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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