Art in Academia

Note to readers: I want to confess that I really struggled with this one. There was a lot of anger behind it and I am wary of sending that energy out into the universe without pointing towards a solution. Maybe the solution is wanting to raise awareness about this issue. I am open to suggestions…if you have the time, please click on “comments” above and read Ken Ludden’s words.

There has been a long-standing quarrelsome relationship between the arts and academia. While there are universities and high schools out there doing a great job with the arts, all too often the arts are relegated to an inferior status behind math, the sciences and humanities. Then, the arts themselves have their own hierarchy with visual art at the top, followed by music, then drama, and lastly dance scraping the bottom of the barrel.

It reminds me of the internalized racism of enslaved and/or colonized peoples with the lighter-skinned, straighter-haired people looking down on their darker, kinkier-haired sisters and brothers. It’s really no wonder that the evil legacy of our country’s origin and its resulting self-hatred have survived in education, the supposed doorway to a better future, but really a kind of intellectual class system.

Educators, many of whom are so-called liberals, uphold this hierarchy of study while paying lip service to the need for arts in an educational setting. The art form is not seen as worthy in and of itself; it has to latch onto other disciplines and courses of study in order to be validated in the eyes of the academic institution.

But here I am, just a stupid dancer who knows how to use a semi-colon. Recently, I was demoralized to hear of an advisor at a so-called arts school tell a student that she was too smart to major in dance at college. In another instance, a well-known dance educator lamented the limitations of just training dancers. Pew!

On the one hand, I sympathize with that educator. The dance world can be a narrow environment but it doesn’t have to be that way. Before we downplay the importance of training artists we  have to ask ourselves what that actually takes. How many teachers can lead someone through the fire of transformation? I’ve seen a lot of people give class, but not many have the ability to initiate, to support, a student through the process of becoming an artist, to endure the sheer stamina of it. And of course, the reward. It’s like giving birth.

We used to say that such-and-such a teacher can make dancers. That was a compliment. It referred not to a teacher that had a star clientele, a trendy following, but to someone who could make stars. Where would I be without Madame Darvash? Those of us who’ve had someone like that take us under their wing are forever grateful.

I’m not saying that there’s no place for outreach programs, art appreciation and courses that link art to say, medicine. Of course there is. I celebrate that. The more the merrier. I’m saying that in academia, these kinds of programs are emphasized and taken more seriously than the actual training of the artist. Fine, that’s their prerogative. It’s their house. At the same time, they can’t run a respectable house by ignoring the arts completely and they know it. An absence of the arts would discourage potential students. And taking an arts class at these institutions ain’t free.

People are starving for experiences of authenticity, beauty and being moved in their souls. We have always needed that, but now more than ever as art is increasingly institutionalized and separate from every day life.

What I want to say is that of course there is lots of room for intellectual study around the arts, but I think we need to remember that the intellect is in service to something higher. Call it the great mystery. Call it spirit. Call it whatever you like, but what we are ultimately striving for is transcendence. The intellect has to work with other parts of our being. It is not a stopping off point.

All art is ultimately a way to transcend the intellect. It is a tool, like the body that I mention in the previous blog. Art is a way of connecting with the divine. Simply put, if spirit ain’t in it, you ain’t really dancin’.

I want to add here in case you skip the comments section above that I’ve received a lot of feedback since posting this blog. I want to make it clear that I am not against the role of “amateur” art. I am not in any way suggesting that those who teach “amateurs” are sell-outs or fostering mediocrity.  I teach those who are professionally focused and many who aren’t. What I’m getting at, in summary is that a great arts class, dance class, is important and useful in and of itself regardless of the student’s ambitions. There is something that we as human beings need to experience through art that is not less important than say, math.

What I am against is the classist attitude against those that do choose to pursue it professionally. I am against figures of authority and influence telling someone that it is not worth their while to pursue the arts over other things. And I am against prioritizing the intellect above and against other aspects of our being, of our humanity, especially with regards to teaching the arts. A college doesn’t have to take on the arts if it’s not their thing. That’s fine. But if they do take it on, even in a secondary way, it should be respected and valued for what it is.

