Arts & Culture

‘Passion for the Arts’ translates into action

8 min read

Two-day event stresses reinvigorated commitment

Harvard University is taking the first steps recommended in December by its Arts Task Force, including finding more gallery space in existing buildings and creating a Web portal that will ease access to seeing, hearing, and learning the arts in practice.

The University will also explore new undergraduate concentrations in theater and architecture, said President Drew Faust Friday (Feb. 6), as well as what would be Harvard’s first master of fine arts program.

Faust announced the commitments to a crowd of nearly a thousand at Sanders Theatre, where the University launched two days of “Passion for the Arts,” its first large-scale event intended to encourage concentrations and careers in the arts and humanities.

Just a week from St. Valentine’s Day, said moderator Diana Sorensen, Harvard’s dean for humanities, “we invite you to talk about passion.”

Faust acknowledged economic realities. “We all recognize that this report has not appeared at the most propitious of times — that our ambitions as a university confront significant financial constraints and uncertainties,” she said. “But I want to ensure that even in these circumstances we capture the momentum of the task force and begin to implement and build on its recommendations, even if some of our dreams must necessarily be deferred to more prosperous times.”

The Arts Task Force, which took the first comprehensive look at the arts at Harvard in 50 years, sets in motion the president’s desire to put the arts on a curricular level with the sciences.

Faust, who is Lincoln Professor of History and a renowned scholar of the Civil War, called the arts — like the sciences, social sciences, and humanities — “irreplaceable instruments of knowledge” that inspire and renew the imagination. She quoted the late arts critic John Russell: “When art is made new, we are made new with it.”

Nearly half of extracurricular activities at Harvard College involve the creative arts, and most students have an arts practice of some kind, said Faust. And yet Harvard has traditionally separated arts practice from arts theory. “The arts are everywhere at Harvard,” said Faust, “but yet they have been closer to the margins than to the center of what we do.”

It’s time to redress the disconnect between student interest and pedagogical practice, she said — “to recognize that arts practice and performance have unique abilities to bring forth new, vital ideas.”

Over two days, “Passion” invited visiting artists and authors to tell the stories of their lives, as inspiration to those who are in the first embrace of university life. Guest after guest praised the passion, risk, ambiguity, and breadth attendant to studying the arts and humanities.

Following Faust to the Sanders Theatre podium on the first day was celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76. He has won 15 Grammys, recorded more than 50 albums, and 10 years ago founded the Silk Road Project, an international effort to use music and the arts as a pathway to cross-cultural understanding.

Despite his hot CV and the wild applause that greeted him, Ma was quick to “manage expectations,” he said, acknowledging that he was no expert in the arts, and confessing that he could not even carry a tune. “But I also acknowledge that I can play the cello.”

And he did. Seated on a folding chair, Ma closed his eyes, rocked back, and eased a sweet Bach sarabande out of his 18th century Stradivarius. The Italian instrument itself, he later explained — wood from Croatia, fingerboard ebony from Africa, varnish from the Middle East — is itself an emblem of the Silk Road-like connectedness of the arts.

In a series of squiggles, arrows, and lines on an overhead projector, Ma sketched out his life in the arts, beginning at age 5, when he first played from the same Bach suite. Along the way came the surprises and influences that deepen any artist’s work while developing the “disciplined imagination” required, he said.

For Ma, those influences included learning improvisation (“very uncomfortable”) with vocalist Bobby McFerrin, understanding from choreographer Mark Morris that dancers can be “living notes,” and meeting “the world I never met before” after studying the deep musical past that inspired the Silk Road Project. “Suddenly, by going backwards, the world opened up,” said Ma.

On the same stage was Stephen Greenblatt, Arts Task Force chair, Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, and creator of Harvard’s first Silk Road-inspired course. It posits an imaginary world voyage from 1632 to 1636, cruising through several disciplines on the way to an understanding of formative Western culture.

In reality, he said, such 17th century voyages included an “eerie” number of crewmen listed as musicians. Their wordless, universal arts provided a common language when encountering alien cultures. Art, said Greenblatt, “crosses the border.”

“Passion for the Arts” crossed the border into Saturday (Feb. 7), where by late morning in Science Center Hall D about 150 had gathered to hear more life stories in the arts — this time from a law professor, a journalist, and a Hollywood screenwriter, producer, and director.

For the audience (most of them, by a show of hands, were undergraduates), a single question resonated: How do you make a living with a degree in the arts or humanities?

“Every philosophy major,” panelist Gary Ross conceded, “has very understanding parents.” (Ross is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter — “Big,” “Dave,” “Seabiscuit” — as well as a director, producer, and actor.)

But studying the humanities offers two advantages that might not seem like advantages at first, he said: It denies you an obvious job path, which can make you more resourceful and imaginative. And it supplies you with a lifelong sense of ambiguity, a creative state that continually freshens creativity and perspective.

The humanities also impart the lifelong value of self-education. “The humanities let you meet yourself,” said Ross, a self-described autodidact. Congratulations, he told future graduates in the arts and humanities. “You have achieved the capacity to wonder.”

Washington Post sports columnist and author Sally Jenkins recounted a story about her friend and book collaborator John Stauffer, who moderated the panel and is a Harvard professor of American literature. He told her about a student’s parents, both scientists, worried that their daughter had chosen to study literature. How, they asked, will she earn a living?

Jenkins had her own answer: “What she is going to do is explain to people what you do.”

In real life, the divisions so rigid in college — science, arts, humanities — break down under the demands of understanding the world, and the lifelong struggle for what Jenkins called “all the various ways to articulate.”

As a journalist, Jenkins has freely drawn from the language of other disciplines to describe the world of athletes — from the language of brain chemistry to describe Tom Brady’s cool to the fundamentals of physics to describe the force, velocity, and mass of football plays.

“We don’t borrow enough,” she said of most writers, trapped in the default languages of their professions. But training in the humanities, said Jenkins, prompts “the ability to articulate in a fresh way.”

When Harvard Law School Professor Noah Feldman ’92 was under fire in Iraq in May 2003, articulation went out the window — except for the command given by a soldier next to him: “Haul ass.”

But Feldman — a constitutional scholar and Bemis Professor of International Law — said that before the bullets were flying, his experience as a Harvard undergraduate concentrating in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations enabled him to look around the Baghdad scene with a trained, voracious eye. He saw pick marks at the edge of a mass grave, crude banners in Arabic pleading for Islamic unity, and a sign of early desperation among the people he talked to outside the Green Zone: They skipped over the usual formalities of conversation to get to hard questions, like, “Where’s the electricity?”

Studying the humanities and the arts sharpens the senses when confronting other “cultures, religious faith, beliefs,” said Feldman. The openness and depth they impart, he said, are a university’s “greatest riches.”

Among the arts action steps announced last week by President Faust:

• A new Harvard arts Web portal, launching this spring;

• Exploring Gen Ed courses and Freshman Seminars that include arts practice;

• Exploring a new concentration in dramatic arts and another in architecture, and a master of fine arts degree;

• More and longer visits by visiting artists;

• Art displays in new spaces across campus;

• An advisory body to continue the work of the Arts Task Force;

• Free access to two more area institutions for Harvard ID holders: the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art;

• New collaborations between the Office for the Arts and the American Repertory Theatre, including an intensive theater workshop in 2010.