A: An Art department!
“Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched… this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society” ~ W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
Sitting at the paint-splattered tables in the room-formerly-known-as-the-watercolor-studio, I watch the sky darken through the enormous windows. It’s a good place to study, always quiet and full of a gentle, calming vibe (it must be something to do with those big windows, the paint on every surface, the vases full of plastic flowers balancing on the edge of the sink, the half-finished canvases lounging on the shelves) but I find its emptiness occasionally unnerving. The halls of the North Side of Brodie feel almost eerie sometimes; sure, people pass through on their way to and fro dance studios and the theater and Art History offices and the very occasional fine arts course but generally the halls are as empty as the walls (and the walls are very empty). As I ponder the emptiness of the space, I feel an old frustration bubble up. The parts of the campus that formerly housed the Art department seem to scream of an “If only…”
Throughout my almost three years here at Geneseo, I’ve had a countless number of conversations to do with this institution’s lack of an Art department (the Studio Art department was phased out beginning in 2010). They have occurred while curled up on dorm couches freshmen year, while lying spread-eagle in the green on a warm day, while standing in line for the bathroom at a frat house, while eating dinner on friends’ living room floors, while in classes that have both nothing and everything to do with art. In the past two days alone, days in which I have been pondering how to approach this post, I have been privy to nigh on three conversations in direct relation to this topic. And while my experiences and conversations are most definitely not universal and thus by no means a measure of the college-wide frustration (or, perhaps, lack thereof) to do with this subject, I feel that I have certain responsibility to make the stress of myself and those in my community known; beyond this, I feel a responsibility to explore the implications of this stress.
- Katie Sullivan and I are leaning over the front desk at the library, bothering Helen at work and bantering about blog posts and stressed professors. Helen brings up recent proposals by some of the administration to reduce the Foreign Language requirement from three classes in a language (until the 201-level or until equivalent proficiency) to one 101 class. Someone brings up the implications that this reduction of general education requirements will have for Geneseo’s status as a liberal arts institution and comments that since the phasing out of the Art department, it feels as though this institution is continually focusing in a single disciplinary direction. This is just a feeling; we, of course, were not here when the Art department was.
- Two of my friends sit down at a table with me in Cricket’s as I am beginning this post, asking me what I plan to write about. Clio, an Art History major and member of the Art History Association, is about as involved in the remnants of the Art department as someone on the Geneseo campus can be. Upon hearing what I’m writing about she says that I should mention that the former studios are like “empty carcasses,” commenting that the school has sold most of the formerly used equipment from the department to other SUNY schools. The formerly used section of Brodie is thus left empty and majorly un-accessible to the student body (see signs on the doors of the former Jewelry and Metalworking Studio that inform the reader that the room is only accessible to Facilities and UPD).
- An acquaintance, Jake, catches my attention as I am leaving the library, asking what I thought of the Arabic exam we had yesterday and gesturing to a page filled with differential equations as he explains that he has another exam later today. The conversation turns to his impending graduation and his plans for after and he gestures again, this time to the enormous portfolio resting against his chair. He’s a business major but solely due to the fact that he could not change his major after discovering his passion and skill in visual art and mixed media; after he graduates he’ll be joining a one-year teaching program at the University of Rochester in which he’ll be trained as an art teacher. That there is no Art department that would have allowed him to explore and develop his passion for art has, he feels, hindered his education. He says that he feels lucky that he had the opportunity to take classes with Professor Thomas MacPherson (currently a professor in the Art History department), who has taught Jake figure drawing and facilitated his exploration of the arts.
Always, these conversations seem to revolve around a few basic lines of inquiry: What does this lack of an Art department mean for our education at a liberal arts institution? What does it mean for our efforts to maintain and pursue interdisciplinary study (an especially prevalent question in the context of this explicitly interdisciplinary class)?
