Art for art’s sake, and the world’s

Thanksgiving was this week, and I couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed by how lucky I, and most everyone I know, has or have it. So many stunning people in our lives. So much good music. So much color. So many individuals who impress me with their imaginations, make me strive for more, make me appreciate more of what’s around me and think of ways I can improve it. So many beautiful books, and such a completely enjoyable job I have that allows me to just talk about those books with interesting people I like for my living. AWB says she cries during her Emily Dickinson lecture. I gave mine this week too, and man, my students laughed out loud at me for being so passionate. She’s not even my favorite poet, not by a long shot, but just thinking about seeing that much beauty in the world, her ability to compare a locomotive to a runaway horse or a hummingbird to a postal carrier or a bolt of lightning to a fork dropped from God’s table, that much wonder at language, that way of visualizing things in a new way that makes art worthwhile—what a mind. What a world.

Today I observed a colleague’s class, someone on whose tenure committee I serve. The class was Chamber Music, a chorale ensemble. She gave the students a brand-new and extremely complicated Haydn piece. I was there for their first read-through. They sang it cold, all the harmonies; she had them substituting “da, da, da” for the words at first so they could get a handle on rhythm and melody, but even without the words, their passion bumped the rafters. Every one of them understood music theory and could sightread the music at first go. Their voices filled this smelly small practice room like, dare I say, a choir of angels. Later they translated the lyrics from the Latin so they could understand what they were singing better. I knew some of the students from previous English classes, and I had no idea they had this interest or this talent. The sullen guy in the back of my English 101 turned out to be a powerful tenor. The dorky overachiever I’d had a few semesters ago was singing his lungs out, and told me afterwards that he conducts a 40-piece orchestra in his spare time. After the first run-through of the concerto, one girl shivered all over with how intense the performance had been, moved to her guts. I didn’t know 19-year-olds cared about things like this these days.

I had lunch with the teacher afterwards, and she and I both teared up when discussing how lucky we are to have these jobs (she teaching music, I poetry and novels) in which we just get to discuss these things with people who (usually) care about them, or are just beginning to realize that it’s worth caring about them. It’s hard to justify teaching the arts sometimes, in a universe where it’s probably more useful to be studying cell division or whatever might actually cure cancer someday. It’s hard to explain that if people just understand how important art is, the world will be populated with more interesting and thoughtful people. More sensitive people. Nicer, sexier, more forgiving, more delightful people.

It’s late and I’ve had drinks (obvs), but I can’t just go to bed; I need to stay up and prepare my class for tomorrow. I’d rather go to sleep. But my prep is to read the rest of White Noise, a novel that shocks me with its gentle and prescient and hilarious cleverness every time I read it. How can I complain about that? Last night I didn’t get home from work until almost 11, but it’s because my class stayed late because I was showing them Pinter clips on Youtube after we studied his plays and the discussion ran overtime with their conflicting interpretations. When they got into a throwdown last week about who was superior, Woolf or Joyce, I had to step back and have a moment to just realize: these people actually care about it as much as I do! They are 21st-century teenagers, and they are invested in defending Ulysses!

Allz I’m saying is: Art isn’t dead. The idiocracy has not won. Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all ye know and all ye need to know.

11 responses to “Art for art’s sake, and the world’s”

  1. Rachel says:

    This Dickinson poem (in my summer term Intro to Lit, no less!) made the whole class tear up:

    I dwell in Possibility–
    A fairer House than Prose–
    More numerous of Windows–
    Superior–for Doors–

    Of Chambers as the Cedars–
    Impregnable of Eye–
    And for an Everlasting Roof
    The Gambrels of the Sky–

    Of Visitors–the fairest–
    For Occupation–This–
    The spreading wide my narrow Hands
    To gather Paradise–

    And that is why so many people compete for such and exhausting and relatively low-paying job. Thanks for the reminder, Swells. I am currently serving on a search committee, and the number of nice, sexy, forgiving, delightful people is astonishing.

  2. LP says:

    Oh, man, I so wish I could have had you for a teacher! Of course, I would have had a stammering-fool crush, so not sure how I would have done in your class. But your students are lucky to have a teacher who is moved so deeply by the subject!

  3. Tim says:

    Yay for the world!

    Also, I’d have to say that you need to give yourself a great deal of credit for cultivating such interest in books and authors in 19 and 20 year olds. It must be an amazing experience to be a student in one of your classes. Rock. On.

  4. ScottyGee says:

    Maybe a little too personal I know, but: Last night after Swells finished this post she approached me in the kitchen, a little concerned that she just wrote something that’s way too sappy, and as she explained it, not even in a funny or clever way. Sorry to disappoint, you Steph, but being as sappy as you can be about this (incredibly important) stuff is what makes you “sexier” and “more delightful.”

    As for my own experiences as a newly minted teacher, I was just having a similar conversation with my department (social sciences) dean about how my classes are going — not a situation in which you want to be feeling your eyeballs burn from the welling up of tears. But I couldn’t help it. As I recounted how much I love teaching an intro to American government class, I felt the burn when I mentioned how wonderful it is to see young faces start to brighten as they realize that they care about social movements, or American foreign policy, or even economic policy.

    It’s easy to feel fatigued at the end of a semester, especially since we’re all getting those, “What is my grade so far? Can I still get an A?” emails. But in reality, I do believe that we are the luckiest people in the word — oh, and by the way, we’re about to have SIX weeks off! But as a measure of how great our jobs are, I’ll bet that most of us start to miss teaching be the middle of the second week.

  5. Josh K-sky says:

    Please tell me that you are teaching Emily Dickinson and White Noise in the same class, and then tell me what that class is.

    It’s okay to lie.

  6. swells says:

    Josh, the class is a doctoral seminar entitled “Dickinson and DeLillo: Dope, Def, Digable, and Definitely Doin’ the Deed.” America’s most famous literary couple, honored at last.

  7. I really want to take the class in comment #6.

  8. Dave says:

    Our Contracts professor made my eyes mist up a bit yesterday. (Not like this.) Here’s to great teachers.

  9. J-Man says:

    where’s the damn kleenex…..

  10. Josh K-sky says:

    All is full of love. Thank you. Hope is airborne.

  11. farrell fawcett says:

    Since I’ve got my pen out…Man, Steph, this post made me luv you even more. Is that possible? Is it? Oh, how I wish I could attend your classes.