By Amy Gutmann | At our 253rd Commencement in May, I suggested to our newest graduates, who are facing the worst job market in recent history, that the toughest test posed by the current economic crisis is not their finding a job, but rather their facing up to a far more fundamental question: What matters most in life? When economic bubbles burst, it becomes all the more important for individuals and institutions alike to focus on what matters most to them.
Why, then, is Penn devoting this 2009-2010 academic year to the theme of Arts & the City? In such a tough economic climate, we chose to shine a spotlight on the arts and our city for a compelling reason: Scholars, students, citizens, and human beings all need arts and culture every bit as much as we need freedom to feel fully alive and to live as well as we can. We need to be broadly educated, first, to figure out what truly matters most in our lives, and then to pursue it. That broad education must not only develop our intellectual skills. As important, it must stimulate, cultivate, and refine our imaginations.
“Imagination is the liberty of the mind,” Wallace Stevens wrote, “and hence the liberty of reality.” At Penn, we aim to liberate the imaginations of our students, to prepare them for becoming creative leaders, who resist the herd instincts that destroy rather than realize our highest human potential. There is no better way to prime the pump of our human imagination—and to get the creative juices of our minds and spirits flowing—than by being exposed to intellectually and spiritually challenging works of art.
The value of art in higher education is a deeply personal as well as institutional commitment for me, as I have found it to be for everyone who appreciates art’s role in realizing the highest potential of the human mind and spirit. Let me therefore take just a moment to reflect on how integral art has been to my own career in political science, philosophy, and practical ethics. All of my educational passions either found their origin in—or were deeply informed by—memorable aesthetic encounters. I was first drawn into political philosophy through reading the fiction of Miguel de Unamuno (especially his novella San Manuel Bueno, mártir.) Studying Picasso’s “Guernica” first sparked my political interest in the Spanish Civil War, while driving home a far deeper truth than the most matter-of-fact words can express: Merciless assaults on justice wreak havoc and devastation on myriad lives and entire societies. Only when I viewed the 14th-century frescoes of the Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government in Siena’s town hall did I fully appreciate how universal the benefits of what our Founding Fathers called “republican government” potentially can be. When I first viewed the frescoes, I was already a student of democratic politics, but Lorenzetti’s portrayals of Virtue, Justice and Peace—all as female figures who convey their virtues to the male citizens of Siena—transport us to a world far beyond not only the artist’s time but our own. As a college student, I learned at least as much about courageous leadership from films such as Open City and In the Heat of the Night as I have from even the best works of non-fiction.
I therefore have taken public exception to a conventional understanding of Benjamin Franklin’s famous description of the arts as “ornamental.” Far from trivializing the arts, Franklin recognized that immersion with the greatest works of art (“everything that is most ornamental”) is both inherently valuable and instrumentally important in educating the broadest range of students to make the most of their lives and to discover what matters most in life. And let us never neglect the fact that great theater, dance, film, poetry, novels, photography, and other forms of artistic creation are profoundly exhilarating.
We approach Arts & the City Year at Penn with exhilaration, a keen sense of purpose, and exceptional strength across a broad swath of disciplines in the humanities and the arts. We also have a fertile culture for integrating knowledge between the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and engineering. Penn students today have opportunities to curate, create, and perform with the best scholars and practitioners. This immediately becomes obvious to everyone who visits Kelly Writers House, Platt Performing Arts House, Addams Hall, the Arthur Ross Gallery, the Institute for Contemporary Art, the Rare Book Collection in Van Pelt, and the University Museum, whose current (and extremely popular) exhibit on Pennsylvania’s native Lenape tribe was conceived and curated by Penn’s latest Rhodes Scholar, Abigail Seldin C’09 G’09 [“Gazetteer,” Jan|Feb].
We have outstanding arts and culture organizations that mark the Penn campus as a vibrant cultural district and contribute to Philadelphia’s status as one of our country’s premier arts-and-culture destinations.