Upon reading Sean McAneny’s post about Sustainability and Interdisciplinary Study (which, I am aware, originates not from this INTD course but rather from Professor McCoy’s ENGL 337 course that she is also teaching this semester; the use of this post is not so much to emphasize interdisciplinarity through using a post from another course — especially given my particular background as an English major; rather, it is meant to reflect that in this post and in others, I’ve found sentiments and motivations from other students that are similar to my own) I was reminded of why I chose to come to Geneseo in the first place and, indeed, why I chose the English major in the first place. Through an intensifying interest in environmentalism and sustainability (fostered by friends and teachers I was extraordinarily lucky to have in high school) I had been becoming latently aware of the interconnectedness of everything, not only in terms of the environment but in terms of social issues (i.e. intersectionality) and in terms of disciplinary study. This awareness impeded my ability to choose an area of study, to choose a specialization; how could I choose one thing to study, when one thing inherently lead to everything else? I wanted to explore these interconnections, emphasize them, as I furthered my education, so I chose the English major. I was a relatively skilled writer and enjoyed reading, analyzing, making connections; primarily, however, I knew that through English I could explore any topic, any area of interest (I know, too, that this is a reason that other people have chosen different disciplines; Professor Aagesen of the Geography department says in the introduction class to his courses that he chose to study Geography because he can study anything through Geography. Interdisciplinarity is not inherent to one discipline, not only able to be explored solely via the humanities or the environment.). I have, by no means, been disappointed by the English department at this institution and its attempts to foster interdisciplinary study. In fact, my first course in the major was ENGL 203 (the introductory course to the major or minor): Climate Fiction with Ken Cooper; the course convinced me to pursue the interconnections between literary study and environmental issues. My classes in the Environmental Studies minor, as Sean discusses in his post, only served to emphasize the interconnections and interdisciplinary aspects of what I was studying in both my major and my minor (these interconnections are emphasized and re-emphasized with every course I take, from Conservation and Resource Management to Professor McCoy’s course on Blackness, Love, Justice, and Stone last semester). Thus, I can speak for the fact that this institution can promote the pursuit of valuable and enriching interdisciplinary study. And this makes the lack of a Studio Art department all the more frustrating.
With no visual arts being offered on this campus, there is a gaping hole in interdisciplinary study. This is exemplified in our own interdisciplinary course, where we learned about visual design from Dan DeZarn, the current head of the Office of Sustainability and a former professor of sculpture and occasional professor in the Edgar Fellows Program, and undertook the creation of art (outside of the art we created with Steve Prince, with faculty members of our own institution) with Garth Freeman, the Coordinator of the Student Leadership, Volunteerism, and Service Office. Just as my friend Jake felt lucky in having Thomas MacPherson as his professor, we were lucky to have two knowledgeable and willing participants in our class. However, as studio art is no longer offered on this campus, there is little opportunity for students to explore beyond what we learned from Professor DeZarn and Mr. Freeman (unlike our visits from professors of philosophy, math, poetry, art history, and geography) and little opportunity for faculty to facilitate such exploration. Thus, art is devalued in an interdisciplinary context within this institution. Prince, who is himself familiar with our struggle over the loss of the Studio Art department (he first visited the school when the department was being phased out), has pointed out a myriad of interconnections between art and other disciplines; I remember him, at one point, describing how the Art department and the Physics department at one of his institutions worked not only alongside but with one another.
The lack of a Studio Art department not only devalues art in an interdisciplinary context but devalues art as a discipline itself. We have learned throughout the semester from Prince’s art about the many ways art can be used not only for self-expression but for expressing the need for and enacting social change. If students wish to pursue self-expression and societal expression on this campus, they must make the space for it (after all, the space is closed off, lock and key inaccessible, tools sold to other institutions) and pursue it themselves outside of the institution. The lack of space for self-expression and the integration of self-expression into other disciplines hinders the abilities of students on this campus to explore any fascination with art and self-expression and ability to make connections between art and other chosen disciplines. These hindrances have significantly increased anxiety over art and self-expression among students of all disciplines on this campus, an anxiety which I feel is oft-reflected in our own class discussion.
Of course, the honest truth is that I never knew this school with an Art department. When I came into Geneseo in the fall of 2016, the fine arts had already been unceremoniously phased out. And while I can’t truly speak to everyone’s experience and how they have been affected by this institution’s lack of an art department, I can speak for myself and say that I feel my education has been distinctly affected and my ability to pursue and feel confident in interdisciplinary study. I am unsure of how to approach a solution to this issue — after all, Geneseo’s own issues seem to be a microcosm of the disciplinary tensions that seem to afflict higher education in liberal arts institutions — other than to say if we, as students, wish to make a change and wish to pursue art, we must speak up (as Malachy Dempsey does in a Lamron article entitled “Geneseo Should Restore the Studio Art major and Offer More Resources to Creative Students”) and beginning creating and facilitating our own spaces to create art for the purpose of self-expression and interdisciplinary study. As stated in the epigraph, it is only through “honest and earnest criticism” from those with invested interest that change can occur.
** It is important to mention here that although I am focusing specifically on the phasing out of the Art department and its implications for interdisciplinary study, the Art program was not the only program phased out by the school. The Computer Science and Speech Pathology (this is the link to an article in The Lamron about the closing of the Speech Pathology department) departments were also phased out due to budget cuts.