Also, though I personally prefer an apprentice/master relationship to learning anything in life, we are in a culture now that makes it more and more necessary to have “that piece of paper” as my mother calls it, meaning a degree. Many dancers are going to college because they feel that societal pressure; they feel that they will not be professionally validated without it should they wish to teach later on. We are making it harder on kids to choose not to go to college and that needs to be addressed.

12 responses to “Art in Academia

  • chris

    I feel driven to respond because I not only agree with your points, I think it necessary to state the problems. How else would things begin to change or, for that matter, even be noticed. Write On! xo

  • Anne Clark

    Hi Tai…I found your blog through Chris on FB. Thank you for your powerful words. I appreciate the opportunity to read them. Best, AC

  • Jeffrey Brown

    Hi – I followed a link posted by Bob and Jan Klump to read your blog. I’m going to take exception to what you’ve written here.

    In my opinion, there are too MANY people who believe they can train “artists” – sending them off ill prepared into a world that has little use for their artistry and with no intention of supp…orting them. It’s pretty easy to make money on kids who think they’re destined for success on the stage, screen, bill board charts, or dance floors, but how many of them truly have that destiny?

    I dedicated my career to providing opportunities for non-full-time artists (amateurs – though I hate what that word has come to mean) to have quality opportunities to pursue their art. I haven’t “fostered mediocrity” because I “don’t want to remember what I gave up”. But for most of us, success in our art – becoming an ‘artist’ – is NOT going to mean earning our daily bread and board through it.

    I don’t agree that Arts in Education should focus on ‘training the artist.’ Sorry. Raising arts-literate people, yes. Identifying truly talented individuals and helping them find training, yes. Encouraging moderately talented people to dedicate their lives to single-minded pursuit of their art? I don’t think so.

    • taijimenez

      Hi Jeffrey. Thanks for reading and taking the time to respond. I’m sure there are those who prioritize running a business over the interest of their students. But most of the teachers I encounter are passionate about what they do as I’m sure you are. I’m speaking in defense of that passion which is often at odds with an administration in a so-called arts school that does not prioritize the arts. If it’s calling itself an arts school, then I think it should take the training of arts seriously and responsibly.

      I teach many students for whom ballet is not their main focus and love these students. We both understand that they will not become ballerinas. Teaching people who are “amateurs” is not what I meant by fostering mediocrity. I am not against arts for “amateurs.” I think everyone should have access and know that very few will “make it.” It’s great to have a hobby. I am a hobbyist crafts/painter and drummer myself. There’s room for everything and I’m grateful to the teachers who allow me to stumble through these pursuits. I help to support them financially and they help me to get better at doing something I love.

      I’m not saying that art teachers in academia should push moderately talented people to pursue it. I’m saying that a great arts class, dance class, is important and useful in and of itself regardless of the student’s ambitions. There is something that we as human beings need to experience through art that is not less important than say, math.

      What I am against is the classist attitude against those that do choose to pursue it professionally. I am against figures of authority and influence telling someone that it is not worth their while to pursue the arts over other things. And I am against prioritizing the intellect above and against other aspects of our being, of our humanity, especially with regards to teaching the arts. A college doesn’t have to take on the arts if it’s not their thing. That’s fine. But if they do take it on, even in a secondary way, it should be respected and valued for what it is.


    • Christopher

      I feel an obligation to question some of your points. Specifically the Arts in Education assertion. There are Arts infused curricula that doesn’t aim to produce artists but to expose students to the arts and then there are Arts Programs that are designed especially to train artists. There is room for both–and forgive me if I’m misspeaking, but I believe Tai is referring to the latter.
      As a long time teacher it has always struck me that regardless of the innate talent level of the student it is the teachers obligation to instruct to the best of their abilities. I’ve witnessed too many times moderately talented people go on to successful careers in their art (which no one foresaw).
      With the best education in the art being put forth it becomes the students choice as to how far they want to take it–or their own abilities allow, but not for lack of good, professional training.

      How does a teacher go about teaching art, but not encouraging the best out of the student? That seems perplexing to me.

  • Leigh Witchel

    Good luck with this one, Tai. The mutual suspicion of ballet and college has been around longer than you or I.

    Ballet dancers have been discouraged from college at the usual age because in general, you’d need to be entering ballet professionally at least by then.

