March 2, 2010

The Spirit of the Arts

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Think the arts at Cornell are becoming obsolete? Think again. As Friday night’s Student Arts Showcase at the Johnson Museum demonstrated, the arts play a vital — though redefined — role on campus.In the past year alone, Cornell’s art scene has faced numerous setbacks. From the Student Assembly’s funding cuts to Cornell Cinema last semester to the massive budget cuts currently facing the Theater, Film and Dance Departments, Cornell’s arts community — perhaps more so than other Cornell communities — has been forced to “re-imagine” itself alongside the University.  As the Student Arts Showcase demonstrated, the arts community is busy carving out its new role.Part of this new role includes a multi-disciplinary approach to art. With live music and performances as well as a visual art exhibit, the Student Arts Showcase presented a unified yet diverse artistic front. Musical performances ranged from the classical Cornell Chinese Musical Ensemble to the alternative styles of student band Steady State, the purely instrumental Les Petit Violons to the purely vocal After Eight a cappella group. Solo performances, poetry readings, sketch comedy and dance routines added to the variety. The art exhibit also featured a diverse collection ranging from Andrew Schwartz ’10’s abstract oil painting, “Flux,” to Alyssa O’Connor’s ’12 realistically rendered oil pastel, “Self -Portrait.”Moreover, the Student Arts Showcase proved that the arts community is not only unified but far-reaching. Many of the performers are not music, theater or dance majors; likewise, only three of the 23 visual art pieces exhibited were by fine arts majors. Some were by biology Ph.D. candidates, others by undergraduates majoring in a foreign language. Whatever their background, these artists have established one major point: Cornell’s arts community is anything but homogenous.This underlies a key attribute of Cornell’s arts community: Many of involved are pursuing completely unrelated fields. They make art to satisfy their creative muse: the detailed landscape watercolor by ECE/applied physics Ph.D. candidate Vivek Venkataraman beautifully illustrates this point, as does the aptly titled drawing “Colorful Flowers” by Ethan Moore ’10, an industrial and labor relations major. From the clay vase by biology major Max Liu ’11 to the deconstructive montage by industrial and labor relations major Nicole Ruddy ’11, many Cornellians use art as a creative outlet.But, as the Arts Showcase proves, art at Cornell is not just a hobby for those pursuing other fields. It is also a way to fuse multiple interests, to ask new questions and bring new perspectives from multiple areas of expertise. Take the photography of Carrie Simon, a natural resources Ph.D. student. Her black and white photography features ambiguous yet unmistakably human forms superimposed with textures taken from nature (the bark of a tree, drops of water). Not only does the work demonstrate a fusion of Simon’s artistic and academic interests, but it reveals a new angle of approaching both disciplines.The work of Alex Paya grad, and Leigh McGonagle ’10 echo this new way of approaching art through the natural world. Paya’s digital image from a graphite sketch template “On the Hunt” builds on his studies in horticulture and plant physiology. Similarly, McGonagle’s studies in landscape architecture resonate through her digital photography of organic forms.Pieces by Danielle Kalkofen grad and Thomas Levine ’12  also show heavy influences from their  academic studies. But, unlike the previous pieces, the influence comes across conceptually rather than thematically. Kalkofen is a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry and molecular and cell biology. Her color photography, which features geometric and linear repetitions, is perhaps influenced by such patterns at the molecular level. Likewise, Levine’s studies in design and environmental analysis arguably played some role in the brainstorming of “Box,” a conceptual work featuring a labeled pizza box.Built by four architecture graduate students (Yuet Chan, Songwei Chen, Benjamin Johnson­ and Matthew Gordon), the last piece displayed is in many ways a culmination of the entire exhibit. Entitled “Coastal Construct,” the plaster sculpture relies on geometric patterns to create art influenced by architecture yet inspired by nature. Chan, Chen, Johnson, and Gordon have moved beyond their academic disciplines, elevating them to the level of art.As the Cornell arts community redefines itself, it has faced tough questions. What is the role of art on campus? What is the nature of the relationship between the artistic disciplines? How can the arts community function within the context of a larger university? How should the arts community interact with non-artistic disciplines? The past weekend’s Student Arts Showcase provided an interesting glimpse of the community as a work in progress. It presented Cornell’s arts community as united, though not uniform. Moreover, it demonstrated solidarity between the various artistic disciplines as well as strong support from non-artistic disciplines. What is clear is that the arts community fulfills numerous roles on campus. As the community continues to define itself, the nature of these roles can only evolve further.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg