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Arts Literacy in the Coming Recovery

Anthony Cascardi, dean, Arts & Humanities | November 10, 2009

As the economy begins to recover and arts programs have an opportunity to be restored (one hopes), let’s not make the mistake of returning to the way things were.   The financial crisis has given everyone, across many sectors, a chance to reassess everything from health care to finance to education.  We should do the same with our approach to the arts.  We can do better than return to the past.

While anticipating the promise of increasing revenues for museums, galleries, and the performing arts, we ought to avoid thinking about the arts as yet another source of entertainment, competing for consumer dollars.  Of course the arts will always compete for dollars.  That is simply a function of the fact that they too exist within an economy.  But the spectacle of crowds jamming into “blockbuster” museum shows or bidding up the price of tickets to the opera on opening night are not necessarily signs that all is well.   How much is genuinely seen (or heard) on these occasions?

Wouldn’t it be better if we directed our efforts to the development of basic arts literacy among students in secondary school and at the university level?  We insist on basic textual literacy and “numeracy”;  why not a basic  competence in the arts?   Several years ago I taught two freshman seminars simply entitled “Speaking of the Arts.”   These were designed to introduce beginning level university students to the various resources open to them in approaching a wide spectrum of “live” arts–including dance, live music, and the visual arts.  My own work in aesthetic theory was happily challenged by having to meet a range of arts practices across a number of different media.  Collaborations with Cal Cerformances and the Berkeley Art Museum were among the most memorable of my career.  And the students gained a kind of exposure they might otherwise not have had.  Alas, the groups, as seminars, were necessarily small.

My hope going forward is this:   that every student graduating from U.C. Berkeley would have a basic arts literacy; that every student leaving this place would know how to talk intelligently–not necessarily as a student majoring in music or poetry or architecture might, but nonetheless with some fluency.  We do not send students out into the world without basic skills in reading and math.  Why should we do any less for the arts?

The hoped-for economic recovery can be a chance for us to return to business as usual, and to measure the health and success of the arts by the dollar volume of ticket sales.  But wouldn’t it be better if we were also to take the opportunity of this crisis to fundamentally re-think our public goals in relation to the arts?  It seems to me that the University is obliged to enable the citizens it educates to flourish, economically and otherwise.  A re-thinking of our stance vis-a-vis arts literacy ought to be part of that project.

Anthony J. Cascardi, Director, Townsend Center for the Humanities, U.C. Berkeley

Professor of Comparative Literature, Rhetoric, and  Spanish

Comments to “Arts Literacy in the Coming Recovery

  1. I for my children as I try to run to art as art and music because the sport is not always enough to calm their intellectual appetite.Thank you to the ticket

  2. Definitely – I agree wholeheartedly. Research is coming out all the time suggesting strong links with the arts and increased abilities in other areas. I wrote just the other day about theBenefits of Music Education, and we are missing these amazing benefits for our children if we don’t make the most of our arts budgets.

  3. “Basic arts literacy”? YES. As a two-time graduate of U.C. Berkeley (BA Comparative Literature in 88 followed by an MBA in 92) and a performing artist (dancer/choreographer/actress/writer) living and working in western Europe, I have had years to compare and contrast the quality of higher education between my contemporaries and myself. It is safe to say that, despite the quality of the education I was fortunate enough to receive, I found myself with a “basic arts literacy” of, say, a 14 year old compared to that of the others around me having finished comparable degrees. We have some of the best learning institutions in the world, yet…
    From your keyboard to the minds of the decision makers…

    • I agree with you simone,
      We have some of the best learning institutions in the world, but art knowledges are very important for students culture …
      According to me, that’s also a good thing for U.C. Berkeley’s students to have a basic arts literacy …

  4. Hear, hear! Now that it has come to light that most athletic programs are in the red, supporters of collegiate sports are arguing that it is appropriate for the university to subsidize these programs because they add in an essential way to students’ undergraduate experience. Shouldn’t the same argument be made for the arts? For years the arts have accepted as inevitable their “poor cousin” status on campus, but now it turns out that athletics has been in the same boat all along–only it has been seen as a priority to sustain the latter. Participating in, viewing, and studying the arts while at Berkeley prepares students for a lifetime of creative and cultural engagement. Many Berkeley students have had limited opportunities to engage with the arts prior to their arrival on campus. Giving them such opportunities while they are here should be a priority. “Basic arts literacy” would benefit students throughout their lives–and it would benefit those artists and arts institutions who depend on curious, open-minded audiences for their survival.

  5. Rocco Landesman, the newish chairman for the NEA (and the Broadway producer behind Mel Brooks’ “The Producers”), makes a compelling argument for the arts in a talk he gave last month at a conference, “Navigating the Art of Change.” To learn the triple entendre behind Art Works and Landesman’s hopes for the arts, check out his speech.

  6. This suggestion would go a long way to helping change the atmosphere that made it possible for Senator Coburn to argue against funding the arts in the original stimulus bill debate. And it opens up the question of what “the arts” means. What struck me visiting the Smithsonian exhibit I wrote about was that many of those who had works in the exhibit were full-time graphic artists, illustrators, not simply the kind of star artists to whom we have limited our support.

    Participating in the arts– whether that means taking classes in drawing, pottery, or sculpture, or playing an instrument, or singing in a choir, or just participating in community theater– changes how you feel about the need for this kind of activity.

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