by FEU President Michael M. Alba
I write this essay with trepidation. I am not schooled in the arts; art was not a significant part of the curriculum in my formal schooling. The little that I know I have picked up hither and thither, mostly from a lifetime habit of reading for fun (including, as my mom used to say in Ilonggo, the putus sang ginamos [loose newspaper or magazine pages used in wet markets as bago-ong or shrimp-paste wrappers]). So at best I can claim only to be a dilettante, a dabbler, a saling pusa in arts appreciation.
Be that as it may, I believe I have some understanding of what art brings to human living, and therefore of the importance of its inclusion in the educational curriculum. Art whether in words, images, sounds, actions, or a combination thereof is about the artist(s) communicating in a way that is meant to evoke an affective response from the audience – an emotional reaction that can be inchoate (or, to expropriate the words of St Paul, a groaning of the spirit), ineffable, and “awe-full.” So much so that the best art edifies and uplifts the human condition, and hints at a transcendent dimension to human existence.
Black, Red and Black (1968) © Mark Rothko
This may all appear abstract, so let me give an example. Consider the painting “Black, Red and Black” (1968) by Mark Rothko. The viewer’s eye is drawn at once to what looks like a burning slab that seems to be ethereally afloat in a shallow inky haze. The haze itself shrouds … is that more blazing fire in the background? The edges of both slab and smoke are ill-defined, giving the sense of something dynamic captured in an ephemeral moment. Inevitably, the viewer’s gaze is transfixed on the slab, a red-orange plane, luminous and incandescent. The effect is hypnotic and trance-like. The bar seems to whoosh in flames fed by some gas sweeping through it from within. At some point one wonders, “Is the rectangular plane an opening to some other dimension? Do I dare insert my hand into that tear in the fabric of reality? What is on the other side?” The viewer becomes a jumble of emotions – haunted, fascinated, sadly longing to be completed in some way. Coming away from the painting, unhinged, confused, profoundly moved, the painting still etched in his mind’s eye, the viewer somehow knows something in him has changed.
The point is this: Art in its various forms has the power, first, to capture the heights, depths, and breadths of human experience – on the one hand, the glorious, sublime, and exquisite; on the other, the vile, sordid, and despicable; and even the everyday, mundane, and banal – and, second, to challenge our perceptions, perspectives, and presumptions of being and as beings in the world. This power, in turn, makes art a powerful medium for exploring and coming to a deeper sense of what it means to be human, a branch of inquiry with its own magisterium of knowledge and pursuing the truth altogether different from those of religion and science. Indeed, when art successfully conveys the essences and meanings of being in the world that are not readily sensed, expressible, or understood, it enlightens and ennobles us who are its raison d’être (because art cannot exist without an audience to appreciate it).
Thus, given what art is and what it can do, the question in education ought to be how art can be effectively used to improve learning outcomes, not whether it even has a place in the curriculum. That art’s role in education continues to be asked – and the answer of a not insignificant number is that it need not have one, given cost and budget constraints – is a sad commentary on (a) the diminished stock of art in society in general and among stakeholders of education in particular and (b) the more timid societal goals that are now set for education (as exemplified, for instance, by the minimalist education-for-employment aspiration).
Why does art matter in the educational curriculum? First, because the lofty goal of education is, as articulated by Blessed John Henry Newman, no less than the perfection of the intellect, and art is a branch of knowledge unto itself as well as a potentially effective tool for helping to achieve this perfection. Recall the famous passage from Newman’s The Idea of a University (1852, pp 138–139):
The perfection of the Intellect, which is the result of Education, and its beau ideal, to be imparted to individuals in their respective measures, is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them, each in its place and with its own characteristics upon it. It is almost prophetic from its knowledge of history; it is almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature; it has almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice; it has almost the repose of faith because nothing can startle it; it has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres.
In this exalted endeavor, art needs to be in the curriculum, first so that the intellect can comprehend it on its own terms “with its own characteristics upon it.” Then art can also help the intellect to achieve that “clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things” by being a vehicle for heart-searching and coming to a deeper understanding of human nature as well as by helping spur the intellect’s wonder and awe at the beauty and harmony of the heavens, “the eternal order of things,” and “the music of the spheres.”
Second, because art transforms those who engage it to be more open to possibilities. As mentioned above, art challenges our presumptions and beliefs – views that we take for granted as well as convictions that we hold dearly. Hopefully, a student of art then becomes less irrationally tied to dogma, is better able to do out-of-the-box ideation, and is more capable of adapting when life throws something from left field.
Openness to new things and adaptability to unforeseen developments are important life stances because, as pointed out in Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life (2016) [a book written to support the most popular undergraduate course at Stanford University], three-fourths of all college graduates in the US (but should also be true elsewhere) end up in careers unrelated to their majors. (It is thus ironic that an indicator (supposedly) of educational quality that is foisted on colleges and universities in the Philippines is the percentage of graduates whose careers are aligned with their academic programs.)
Third, because engaging art brings a person (as audience) in close contact with creativity and fosters critical thinking. A student who seriously takes up art appreciation confronts questions such as: What message does the artist wish to convey? What problems does the artist face in this project? How does he or she solve these problems? Is the message relevant to me; does it resonate with me? How am I affected by the art that I behold? What does this reaction say about me?
Arguably, answering these questions is a steeping process that keenly develops an art student’s sense of the creative process and the thinking that powered it, the ideas that inspired it, the pain that went with it, etc, all of which can become part of the student’s template for creatively and critically thinking through problems that she herself encounters. Moreover, the exercises being reflective should foster greater self-knowledge and maturity.
Creative and critical thinking skills and self-knowledge and reflection are obviously valued attributes in today’s workforce, perhaps even more so than in the past. Globalization and rapid technological change are transforming the world of work in fundamental ways: New entrants to the labor force are more likely to face jobs that did not exist while they were still in school; the most lucrative opportunities may be for people with an entrepreneurial mindset who are able to create their own futures. If so, the value of a college graduate’s major may count for less; it may only be good enough to gain for her an entry-level position. To flourish in a career, she will need the aforementioned soft skills. (Thus, even in the limited education-for-employment framework, art in the curriculum arguably still matters.)
Given the foregoing, it is a source of immense pride for me that art is such a significant part of university life in FEU – a hallmark of FEU’s stance to remain steadfast in offering a holistic, full-service (if you will) college experience, including an extensive extracurricular program in culture and the arts. The Manila campus is a living art museum with its UNESCO-Heritage buildings and auditorium done in the Art Deco style and the many works of art by national artists (Fernando Amorsolo, Vicente Manansala, Carlos “Botong” Francisco, and Napoleon Abueva) permanently exhibited in the grounds, hallways, offices, as well as the chapel and the library. In fact, a coffeetable book that compiles these great works has been commissioned to art critic Cid Reyes and will soon be published. Moreover, FEU’s President’s Committee on Culture prepares a calendar of art and cultural events for the university every year, both to showcase the artistic talents of the university’s cultural groups (the Bamboo Band, Chorale, Dance Company, Drum and Bugle Corps, and Theater Guild) and to expose students to world-renowned artists.
That we have heritage-conservation architect Lorelei de Viana as dean of the Institute of Architecture and Fine Arts, portraitist Candido Manarpiiz as a member of the Fine Arts faculty, and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa as an alumna is an added bonus. They are the lodestars that point students to how fulfilling art can be in their future lives.
Burnett, Bill, and Dave Evans. 2016. Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived,
Joyful Life. New York: Alfred A Knopf.
Newman, John Henry. 1852. The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated in Nine
Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin. [A Public Domain Book]