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Art Recalls Us To Our Humanity

by Peter Conn

The University of Pennsylvania is home to a broad array of extraordinary artistic and cultural activities and collections. From the world-class musical and theatrical performances at the Annenberg Center to the groundbreaking visual programs at the Institute of Contemporary Art, from the cross-cultural richness of the exhibits at the University Museum to the multitude of written and spoken performances at Kelly Writers House, Penn offers its students and faculty a quite literal cornucopia of artistic opportunities.

The Music Department, often in partnership with Penn's College Houses, provides hundreds of lessons, rehearsals and concerts each year. The Penn Humanities Forum, organizing its programs on broad themes such as human nature, time, and belief, offers broad public access to the most advanced scholarly work in the humanistic disciplines. For twenty years, the Arthur Ross Gallery has organized innovative exhibitions of art from all periods and countries.

Add to all this the nationally-prominent programming of WXPN, the distinguished books published by the Penn Press, the splendid special exhibits in the Van Pelt Library, the celebrated paintings and works of sculpture located all over campus, and landmark Penn buildings whose architects include such faculty and graduates as Paul Cret, Louis Kahn, and Robert Venturi. The list is long indeed.

These valuable resources enhance the daily life of our community and contribute importantly to graduate and undergraduate education as well. As President Judith Rodin stated in the Pennsylvania Gazette in the fall of 2001: "All the cultural offerings and performances at Penn point back to a core mission of this University: the cultivation of our humanity through the intense study and practice of the arts."

In the same article, Dr. Rodin also said: "For all our passion, talents, resources, and academic firepower, I believe all of us--faculty, students, administrators, and alumni--have only begun to mine our full teaching and learning potential in arts and culture."

Three years ago, to help realize that potential, the administration convened the Provost's Council on Arts and Culture. This group comprises the directors of Penn's cultural institutions, along with academic leaders, and representatives of the offices of development, business, and communications. The Council has identified projects of shared interest, and has facilitated collaboration between and among the various centers.

To mark the vital place of arts and culture at Penn, and also to signal the increased attention these activities will command in the future, the University's new strategic plan, Building on Excellence, includes among its highest academic priorities a section entitled "Arts, Humanities and Society." This section calls on us to take fuller advantage of the University's scholars, artists, and cultural institutions.

Among other recommendations, the plan urges that we incorporate artistic and cultural experiences more centrally into our curriculum, that we devise mechanisms to bring visiting artists and humanities scholars more frequently to campus, and that we build on our admirable record of involvement with the Philadelphia community and its artistic resources. Finally, the new plan calls for the establishment of what I will call a cultural "venture fund," a pool of resources that would support new initiatives across all the areas of art and culture, in particular those that would encourage partnerships between the various programs and the University's schools and departments.

To celebrate the progress that we have made, and to mobilize ourselves for the work ahead, President Rodin is hosting "Arts Day at Penn" in early May. On that occasion, the boards of all the artistic and cultural organization will meet together for the first time in the University's history. They will visit many of the major venues, participate in a plenary planning session, and attend a reception at the President's House in the evening. The occasion is both substantive and symbolic: providing the opportunity to take stock of recent accomplishments and signaling the re-doubled energy with which all of us will be proceeding in the months and years to come.

* * *

Why so much attention to the arts and the humanities?

Many years ago, in a poem called Asphodel, the great modern poet -- and Penn alumnus--William Carlos Williams (M '06) wrote:

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

I am writing this essay in the shadow of war. At such anxious and dangerous times, the value -- indeed the necessity -- of art and the humanities comes into even sharper focus.

By a profound coincidence, it was just a couple of months ago that a design created by a team of Penn architects, including Daniel Libeskind and GSFA dean Gary Hack, was selected for the re-construction of the World Trade Center site. Beyond our satisfaction and pride in the accomplishment of our colleagues, that decision offers an occasion to ponder the connections between the domains of art and politics.

The vision Libeskind and Hack offered encompasses both an exuberant, soaring tower and a reverent memorial space below-ground, elements that combine a life-affirming embrace of the future's openness with a steady focus on the tragedy of the past. In short, the image and its implications embody much that we all seek from the arts and humanities in a perilous world.

Art is neither escapist nor therapeutic nor ornamental. The arts and humanities help us to define and ennoble our individual experience and our shared humanness, to connect the past and the future, and to engage and comprehend both the beauty and the suffering that inevitably mingle in our lives.

These are the truths that motivate us as we reflect on the role that the arts and humanities must play in the educational programs of a great university.

Deputy Provost Peter Conn chairs the Provost's Council on Arts and Culture.

  Almanac, Vol. 49, No. 31, April 29, 2003