April 15, 2013

GLICK: Art for Arts’ Sake

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Upon first visiting Cornell, I remember one of the parents in my tour group remarking that none of the buildings on Central Campus seemed to “fit” with one another. Though I was surprised that this parent ­— already airing his grievances about the University to which he would soon donate a fortune — could see the buildings at all through the mid-April snow flurries, I soon realized that he was correct. On what other campus can one find two imposing, pre-war monoliths like Rockefeller Hall and Baker Hall conjoined by a glittering fortress of futurist architecture that is the Physical Sciences Building?

But I didn’t see why this parent was complaining.

Cornell showcases its “any person, any study” philosophy not only through its many courses and colleges, but also through the physical makeup of the campus itself. Gothic buildings abut postmodern masterpieces (or, in the case of Uris Hall, postmodern misfortunes), highlighting the University’s commitment to balancing past and future, tradition and progress, history and aspiration.

As I have experienced the University, however, I’ve realized that this varied architectural balance leaves one section of Cornell severely disadvantaged: The humanities. A future Starbucks employee through-and-through, I spend most my days in the antiquated corridors of Goldwin Smith Hall.  Every hall haunted by philosophy or history or anthropology majors — McGraw, Morrill, White, Uris, Lincoln, etc. — exudes the feeling of immense age. They are by no means dilapidated, but they cannot compare to the glass-empaneled atria of Duffield or Statler. The Arts Quad has an insurmountable edge when it comes to traditional architecture meant to prove the grandeur of the University. But modern? Not quite.

English majors scurry about the dingy corridors of Goldwin Smith — with more than a few, surely, pretending that they are rushing to Professor Snape’s class — while their more technically-inclined friends bask in the 21st century incarnation of the University. This makes sense at a certain level; students studying Victorian literature are more likely to enjoy Gothic architecture than students trying to be the next tech start-up sensation. Yet the architectural disparity also plays into a harmful stereotype: that the study of humanities is an outdated, inapplicable pursuit of trust-fund babies, while pre-professional and technological courses of study are the only way to get ahead in a challenging decade. The University of “any person, any study” deserves better.

That is why Klarman Hall is so important.

Starting this summer, the University will proceed with an ambitious, thoroughly 21st century project that will see the first humanities’ building constructed in more than a century. In fact, Klarman Hall is scheduled to be completed in late 2015, a full eleven decades after its neighbor, Goldwin Smith Hall, first opened its doors. As a building, Klarman Hall will renew the University’s commitment to the College of Arts and Sciences humanities’ departments, providing much-needed room to expand. It will, along with Goldwin Smith Hall, constitute a visible swath of the Cornell landscape that will allow the humanities to consolidate and thrive.

As a symbol, however, Klarman Hall means much more. When completed, it will serve as a reminder that the studies of humanities did not die with Mark Twain or Sigmund Freud; it is a constantly evolving field of study that has real implications for the world in which we live. What is society without art, without literature, without rhetoric? All the engineers toil behind the sparkling façade of Duffield Hall for nothing if, in two decades or in ten, the future that they hope to construct does not have a vibrant culture to make it worth constructing. Even the lowliest English major, living constantly in the shadows of his friends’ more prestigious summer internships, has an important role to play in the development of the 21st century. It is crucial that Cornell has recognized that.

In this era of technological obsession and Wall Street money, it is easy to forget that some of the University’s most unforgettable alumni — E.B. White, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison and, of course, Ruth Bader Ginsburg — have made their mark in the pursuit of humanities. For all the (justified) excitement over our new NYC Tech Campus or the immense pride the University has always held for its more pre-professional schools, it would have been unwise to leave this rich legacy too long neglected. The construction of Klarman Hall will demonstrate that the humanities will hold a prominent place in Cornell’s future as well as its past, returning a balance to the architectural variety that seeks to present all of the University’s colleges as equally prominent in the grand tapestry hanging above Cayuga’s waters.

When asked to rationalize the study of humanities, you could invoke the stale Latin phrase, ars artis gratia: “Art for art’s sake.” With the construction of Klarman Hall, however, Cornell has rejected the premise that the only reason to study art is for the sake of enjoying it.

Art for art’s sake is fine, but art for the future’s sake is even better.

Jacob Glick is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at ­[email protected]. Glickin’ It appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jacob Glick