The Humanism of The Arts

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The modern university has the ancient Greeks to thank for the concept of a liberal arts education. Aristotle wrote in Politics that one needed study in all of the liberal arts to be a well-rounded individual. He defined these as the trivium: grammar, rhetoric and dialectic; and the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.  Plato in The Republic stated that one must be in balance with the arts and gymnastics in order to be well rounded. Emphasis on one at the expense of the other would result in an unbalanced individual. These worked together just as did the movement of the spheres to create balance and harmony in the world and among people.

While music and the other arts are no longer considered one of the sciences, we recognize that they are necessary to broad-based education. Many colleges and universities include a survey course of the arts in their core curriculum, required of all students, regardless of major.  The benefits of such a course are life long. The humanism of the arts links all of the arts with the history and culture of a people to bring greater meaning to life.

Sadly, our society has, for many, gone the way of popular culture, without the tools to appreciate the arts as necessary to life itself. Again I refer to Plato, who in Laws lamented the fact that most preferred a popular culture over a classical worldview. We have only to look at our own city to see popular culture in action. Recently, the Historical Museum collaborated with the University Gallery to present an exhibit of vintage photography showing public buildings of Central Louisiana, several of which no longer exist. Architectural monuments in classical and Palladian style have been torn down only to be replaced by “modern” buildings whose styles cannot possibly reach the standard of those that came before.

American society is one of the most privileged on Earth. Most of us have no understanding of the poverty, violence and degradation that plagues much of our world. And yet we are starved for completeness, well roundedness, and a sense of that which is greater than ourselves. Many would point to spirituality as the missing ingredient in our lives. And perhaps this is so. But all of the arts are so closely linked to the spiritual that we cannot fully explore one without the other.

I frequently encounter students in my humanism of the arts course who have no background in the arts. But more disturbing is that they have no background in religion, their own or anyone else’s, in geography, or in the various backgrounds of the world’s peoples. This makes the teaching of an arts course difficult at best, but all the more urgent if we are to fully educate. You see, when we can guide the student toward an understanding of where they came from and what society saw and heard as beautiful, we can point the way toward where they are going, or should be going! And one of the greatest joys in teaching is seeing the “lights go on” in a student’s mind.

The study of humanism of the arts is beneficial to any and all. Such courses are offered every semester by the academic community. If however, you are unable to avail yourself of such a course at a local college or university, reading about the various disciplines is helpful. All of the arts are closely interrelated. All of the arts depend on each other in their continuous evolution.  We cannot study baroque painting without being impacted by the music of Vivaldi. Visual art and architecture are closely aligned. A villa designed by Palladio calls to mind the magnificent structure and perspective of Bernini’s work.  The German expressionist artistic style reflected the developments of the Bauhaus School.  The modern era came into being through impressionism in painting and music along with symbolist poetry. When these varied disciplines begin to merge into one stylistic concept that reflects the history and society into which it was born, we can achieve a broader world-view and a greater appreciation for the world in which we live.

It is no longer enough to rely on a mediocre approach to the arts. We cannot depend on the watered-down presentation of most amateur endeavors to fully present artistic achievement. In so doing we end up with a stilted view of painting or music or poetry. All of these types of activities are fine, so long as we don’t confuse them with the real thing. As I have said so many times, we must pay our dues, academically and artistically, if we are to achieve an honest approach to the arts. . We must see beyond the charade of popular culture to the pure and lasting beauty of the arts.  In a theoretical sense is it better or more aesthetically pleasing to have a sea of cookie-cutter houses or the Villa Rotunda?  The answer seems to be obvious. In our efforts to make the arts available to all we have ceased to produce art. We are left with a paint-by-number culture.

We have produced a society that must rely on a visual image in order to understand an aural image. Creativity has ceased to be the major component of artistic activity. We no longer read the book, we wait for the movie.

We carry out our daily lives in a pessimistic time. Things just do not look good whether we are contemplating economy, ecology, or energy. Perhaps it is time to look beyond the ever-present gloom and doom. Perhaps it is time to read, to look at, and to listen to what is beautiful in our world. And in so doing, we will come to know ourselves better.  Most importantly, we come to an understanding of man’s humanity to man.