February 8, 2010

Conservatism and the Arts

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It is reasonable to assume that the budget cuts which have recently bludgeoned the performing arts at Cornell will only expand, as departments, majors and disciplines deemed “peripheral unit to the University’s core” (as a Feb. 3 editorial put it) lose funding. The departments that will be saved, because they are certainly not peripheral in any way, like the hard sciences, will never have to question whether or not they are serving the University’s “mission.”

With this in mind, I want to begin to look at some of the assumptions behind which departments deserve money and which do not. This is not a political plea for funding, or a chastising of the University administration that is denying it, but rather an exploration of why we believe it matters, especially based on my own experience with the performing arts.

Common defenses of the performing arts, and to a lesser extent the humanities (because they still don’t need to be defended quite as often), argue that they enrich students who do not study them exclusively. The idea is that an engineer, scientist or policy analyst will be “enriched” or “made more human” or something similarly noble, by a bit of education in the arts. This is a lofty goal, and yet a fairly unspecific and romantic one that assumes that an education in classic music, classic theater and classic art has some direct link to our humanity or our morality, or something equally as lofty. On the other hand, it is considered cynical to suggest that these classes may end up just being a source of fodder for future dinner conversations and first dates in which we try to impress someone else with the same education.

I began at Cornell as a Music major, one of the few who delve deeply into a department that serves a much greater number of students in these small ways. Initially excited, I was turned off by what I perceived to be an intense conservatism in the department. Mozart and Beethoven were treated as the highest pinnacle of musical achievement. Forms of music under the rubric of pop, rock, international and traditional were considered peripheral to the central concerns of the department (just look at faculty specialties) and pretty much all of the composers were completely enthralled with the trends of modern academic music, which is largely abstract and hard for people without Ph.D.’s to understand or enjoy. Classes like the “History of Rock” and “History of Jazz” are considered light, easy electives, rather than serious sources of study. In one of my music theory classes, the professor decided to be coy and had us analyze a Beatles song. Much to my surprise, no one else in the class had ever heard it before.

I don’t think the same accusation of conservatism can be said of the theater department. Surely, Shakespeare is always on the season schedule, classics of the 20th century are always there, but so too is a piece like Cabaret/Soiree, described as a collaboration of students and a professor integrating music, acting and political commentary. Such a venture would likely be dismissed, though tolerated, in the music department. The music department, of course, does provide great opportunities and educational experiences for its students, and reflects broader trends in classical music. I do not mean to attack without prescriptions, and I do not think the music department does not deserve funding.

Rather, I think that issues like these should be explored in a public forum regarding the performing arts at Cornell, and this op-ed is my attempt to begin that forum. Maybe it will be decided that yet another performance of Mozart or Shakespeare isn’t exactly the best use of resources if these same “classics” can be adequately digested in a classroom. Maybe the funding should be put towards collaborative, experimental and innovative projects, rather than be put towards hiring outside professionals to bolster the quality of a performance, which has been done in both theater and music at Cornell. These would be small changes rooted in a consistent idea of why funding should be cut, rather than responses to that funding cut, and the difference is crucial.

My point is based on my own assumption, namely that universities should be places of experimentation and new ideas, rather than professionalizing machines that simply make the next generation of directors and performers who endlessly repeat the same Shaw, the same Shakespeare, the same Mozart, the same Beethoven (even if they do something scarcely novel like set a Shakespeare in the present or play on an instrument Mozart would have used). We should have an open conversation about what the relationship between spending money and creative and academic cultivation of students in a way that doesn’t deprive departments of what they deserve financially, but forces us to think through why this or that creative endeavor needs resources to be brought to light. Perhaps the need to tighten belts will open minds.

Maurice Chammah is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at mchammah@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Maurice Chammah