September 6, 2011

Stolen Art

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What do Leonardo da Vinci, Tupac, Uncle Sam, and the Schwartz Center have in common? The same fate the befell the world’s most famous painting and rapper continues to loom over Cornell’s performing arts program. There’s a reason people say history repeats itself.

On Sept. 7 100 years ago, French poet Guillaume Apollinaire was arrested and jailed on suspicion of stealing Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre museum in Paris. Both an Italian and an artist, few seemed more likely than Apollinaire to liberate Lisa from her confines and try to turn that famous frown upside-down. But Apollinaire wasn’t the real thief — former Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia was arrested while trying to sell the masterpiece to a Florentine art gallery in 1913.

Not all stolen art can be returned. On Sept. 7, 1996, multi-platinum hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur was mortally wounded after attending the Mike Tyson vs. Bruce Seldon boxing match at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Shakur was among the icons of America’s coastal gang war and had been convicted of assault and battery and sexual abuse, but the man spared no truths from his art: “If we really are saying that rap is an art form, then we got to be more responsible for our lyrics. If you see everybody dying because of what you are saying, it don’t matter that you didn’t make them die, it just matters that you didn’t save them.”

Where is the boundary between what makes art dangerous and what makes art life-saving?

We stick with some art precisely because it feels safe, or is reminiscent of safer times. On Sept. 7, 1813, the U.S. inherited its current nickname, Uncle Sam. The sobriquet stuck once U.S. soldiers in the War of 1812 read the “U.S.” stamp on their barrels of beef as “Uncle Samuel Wilson,” the troops’ New York-based meat packer. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast’s late 19th century depiction of white-bearded, starred-and-striped, finger-wagging Sam also remains untarnished. It’s no accident, it’s patriotic; America has continued to manifest its destiny ever since.

Lately we’re disposing of art because it’s dangerous, not to the artists, or their audiences, but to some larger plan. This year our federal government and University have made such plans.

To squeeze more money into our military budget, federal lawmakers agreed to a $1.3 billion reduction to the Department of Education on April 15 that threatened four of the University’s 11 “critical” Southeast Asia, South Asia and East Asia language programs. Luckily, Provost Kent Fuchs’ office will provide 90-percent of the languages’ lost funding this year. Not as luckily, that funding will likely disintegrate in 2012.

There’s an art form in pushing people to their brink too. In February, a $6 million budget cut was proposed for the College of Arts and Sciences. We’re more sciency and mathy than artsy, so that’s understandable, I guess. Cornell’s performing arts department was asked to instantly slice its $6 million annual budget by $400,000 and up to $2 million annually. A perfunctory search on Student Center will reveal that neither dance, film nor theatre was cut entirely, as many staff members work for several programs, but the development is troubling nonetheless. In the two academic years from 2008-09 to 2010-11, the department lost three senior lecturers, a box office coordinator and marketing assistant, and at least one Resident Professional Teaching Associate — actors who visit the University to tutor and mentor —  with plans to reduce the current tally from six to three this semester. How large a band-aid Carol Epstein’s ’61 $1 million donation last April will put on a department whose classes attracted 1,200 students annually remains up to conjecture.

But we as a student body are also giving away art as it is being taken from us. I’m no doctor, but that’s a threat to our collective sanity.

At the end of last semester, the Willard Straight Student Union Board closed our 54-year old ceramics studio in a push to make the building more of a hub for undergrads. Ceramics may be going the way of Jazz, a taste acquired by an increasingly older audience — of the more than 300 students who enroll in pottery classes annually, half are grad students. As with many phenomenal creative opportunities on our disjointed campus, many undergrads likely didn’t even know it was there.

Maybe it’s Cornell’s fault: the University should’ve tried harder to attract students to the studio. But in an era of instant gratification, maybe we’re losing our patience for ceramics, maybe even for performing arts classes; maybe Cornell knows more about us than we think. But if we still know much ado about ourselves, how about signing up for a dance class while you still can? Why not take Intro to Acting or a seminar on film? You can’t get cultured by reading the paper alone, that much I can promise. History has shown us art worth stealing, sticking with and dying for. Perhaps we can commit to the Schwartz for the next 200 years, Uncle Sam style. So if you’re dropping a class sometime soon, how about adding some art?Jacob Kose is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Scrambled Eggs appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jacob Kose