Thursday, April 22, 2010

Cuts to Theatre, Film & Dance at Cornell University

In a March 11 essay in the Cornell Chronicle, Kent Kleinman and G. Peter Lepage, deans of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning and the College of Arts and Sciences respectively, write of their commitment to the arts. But in their essay they conflate the arts and the humanities, and a close examination shows that they voice no support for the making or practice of art, only for its study as a source of cultural knowledge.

The distinction is an important one, and is perhaps most easily seen by an example from the sciences. When we say we are committed to a science, say perhaps physics, we are saying that we want to see physics done. We want to support physicists doing physics in physics laboratories and offices, and teaching their students to do the same. This is a separate endeavor from the humanistic study of physics, found for instance within the field of science and technology studies, which critically examines the philosophy, sociology, history and politics of the sciences and their interaction with the larger culture.

Like research in science and technology studies, the questions posed by the deans in their essay are indicative of a humanistic study of a discipline, not the practice of it. They ask,
What is the status of authorship in a world of networked creation and production? In an era in which the climate itself is debated as a designed condition, is there actually a boundary that separates human artifice from the natural? Is visual literacy an increasingly essential precondition for informed citizenry? Are well-educated individuals still assumed to have more than a casual knowledge of music, literature, drama and art?
Artists do ask questions like these in the process of making work and teaching their students, but while such inquiry may stimulate their imaginations and lead to art that provokes reflection, their practice is much more than asking and attempting to answer questions. What they do is make things: they choreograph, compose, improvise, design, build, paint, sculpt, write, and so on. Just as physicists do physics, artists do art—they make it and perform it. It is this making that Kleinman and Lepage nowhere endorse. Yes, bringing in acclaimed artists to engage the public is mentioned, but teaching students the crafts of artistry is not.

This confusion of the humanities with the arts means that the key question is never broached: to what extent should the practice of art-doing be a part of students’ Cornell experience? Yet a discussion of this question is exactly what the cuts targeted at the Department of Theatre, Film & Dance should be stimulating. The cuts are not threatening students’ opportunities to study how the arts reflect or formulate the competing ideologies running through our social discourse, but they will hurt students’ chances to learn how they themselves might contribute to that discourse through the making and performing of artistic work.

The proposed cuts are not threatening the humanities, they are only going to fall on arts practitioners and teachers. The result will be a loss of experiential learning for students. For the Department of Theatre, Film & Dance it will mean a re-focusing away from arts practice and towards the humanistic study of the arts. Is this a desirable outcome? Rather than skirting this issue, we should take this moment to have a frank discussion about whether art-doing should be a part of undergraduate education. This is a fitting time for the faculty, current students and alumni to consider what instruction their university should offer its students in the practice of the arts. The humanities are at the core of a liberal arts education, but they are neither interchangeable with nor a substitute for the arts. The deans’ commitment to the humanities is not in question; what is in question is whether or not they, and the rest of us, are committed to the arts themselves.

Allen Fogelsanger
Director of Undergraduate Studies in Dance
Department of Theatre, Film & Dance
Cornell University

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