In 1636, when Harvard was founded, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had barely 10,000 settlers, and wolves howled at the edge of the endless forests.
Making art at Harvard then was largely out of the question. In a Puritan world, art was subversion. For instance, the times required Edward Taylor (Class of 1671, and now considered a great metaphysical poet) to conceal his passionate verse in meditations on service to Christ. He saw his work as “a rich web that only the gospel markets afford.”
Students at 17th century Harvard, preparing for the ministry, made art only by singing in chapel. The first documented concert at Harvard didn’t occur until 1771, and the first Commencement with a band came 10 years later.
In the early 19th century, students singing in chapel were warned against “the irreverent fugue music of the day,” recalled General Oliver, a member of the Class of 1818. But his reminiscences for the Harvard Register included a confession: “Beneath my feather-bed, I used to conceal my flute,” because his strict Puritan father “was opposed to musical instruments generally.”
Oliver went on to learn six instruments, a rebellious note that sounds sweet almost 200 years later. But the tale of the hidden flute was the story of art making at Harvard for many years: There wasn’t much, or it was covert.
The curriculum — a strict regimen of Latin, Greek, and rhetoric — was closed even to what we know of as electives until after the Civil War. The first course in music came just before that, in 1855. John Sullivan Dwight, Class of 1832 and an early champion of music instruction at Harvard, called that course “the entering wedge, and we may all rejoice in it.”
The walls were further breached as other “entering wedges” poked through: music as a subject (1864), freehand drawing and architecture (1874), and landscape design (1900).
In 1926, Harvard inaugurated its Charles Eliot Norton lecture series on poetry and the arts. The next year, Harvard opened a new building for it crown jewel displaying the arts, the Fogg Art Museum.
In 1931, the number of concentrators at Harvard College on the history of art was 142, considered a healthy figure. But by 1953 the number of concentrators had tumbled to 37, a sign to some observers that attention to the arts was waning — a consequence, they said, of the privations of the Great Depression and World War II.
There was no mention of the visual arts in “General Education in a Free Society,” the 1945 study of undergraduate education commissioned by Harvard President James Bryant Conant, which guided curricular reform for the next three decades.
But in 1956, an ad hoc group called the Committee on the Visual Arts at Harvard released a report recommending enhanced arts education for undergraduates, a visual arts center, a theater program, and having working artists on campus. The document, commonly known as the Brown Commission report, insisted that just “talking about knowing” was a medieval model of scholarship, and that “knowing and creating” belonged together.
Teaching the history and theory of art is important, the report said, but so was the practice, “the actual manual process” of making art. After all, the report said, “the future artist has a place in Harvard College alongside the future doctor or lawyer.”
The Brown Commission report made a difference, leading to building the Loeb Drama Center (1960) and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (1963). Harvard created a Visual and Environmental Studies program in 1968.