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The art of the matter

By Catherine Burgess
On November 5, 2010

On a cold and rainy late-May morning of 2009, I sat in the packed Alumni Stadium at Boston College, patiently awaiting the two seconds that my older brother would walk across the stage and receive his diploma so my parents and I could all vivaciously clap our hands and get out of there. During that eternal time of waiting, history documentary filmmaker Ken Burns addressed my brother's graduating class in a speech that was like most other commencement speeches to any impatient, younger sibling – long, overly intellectual, and sleep-inducing. The only time my ears tuned in to what Burns was saying was at the very tail end of his speech, in which he spat out a statement that I've been trying to make sense of since then:

   "Insist that we support the sciences and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the defense of the country, they just make the country worth defending."

   However biased or uninformed my knowledge of current affairs might be, I think it's safe to say that our nation is trapped in a time of political embarrassment and economic anxiety. When every politician seems to have a sex scandal and the national deficit grows exponentially by the day, it's no wonder that our eyes are focused on "the defense of the country" to return to steadier promising times of days past (whenever they were). Why does it seem that colleges are filled with Political Science and Economics majors? They're guaranteed a job after college because the nation needs all the help it can get.

   The arts, however, are a different story. The arts do not promise gratification that comes from a steady well-paying job; there are far more starving artists than there are sated ones. Any visual arts, theater, or music major can attest to getting the question "What are you going to do with that once you graduate?" one time or another during their four years of college. Anyone who proclaims themselves an artist, an actress, a poet, a dancer, or a musician runs the risk of being condescendingly jeered by a society whose focus is on obtaining some picket-fenced version of the American dream.

   For those that do become successful artists, the general judgment does not get much better. A memory crosses my mind of walking through the Museum of Modern Art in New York City a few years ago, mystified by how a single plastic lawn chair could have been considered something of museum-worthy praise. A few older women came up behind me and gathered around this chair, nodding their heads like this piece of art was reaching deep down into their souls and changing all their fundamental views on life. I chuckled at the insanity of the moment, but felt out of place at the same time. For people like me, who stand in the middle of the road intellectually and economically, and can't grasp the abstract meaning that flows forth from plastic chairs, art appreciation can easily be seen as elitist when it's not being laughed at.

   So between these two perspectives on art, how could Ken Burns get away with making such a statement at Boston College, where the top four majors are Communications, Economics, Finance, and Political Science? Who would believe what he said to be true and not pass it off as some filmmaker's plea for respect? Even though I do take enjoyment in all things "artsy", I only thought it a hobby . While I have hopes of becoming the next great American novelist, I know at some point I will settle for teaching high school English for the sake of supporting my soccer-playing kids and our two-car garage. I never thought art mattered.

   But then again, where would our nation be if Bruce Springsteen had been laughed at for calling himself a musician? How often has Rocky Balboa subconsciously reminded us of our country's values of perseverance and triumph? How many college dorm rooms behold posters of reprinted Andy Warhol paintings? While these three examples are cliché American icons, they build our identity as citizens of the United States in a way that democracy and capitalism does not. By building a relationship with art where we do not belittle it or let it belittle us, we can allow  it to reach a part of ourselves where thought and emotion unite. Even though art does not work in the control tower of our country, it has the power to enrich the lives of all Americans, no matter what race, class or gender.  Art may not work toward directly solving the issues that immediately plague our nation, but it does reveal to us the creative, innovative potential of people and inspires us to find that same potential within ourselves. Art may not be the most important thing, but it certainly comes close. 

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