With Arts & the City Year, we are upping the ante. We are making engagement with the arts a welcoming rallying cry for the entire Penn family—including of course our alumni—as well as a central focus of our partnership with the City of Philadelphia. In the process, we will raise Penn’s and Philadelphia’s profile as a regional and national arts-and-culture destination.
Engagement with the arts begins with a first for the Penn Reading Project: an interdisciplinary encounter between our incoming freshmen and Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic [“Gazetteer,” May|June]. Discussions about the painting will advance our new students’ aesthetic education, while also furnishing lessons in history, medicine, and the complex relationship between art and the civic life of a great city. If this is our freshmen’s first Penn intense encounter with the arts, it certainly will not be their last. We will continue to encourage our students to understand and to embrace the connections between engaging with the arts and our city, liberating their imaginations, and discovering what matters most in their lives.
We want to trigger chain reactions of engagement with the arts throughout Penn and Philadelphia. Of special interest to alumni, this year’s Homecoming festivities—in addition to our Penn Quakers trouncing the Princeton Tigers in the football game on November 7—will feature a slew of arts and culture events from November 5 to 8. In keeping with our focus on Arts & the City, we are showcasing arts and culture on campus with classes, concerts, tours, panels, children’s events, film screenings, and other special events open to the wider public.
We plan to continue the arts and culture focus not just for this year, but also for every year to follow. I emphasize for every year to follow because Arts & the City Year represents our most concentrated effort ever to shine a spotlight on the centrality of the arts in the life of this great university while signaling an ongoing effort to embed the arts in the educational experience of every Penn student. We also want to put the liberating powers of the arts within the reach of every member of our extended Penn family. We will make the too-often hidden treasures of arts and culture at Penn much more accessible to our students and arts lovers everywhere. We will strengthen the connections between the arts at Penn and those in our greater Philadelphia community.
And we will generate more visibility for all of Penn’s exceptional cultural institutions and our extremely talented student arts groups through our partnership with the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, which will showcase Penn in its arts digest and consumer website, phillyguide.com. This website currently keeps upwards of 80,000 regular readers up to date on arts and entertainment events throughout the region. Students and families throughout Greater Philadelphia will know that we have one of the finest museums of archaeology and anthropology and one of the most beautiful arboretums in the world. They also will discover that the art that we present at ICA and the Arthur Ross Gallery, and the music, theater, and dance that we present at the Annenberg Center and at World Café Live furnish many ways to educate and liberate our imaginations.
We will continue to support programs and hubs that spark artistic creativity. If you visit Addams Hall next spring, you will see wonderful works of art by our talented Fine Arts students. If you stop by the Platt Performing Arts House, you will enjoy great musical and dance performances in the making.
A further visible sign and symbol of Penn’s drive to unleash the power of the arts is the truly innovative renovation and expansion of our Music Building. Our eminent Music faculty represents an academic powerhouse of integrating knowledge with fields as wide-ranging as history, anthropology, science, and religious studies. It is altogether fitting that they will move back into a spectacularly expanded space this year where they along with Penn students will reap great benefits for their musical studies and practice.
Speaking of the great benefits of arts education, none to my mind is greater than the insights and inspiration art affords us into answering among the most fundamental of life’s questions: What matters most? “The function of art has always been to break through the crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness,” John Dewey observed, by deepening our “emotions, perceptions, and appreciations of reality.” My hope and expectation of our Arts & the City theme year is that the arts at Penn will offer our students, alumni, and the greater Penn community ever deeper and more meaningful connections to reality, and insights into what matters most in our lives. Human ambition, striving and longing, memory and imagination, angst and terror, fancy and finesse are all products of our artful imaginations, which are essential to constitute a fully meaningful human reality.
The deepest meanings that we impart to our lives—which the arts most vividly illuminate—are the opposite of luxuries; they fortify our hearts and our minds during the best and the worst of times. Our focus on Arts & the City therefore could not have come at better moment.