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October 30, 2000

A modest proposal for the arts

James Flannery is professor of performing arts and director of the W.B. Yeats Foundation.

The Emory that I came to in the fall of 1982 was a far different place than it is today. Over the past 20 years, it has become a great academic institution.

Measured by the role played by the arts, however, I’m not sure we are yet a great intellectual community. The two are not synonymous. As Maxim Gorki said, “An intellectual is someone with an inordinate desire to pursue truth.” By that definition, Georgia O’Keefe, Martha Graham, Leonard Bernstein, James Baldwin, Orson Welles and Flannery O’Connor were intellectuals.

Academics—particularly in an age that divides human knowledge into ever more discrete and arcane specializations—are increasingly less so.

Jim Gustafson, a beloved former colleague who for many years conducted the immensely rewarding interdisciplinary Luce Seminars for faculty members, was fond of saying that excellence ought to comprise the whole of human nature: not the mind alone, but the mind engaged in activities that involve the whole personality—intellect, body, sensibility and imagination—as an integrated whole.

Sadly, almost everything in modern life works against this ideal. As a result, we function in a world in which our intellectual, aesthetic and practical lives are entirely separate.

Almost alone among the disciplines within today’s academy, the arts maintain a commitment to celebrating those human values that draw people of widely divergent backgrounds together for a communal purpose.

This is why why Emory has made, over the past decade and a half, such a strong commitment to the arts. From a situation just a short time ago in which only music was recognized as a credited academic discipline, students can now pursue courses and/or degrees in dance, theater, music, film, studio arts and creative writing. Along with the development of strong academic programs in the arts has come an exciting range of public presentations by the Emory Dance Company, Theater Emory, the Carlos Museum, the Emory Chamber Music Society and the Candler Concert Series.

In quality and quantity, the arts program at Emory would appear to be strong and healthy. Much time, effort and money has been expended simply in establishing its presence at Emory. Much excitement has already been raised by the recent groundbreaking for the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.

Yet it must be recognized that the arts are still the babies of the campus; a great deal more remains to be done if they are to play a central role in the intellectual, cultural and social life of the entire University. For this to occur, their particular needs as academic disciplines and unique modes of expression and communication need to be addressed.

For several years I have conducted informal polls with my students to determine their interest in Emory arts events. The overwhelming majority have never attended a concert, theatrical production, dance performance or exhibition presented on campus. Audiences for Emory arts events generally include more older people from the Atlanta community than either faculty members or students.

It is a tribute to the quality of our programs that people from beyond the campus are attracted to these events, but something is seriously wrong if we fail to reach our own students—the very individuals who represent the potential arts patrons of the future and, more importantly, are a primary constituent of the Emory of today.

It is with this thought that I offer a modest proposal for the arts at Emory, namely the establishment of a University Office for the Arts, with an appropriate staff and budget to be headed by someone at the rank of an associate provost. The primary function of the office would be to enable arts programs to work together so as to take better advantage of their existing resources. At the present time, little or no effort is made to coordinate the scheduling, budgeting or promotion of arts events. Nor is there meaningful cooperation among our arts programs on an academic level.

The new performing arts center will undoubtedly make a wonderful contribution to life at Emory. But it must be recognized that arts centers located on American campuses rarely achieve the expectations vested in them because their programs usually continue to function as autonomous entities.

Without key appointments of artist-teachers deeply committed to interdisciplinary exploration, thearts at Emory will continue to function, as they do today, in almost total isolation from one another. Of equal importance, without making a concerted effort to connect the arts with the intellectual pursuits of our fellow colleagues and students, the arts will continue to function in isolation from the rest of the campus community.

In order to create the kind of community desired by most of us, the arts must, over time, become central to the basic ethos of Emory. This will only occur, however, if they are perceived neither as elitist indulgences nor escapist leisure pursuits, but inseparable from the process of human existence. In addition to building a performing arts center and making our existing arts spaces more accessible (adequate signage and parking are long-standing problems), better use of nontraditional arts venues ought to be explored.

Why should outdoor concerts, as well as dance and theater performances, not take place in such familiar locales as the Quadrangle, Rudolf Court-yard, Coca-Cola Commons and the Depot? Why can other marvelous spaces like WSHCAB Auditorium, the Nursing School Courtyard and Lullwater Park not be utilized for performances? Would the Japanese Garden behind the Carter Center not be a stunning locale for a summer chamber music series? Why not schedule a series of arts events in the common rooms of student residence halls? Why not adorn the campus itself with distinguished works of art that would make it a living, interactive museum?

If, as I believe, the arts are still of marginal relevance to Emory’s more traditional academic pursuits, that is because their potential as a catalyst for serious discourse across a wide range of disciplines has never been tapped.

Given imaginative leadership, it should be possible to develop annual festivals and other public events focused on themes of broad intellectual concern. Without at all compromising their own integrity, the arts can bridge the existing gap between the world of ideas encompassed in rigorous scholarly research and the more general interests of faculty members and students who might otherwise never venture outside their own disciplines.

Robert Fitzpatrick, the former Dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, has stated that, “The better the university, the harder it seems for the arts to survive. This is because the arts have special needs, special ways of functioning that are not usually understood by university administrators.” It is only by having an informed voice at the highest level of the University’s decision-making process that our Emory artist-teachers can be certain that their needs are fully understood and addressed.

It may seem radical to argue that the arts can be central to the purposes of a school like Emory. To some, given Emory’s historical antipathy toward the arts, it was radical enough to establish arts programs in the first place. Bold as the effort of the past two decades, the still bolder—and ultimately far more rewarding and responsible—choice is to empower the arts to change and regenerate the intellectual and spiritual life of our community in ways that we now can scarcely imagine.


Back to Emory Report Oct. 30, 2000