Following last week's announcement about the pottery studio, I couldn't help feeling that Suzanne Baumgarten '11's most recent column (“Art for All” 4/4/2011) rang only too true. Baumgarten's column examines Cornell's failure to provide opportunities for students to participate in the arts, a complaint neither new nor unjustified. For the past few semesters, the arts at Cornell have faced serious cuts, a factor which has increasingly made the arts more inaccessible to the non-arts students, as Baumgarten mentions. Last year alone, Cornell Cinema and the Theatre, Film and Dance Department dealt with significant funding cuts. Additionally, Provost Fuchs announced in October that funding for grants awarded by the Cornell Council for the Arts to faculty, staff and students would be eliminated in favor of a single annual arts event. Although these cuts primarily affect the arts students and professors most directly involved, they also impact the campus arts culture as a whole. In turn, this makes the arts less visible and more exclusive, making it difficult for non-majors to participate. The Willard Straight Hall Student Union Board's intention to close the pottery studio is just the most recent example of how the arts at Cornell are becoming increasingly inaccessible to the students Baumgarten mentions.
What is the point of going to such a large and expansive university — a university with nearly unlimited opportunities and resources — if these opportunities are essentially closed off to the majority of Cornellians? I think that the fine arts are an integral component to a liberal arts education, in addition to relieving stress. For a student to graduate having never taken part in the fine arts is an insult to the very idea of a liberal arts education. Even for those students with more pre-professional courses of study, I think the arts can add something unique to one's education. An aesthetic appreciation for three-dimensional objects, which one might gain from a sculpture class, might benefit a mechanical engineer just as the oratorical skills gleaned from a theatre course might help those with careers where interpersonal skills are necessary for good corporate leadership.
But more than that, the inaccessibility of the arts to non-majors takes something away from the students who do participate in the fine arts. Why do arts majors choose Cornell over art school or a conservatory? Although numerous factors are undoubtedly at play in a complex decision like where to attend college, I believe many of these students chose Cornell because they have interests outside of the arts as well. They want to take classes in other areas and, more importantly, to interact with people with different interests. By limiting the opportunity for non-arts students to participate in the arts at Cornell, the experience for the arts students themselves is vastly undermined. In Baumgarten's column, she called on students to “[stand] strong against Cornell's apparent mentality that art is only valuable if you are really, really good at it.” While the University may indirectly promote this mentality, the students and professors in these courses certainly do not and undoubtedly chose to study or teach at Cornell because they value alternative perspectives and expertise. From personal experience, I can confidently say that non-arts students have always added unique perspectives to my studio courses regardless of their skill level (although many of them are incredibly skilled) at the beginning of the course. They always bring something new to the discussion as well as an outside area of expertise. Since art is often about rethinking how we look, I believe these alternative perspectives are necessary to a fine arts education.
As Baumgarten acknowledges, students need to seek out opportunities for the arts on their own in the absence of University initiative. Risley figure drawing sessions, which are usually only sparsely attended, are a great opportunity to draw from a live model for only a few dollars. In addition, there are many arts clubs or organizations to join on campus. In the absence of funding, student actors can take a cue from The Pillowman production several weeks ago, which raised its own funds after budget cuts and staff reductions forced other productions to be cut. Although for-credit art opportunities are not likely to crop up any time soon, students should pressure the University to put on more arts workshops and events and to keep the pottery studio. Moreover, students should demand that the University initiate a training program, where students not enrolled in art classes can have access to darkrooms or studio spaces after proper training and during specified hours. With continued pressure and initiative, perhaps Cornell can create a new kind of arts community — or even a new kind of education.