    College dance has a distrust of ballet because of that – and also because most of the dancers in college dance departments wouldn’t have a chance in ballet (and may already have been told so, which didn’t endear them to ballet.)

    Ballet and academia have mutually exclusive processes. I learned this the hard way coming to Darvash after college. She spent about a year smacking me across the face with a rolled-up newspaper because I asked too many questions – I was just doing what was normal at college.

    Finally, college sells a product – a degree. I think my college education has helped as an artist and writer as least as much as my artistic training. But the reality is, the artistic training you get in college (particularly for ballet) is usually worse than you’d get by other means. And it costs a great deal more.

    • taijimenez

      Thanks Leigh. You have a lot of valid points. There has been this issue of arts in academia since it was introduced, but we are in a culture now that makes it more and more necessary to have “that piece of paper” as my mother calls it, meaning a degree. Many dancers are going to college because they feel that societal pressure; they feel that they will not be professionally validated without. I personally prefer an apprentice/master relationship to learning anything in life! My college students, those that want to dance and those that love it but don’t want to dance professionally do ask more questions than students that I have in a conservatory setting. I do not smack them with a newspaper!

  • Cicely Thompson

    Hi Tai,

    I am so happy that you decided to go ahead and post “Arts in Academia.” It’s very true and often never said. Thank you for being brave enough to share with us what has crossed the minds of many.



  • Ken Ludden

    Dear Tai,

    The celebrated artist Ben Shahn certainly agreed with you about art education in a college setting. He was invited to recieve the visiting artist chair at Yale, and turned them down flat, stating that it was impossible to devise a structured program of study that would allow artists to ‘find’ the things they needed to find (sense of design, expression through shape, visual vocabulary to best express, etc.). Yale replied that with the chair came a series of lectures that would be published as a book, and challenged him to come to Yale to proove that a university or college setting was no place for the arts. He agreed. The result is a formidable book “The Shape of Content” which I believe is one of the very best works on the subject of teaching serious art in an academic setting.

    When Margot Fonteyn and I were developing the educational plan for the Academy that would have her name, the one I now run, she thought that the arts should be studied side by side, under one roof. Particularly in the case of the ballet dancer, this approach is hugely beneficial, for a ballet dancer is required to interpret music with their body, take part as a living sculpture in an enormous living painting, create viable dramatic characters through acting and develop that character’s arch through long, sustained dramatic works, and be a masterful technician of their body movements.

    One of the early problems with her concept was the fact that a dancer must receive their training at a young age, and be establishing their career during or even before the ages one is when attending university. Dramatic artists need to be older to have sufficiently mature, and have ample life experience, to be able to portray the subject matter that is at the heart of most dramatic works of note. And with visual and plastique artists, the control of body, development of mind, and mastry of technique takes sometimes decades of repetition to perfect. This puts the time each student is ‘ripe’ and needing to delve into training at conflicting ages.

    The result and solution to our program was to have two schools for the ballet, a lower school and an upper school. The lower school students would study their art, dance, drama, music in a much more integrated fashion, so that the true nature of each child’s gift could express itself and be guided into the appropriate line of study. And then in the upper school, at a different facility entirely, you would have serious study of these various art forms starting at the age of 16 (with notable exceptions) so that the subject matter could be presented without concern for innappropriateness.

    Having said this, and to return to the point of your article, one of the reasons for the low status of dance in most academic institutions is because if a person is beginning study of dance at college age, they will in all but the rarest cases not have any sort of career as a performance professional. It is simply too late at that age. Another confusion in dance is that when you take the kind of ecclectic approach liberal arts institutions must by their very definition present, it does not allow enough time in the day to do more than simply introduce the forms in conceptual ways, because to specialize in any particular dance form, particularly the classical ones from around the world, takes many hours every day for a near decade before sufficient proficiency to approach serious levels of performance is attained.

    Unfortunately, when I took a part in the formation of the dance department at Colgate University in 1970, the only way it could fit in the existing umbrella was as a physical education option. It had to be open to every student, and had to have a curriculum that met the standards of all introductory art classes (i.e., to include a survey of similar forms, teach the history, have ample ‘testable’ subject matter, and work within the 50-minute class time available to students). The result was less than true loyalty to Terpsichore!

