't all that settled.  Paul Pines, a poet, librettist, and jazz festival organizer, argued that drastic cultural changes brought by new technology were part of the problem, and that we were once again confronting the issue that what is pleasurable is not necessarily profound. 

Somewhere in the ensuing discussion the idea crystallized that American culture is dulling the senses.  The notion was also stated that as Americans achieve greater and greater "virtuosity" in the arts, we tend to lose artistry.  This theme was especially pronounced in a talk by Elizabeth Kendall, a dance and culture critic and a professor at the New School.  Her point was that mastery of technique, even extraordinary mastery of difficult technique, does not turn a performer into an artist. A dancer achieves high art only when she learns to fuse precise movement and athleticism with drama and emotion, and this means knowing how and for how long to pause, where and how to look around or to fix a gaze, and a thousand other subtleties of expression.  The same can surely be said of all the arts. Technical perfection can awe an audience, but only up to a point. High art requires something further.

Others suggested that true creative energy was being drained away by arts marketing.  Still others argued that "high art" had lost its grip mainly because it was no longer the currency of social aspiration in America. 

Disdain for America

And there were those on the other side who held that the "high arts" are doing just fine in our culture.  Peter Jones, a photographer and documentary filmmaker, observed that the Metropolitan Museum is now open seven days a week and that we have an abundance of high-quality dance, theatre, music, and more beyond anything preceding generations experienced. 

On yet another side of the fence, Carol Iannone, the editor-at-large of Academic Questions, gave a talk that suggested that contemporary artists themselves share some of the blame for the alienation of the public from high art.  By embracing the anti-aesthetics of disdain for their civilization and by making nihilistic fragmentation their muse, contemporary artists have betrayed their public trust.  Mr. Jones would have none of this: in his view, the artist's only responsibility was to his art. 

Neither this particular contretemps nor the broader subject were matters ripe for agreement.  Perhaps the most disconcerting moment came when one of the scheduled speakers, who had given an excellent paper, later orated from the floor that the main reason Americans could not have a high culture is that "47 percent of Americans are right-wing Christians who reject evolution and read nothing but the Bible."  Out of Christian charity, I'll omit his name, but it is hard to imagine the "high art" of the West over the last thousand years absent the transfiguring power of faith. 

Breakthrough in Arizona

I don't want to rehearse the whole conference.  Rather, let me skip to the end where the conference organizer, Dan Asia, presented his "New Educational Paradigm" for the future of the arts.  That is really what I came to hear.  Dan is a composer, conductor, and writer, and a professor of music at the University of Arizona.  He also serves on the board of the National Association of Scholars, and I have listened to his symphonic and chamber music and attended the premiere of his opera, The Tin Angel.  Most importantly, I strongly support his idea that the fine arts should be better integrated into liberal arts education.  He and his colleagues have begun to teach such a course at the University of Arizona and he hopes to stir kindred efforts around the country.  That's an excellent idea. 

Dan Asia is, happily, a realist about such matters.  To engage today's students with the high arts requires giving students what may be their first real glimpses of serious art, their first real hearings of serious music, and so on.  Creating the conditions for this in the contemporary university requires finesse.  The teacher is implicitly competing with other teachers who pander to the students' lowest tastes, including pornography. Such faculty members, as Teachout said, embody settled hostility to any cultural aspiration higher than their own eagerness to write graffiti on marble monuments of Western civilization.  We can't expect students, or at least many students, to swoon on first hearing Beethoven's Third Symphony.  What we can expect is that some students, in fact, will comprehend the magic in great art and great performance.  

Dan's optimism is, I believe, justified.  The best art does somehow transcend not just the era of its creation but all the new barricades that contemporary education has added.  All the endless blather about race, class, and gender falls away.  As a friend of mine says about his niece's current subjection, "Jane Austen will eventually beat her Women's Studies professor."  Likewise, A Midsummer Night's Dream will beat "Queer Shakespeare."  And Bach will trounce "Postcolonial Studies."  Not for every student, but for enough.

Great art has a way of sneaking past these barricades.  When I was a child the creators of Looney Tunes and other animations regularly infiltrated classical music into their entertainments.  No one who watched Bugs Bunny grew up unfamiliar with Rossini's Barber of Seville overture. Nor many other classical benchmarks.  This wasn't the ecstatic experience of high art, though it wasn't without its own ecstasy.  It did, nonetheless, introduce great art with nonchalance, removed from all the terrors of social expectations.  I don't know what would accomplish this today, but we need such playfulness to introduce the very young to art.  

Good Art Happens

For the somewhat older and more jaded, I recommend Thug Notes.  So far, Sparky Sweets, Ph.D. hasn't ventured beyond his vernacular interpretations of great literature, but he strikes the right tone of disrespectful respect to open the eyes of readers who previously trembled at the idea of finding real pleasure in hard books. 

These are small ways around the grim determination of so many in the academy to reduce art to the handful of ideological messages they approve.  We are in an age when the humanists, having turned fiercely against what is highest and best in humanity, seem intent on dragging art down with them.  Unfortunately, the artists are often willing to play along.  Of course, there have always been artists, usually of modest talent, who crave fashionable approval over artistic achievement.  Every age has its Academy and its dead-at-heart academicians.  We are, however, especially afflicted.  Good art happens, as perhaps it always does, despite the efforts of our cultural gatekeepers. 

I hope Dan Asia succeeds in prying the gate open.  The liberal arts will be larger, better—and more liberal—if he does. 

But I suspect the fine arts will always feel a little like guests rather than native inhabitants of the university.  No matter how many fine arts degree programs universities establish, the university itself is an institution that at its core is about the ascendance of the analytic mind and its basic reflex is to treat art as a valued object, worthy of admiration and explication, but not essential.  Higher education and high art draw on two very different concepts of what elevates us.  But there is much to be said for attempts to marry them. 

  • Share

Most Commented

May 15, 2015

1.

Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

December 22, 2020

2.

From John David to David Acevedo: Why I’m Leaving Behind My NAS Pseudonym for Good

In this piece, NAS Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo, formerly known as John David, recounts why he chose to write pseudonymously and why he has decided to go public...

February 17, 2021

3.

New ACLU Head Has a Civil Rights Problem Back Home

Deborah Archer is the new president of the American Civil Liberties Union, but she doesn't exactly have a history of protecting civil rights at her other workplace, NYU Law....

Most Read

May 15, 2015

1.

Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

February 17, 2021

2.

How Many Confucius Institutes Are in the United States?

UPDATED 2/17/2021: We're keeping track of all Confucius Institutes in the United States, including those that remain open, those that closed, and those that have announced their clo...

March 2, 2021

3.

Tracking "Cancel Culture" in Higher Education

UPDATED 3/2/21: A repository of 128 administrators, professors, and students who have been "canceled" for expressing views deemed unacceptable by higher education ideologue...