April 3, 2011

Art for All

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For the past academic year, I have taken part in a psychology field practicum in which Cornell students are required to conduct play therapy with local elementary school age children. Play therapy includes many activities that make use of a child’s natural tendencies to draw, build and create. As I’ve engaged in this task with three children every week, I’ve started to wonder: Why don’t I have the opportunity at Cornell to draw pictures, play with Play-Doh, or build a plane or car out of Legos? Rather, why don’t I have the opportunity to create art?

My friend E. had a dream. It was to take a printmaking class. Upon her attempt to enroll in the class this semester (her last semester at Cornell), she was closed out because students with a Bachelor of Fine Arts have priority, and she is a student in The College of Arts and Sciences. After inquiring about other alternatives, the professor told her about The Ink Shop, a printmaking center in The Commons. E. enrolled in a printmaking class at The Ink Shop, and when she completed it, she showed me the work she had done. Not only was her work incredible, several printmaking screens of elephants she had designed herself, but E. looked prouder and more fulfilled than I’d ever seen her look before, certainly more so than after her completion of countless prelims and research papers.

Though I applaud the small size and strong sense of unity that the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning affords its students, I believe that it is a shame that classes in AAP are not more accessible to students in other colleges at Cornell. I am certainly not advocating that the college start closing AAP students out of classes in order to afford space to students from other colleges. This would obviously be ridiculous. However, I do not think that it is necessary to close out those students who lack the desire or skill to pursue a career in the field.

The School of Hotel Administration, for instance, is a fairly tight-knit college; yet other students at Cornell are provided with opportunities to get a taste of what it is like to be a Hotelie, with classes such as Introduction to Wines. It is a worthy tradition for The Hotel School to offer such an opportunity to non-Hotelies in their senior year.

I also do not mean to blame the lack of artistic opportunities on AAP alone. Other colleges could do a better job of encouraging the arts as well. It is definitely not unheard of, for instance, for colleges to offer free music lessons. At Cornell, unless you are majoring in music and even if you take lessons for credit, the College of Arts and Sciences requires you to pay a substantial fee. There are student orchestras, but you have to try out and be extremely proficient to join.

It truly saddens me that the majority of Cornell students never have the opportunity to study art or music with a Cornell professor. Not only does art as a discipline add to a well-rounded education, but the study of it offers an opportunity for students to achieve a unique type of fulfillment, one that is distinct from the fulfillment they get from the completion of more prototypical “school work.”  This type of gratification can certainly be achieved from taking an art or music class outside of Cornell, or even by engaging in the arts without any kind of professional supervision. However, I have no doubt that Cornell students would benefit from associating such artistic fulfillment with Cornell. Some of my fondest memories of my high school education, for instance, involve my participation in the orchestra, which was conducted by an exceptional teacher.

I suppose that this is yet another issue that comes down to the budget, so I don’t expect the opening of more art classes to students in other colleges to be a serious consideration any time soon. It seems almost silly to dwell on Cornell’s failure to provide its students with adequate opportunities to dabble in the arts, when we are seeing larger cuts, like the elimination of the education department.

I do see a point, though, in exploring the inaccessibility of art classes to non-AAP Cornell students: to call attention to the importance of standing strong against Cornell’s apparent mentality that art is only valuable if you are really, really good at it. Realistically, this mentality will probably not change any time soon. Thus, it is up to Cornell students to fight against it by finding opportunities to participate in the arts on their own.

This is often difficult because of the sad but true reality that taking an art class for no credit seems like a luxury, for which we do not have time or money. When I was a freshman, I took piano lessons for no credit with an outside instructor who was fabulous. However, I soon found it too difficult to keep up with my practicing in the midst of work for my for-credit classes.

In lieu of the scarcity of options to take art classes for credit, though, I encourage you to do something crazy — become involved in art or music, even if you don’t receive Cornell credit for it and even if it requires some schedule juggling. Think of it as self-education, or simply a backlash against Cornell’s failure to place the same importance on artistic opportunities for all as it does on opportunities in other disciplines. If art classes don’t work out, though, you could always just break out some Play-Doh. Legos are pretty fun too.

Original Author: Suzanne Baumgarten