    Your quest to tackle this subject is commendable. You are the new generation trying to figure out this basic incompatability. You also are coming into this when our civilization has commercialized the actual art out of every art form, and general education in this country is at an all time low. Students arriving at even the most esteemed institutions are ill prepared to take and pass the International Bacculauriate examination all Europen students must take to enter higher education. Again, Margot saw this coming as early as 1975 and did her best to create something then that would place, in America, a serious institution that would uphold the integrity of the art form, and teach students indepth. By the time our plans were formed enough to present it was the mid-1980s and America had already been stripped of its culture by the political forces of the times.

    Is there an answer? I believe there is. For it is human nature to achieve, and to strive. This current zombieland in our arts cannot be sustained. Audiences are rejecting the recent and current way the arts are presented. There is a line between entertainment and expression that has been destroyed and abandonned. But it is the salvation of human beings to express, and out of our collective numbers will come those, like yourself, cannot hold back the expression of deep inner truth.

    Will Academia accept true, substantial art? Will the nation listen to and implement the 1976 Rockefeller Report “Coming to our Senses” that was a 40-year study of educational practices showing that serious art education is the base of all successful education? Will Americans fight back against the forces of commerce and demand legitimate and meaningful experiences again? These are the questions that must be addressed, though they will only be answered in time and by the judgment of future historians looking back at this time. For my part, and yours my dear Tai, I know we will do our best.

    In Margot’s words, “You can take it from me, and I’m old enough to know, every turn of century ballet becomes mechanical, flat, dull and it dies. The last turn of a century Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham brought it back to life. As it dies, one person can’t save it. Let it die. But when you find a student, even if it is only one, who truly wants to learn, then teach them everything you know to be true about dancing from having done it. Do not teach any style or theory, but teach what is true. And then from your students, or their students, will come the next Martha Graham.”

    You were my student Tai, and you learned that truth of movement. Continue forward, teach what you know is true from having done it. Do not perpetuate any false theories about ballet or movement, just the truth of it. And perhaps you will bring us the next Martha Graham.

    Ken Ludden
    Director, Margot Fonteyn Academy of Ballet

    • taijimenez

      oh, god, i love you Ken! thank you for taking the time to write this. i want to forward readers to your comments in the body of the blog itself. xoxoxoxoxo

  • Francesca Harper

    This blog is sheer brilliance and so truthful. Thank you so much. It keeps me motivated to continue on with my life’s work unapologetically!

  • Shameka Charley

    Dear Ms. Tai Jimenez,
    This blog is amazing, and I personally want to thank you for writing this blog. For a little while I have been struggling back and forth trying to guide my son in the right direction, whether to go to College or to go after his dream. I too an struggling whether to take a leap and the scary risk to choose to chase my dreams. Well I chose to listen to everyone else, “Go get your B.S. in Computers, you will make a lot of money doing that.” Well I did, I got the Bachelors of Science Degree in Computer Science.” Wasted, my time because I didn’t enjoy it, what I did Love though is Teaching, Inspiring and Empowering, Coaching, Consulting, individuals on various topics, I love to be in the classroom both learning and instructing. I believe in Mastering any and all material, and use what I learned to enhance someone else’s life. All this to say is that I was instructed to finish High School, get my diploma and go to College to chase a degree down, got the degree and as I type this comment, I am now pursuing my dream. Society is telling our children, to go and get a good education, go get that degree, but not telling them that while you go get that degree, you will be deeply in depth and it is not guaranteed that you will have a job or career in your selected major to pay these loans back… I can go on for day but I will stop there. Well this is what I told my son (Kareem Lewis) I told him to go for what is deep inside his heart, that awakens his soul, whatever he chooses, I will support him all the way. I will not stand in his way of his love and passion for Dance. I can only wish that my mother fostered my Love for Dance, I too took dance at a very young age, and I am in love with the art, but as fate would have it my parents didn’t nurture this part of me. When my son came to me at the age of 12 and told me that he wanted to dance, I scraped up my last and paid for him to begin dancing and look where my baby is now. So my dream is being lived through him, he his the dancer in me and my daughter his the singer within me. Now I can continue on my nurture my present dream, becoming a Professional Speaker and a Licensed Teacher to Educate and Empower individuals to Live their best lives. Thanks again Ms. Jimenez.

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