Last Friday night, I was able to attend a wonderful Lexington Philharmonic concert, featuring a new composition, as well as a fantastic performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5. In a strange coincidence, the pianist (who was breathtaking and even performed a haunting encore) is originally from Montreal (my hometown) and performed for the first time as a child with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. As an elementary school kid, I loved those few trips a year we made to see the MSO perform during special concerts for elementary-aged children.
I’ve always loved live music and performance. But it wasn’t until college that I cultivated a true appreciation for music, classical music in particular. I took a class, The Art of Listening, or, as many of my friends called it (and courses like it), Clapping for Credit. We held the same dismissive attitude towards those introductory Art History courses, looking forward to spending our hours “looking” at pictures. But it was in those classes that, as a literature major, I began to understand the connections between the arts, how they were connected within large artistic movements.
I had taken piano as a kid, played clarinet in our high school concert band (yup, I was that kid), and sang in the choir, so I had a good grounding in music and music theory. I knew how to read music, the various scales and cords, and (if my music teachers were to be believed) an above-average ear. But I never advanced far enough to learn any true music theory, and when I took my Art of Listening class, it was like a light bulb went off in my head. I finally started to understand music and how it was written, why it worked, and the different musical styles and movements.
While I never had the opportunity to take an Art History course, I did finally see the relevance of a great curator and exhibit when I was able to see the Turner-Whistler-Monet: Impressionist Visions at the Art Gallery of Ontario. While I had often visited museums and appreciated certain pieces and artists (I once spend two hours sitting in front of Degas’ Four Dancers), I had never understood movements in art and how they evolved, as well as how artists influenced one another. The Turner-Whistler-Monet exhibit, for me, was my introductory art history course. I started to pay more attention when I visited museums, and began tracing the evolution and influence of art.
If pattern recognition is a skill we’ll need for 21st Century survival, and we’re living in an increasingly multi-media environment, we need to be able to do more than just read books. Certainly media literacy is key, but I think we need to start teaching the inter-connectedness of the history of the arts, from music to painting to sculpture to literature and beyond. If we can see the patterns in those historical movements, see the connections through art with our own aesthetic, then we can begin to really start asking students to engage differently with what they study. It’s unfortunate that students flock to “looking and listening” classes while avoiding the reading classes, but it represents an opportunity to start the conversation and start the process.
And I’m not just talking about the “Great Art” of the Western canon. Studying Haitian literature, I have learned about the importance of knowing and understanding the Primitive Painters as well as the indigenous music movements (Rara among others) in the development of the literature more generally. I also came to appreciate the importance that all of these artists played in resisting and eventually overthrowing the Duvalier dictatorship. This is clearly an over-simplified explanation of a complex cultural process and product, but it serves to illustrate that these kinds of classes and connections don’t just have to be made within one (dominant) cultural context.
But it shouldn’t just start in college. And, with universities increasingly cutting their budgets and creating narrower and more standardized common core classes, we shouldn’t eliminate these classes from our students’ educational experiences. Just because our students’ don’t take these kinds of classes seriously, doesn’t mean we should give up trying. Consider this another radical call for interdisciplinary and digital humanities integration, allowing all of us to benefit from the multitude of artistic materials that are out there, longing to be reconnected to one another.