The Arts at MBS | November 11, 2011

The Arts at MBS

In my talk on Friday, I mentioned that a sense of place comes from time and storytelling, and today I would like to talk a bit about storytelling as it connects to the arts.

Last Friday, I told you a story about George Washington. It was a story based on historic events, and we might wonder --which is more valuable the historical lens or the fictional lens? Do fictional stories have worth? Do historical stories have worth? Do any of these stories have moral implications that we care about and that really matter?

For the purposes of this talk on the arts, I include fictional stories, historical stories, and poetry as part of "the arts."

Across the country, art programs are being ruthlessly cut at all levels not just in colleges and universities but also in primary schools, middle schools, and high schools. Even the annual budget for the National Endowment of the Humanities has been cut by 8 million dollars and is possibly doomed to be cut by 22 million more dollars within the next year.

In his New York Times blog "Think Again" Stanley Fish argues that the humanities do not "do" anything except give us pleasure. Says Fish: "It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then can they do? They don't do anything, if by 'do' is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don't bring effects in the world, they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them."

I would argue that stories, whether fictional or historical—and all aspects of the arts—matter very much, and last Tuesday at an excellent day school in the Bronx, we had a perfect example of how much the arts do matter.

So here is the story of what happened at a school just a few miles away, a school that is very much like ours. At this day school, the auditorium was filled with about 700 students and teachers as they prepared for a poetry reading and workshop.

On the stage, much like ours, sat a row of students facing the audience. On stage behind the students were the two featured poets. The visiting poets asked the students in the audience to write words on index cards. These could be any words, words of colors, remembrances, or of pop-culture icons. These words were eventually going to converge into a poem.

To prepare the students for this exercise, the artists read aloud a poem they had written together. This poem used very strong even offensive language. It used harsh words often used to target and hurt minority groups. The poem's purpose was to blur differences and to normalize these often ostracized groups of people. However, in the ensuing poetry reading, these words had the opposite effect.

For the next 30 minutes, the students on stage randomly picked from the pile of index cards written by their peers in the audience and read aloud the words that had been written. Many of the emotionally charged words that had been in the poem by the visiting artists emerged on the index cards, written anonymously by the students in the audience. The words sparked many negative emotions, hurt feelings, and discomfort, but no one stopped the reading.

In the aftermath, many students and teachers were upset, and they wondered how something like that could have happened at their school. Many who were in the auditorium felt that even if they only passively listened to the offensive words, they were complicit in what happened, whether they were students who read aloud the cards even when the words bothered them or whether they were participants who only listened and did nothing to stop it.

Is this day school at risk? Is it different from any other school? While all schools have shades of differences, I submit that what happened at this school could have happened at any school and what matters the most is how a school responds to this type of opportunity.

But perhaps this incident is the best indication about what the arts or even the attempt at art can do for us. I am not saying that what happened in the auditorium was art, and I do not want to get into a debate about what constitutes art and what doesn't, but it seems indisputable that the poetry workshop was an attempt at art.

While the experience and the aftermath is painful for many of the students and teachers at the school, and while I am glad that I am not having to sweep up the pieces, I would say that this is an opportunity for the students and faculty to clarify who they are and what they are all about.

And this is why art matters. The arts help us understand ourselves and our place in the world. They help us understand who we are and what we believe in. They are fundamental in what it means to be human. And even a poetry workshop gone awry has enormous worth.

On that note, I invite us all to attend "Servant of Two Masters." And let me say that art does not have to be serious to have enormous purpose and meaning. Arguably, comedy more than any other genre tells us who we are. I am looking forward to the show tonight, and I hope to see many of you here.


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