Last year, I was at Arrillaga when I ran into an engineering student with whom I had once been in a creative writing class. He congratulated me on my decision to major in English, saying how it “sure takes some serious balls to risk your future like that, man.”
I felt the strong urge to slap him. But instead, I said “thank you” and proceeded to shovel tilapia neurotically onto my plate.
In the past few years, I’ve seen a number of articles stressing the usefulness of majoring in humanities- and arts-related fields. That usefulness, I have to admit, has been exaggerated.
When these articles first started popping up, I wanted to resist the notion that I need anyone to validate my decision to study the arts. I find that decision valid, and that is enough. My essays will never save a life, take us to the moon, or revolutionize the way we communicate with people from afar. That said, I have never regretted my decision to study English. While not particularly useful, my time at the Stanford English Department has been indispensably worthwhile, because, contrary to popular belief, there is still a great deal of value in the slow, meticulous research of a subject out of pure curiosity.
Here, I learned how to become utterly consumed by a piece of art: not only to sit on a gilt chair and observe a painting with delight, but also to march in a political demonstration and recognize the patterns of performance enacted by my fellow protesters. I am also content with my choice to go here because to practice or study art at Silicon Valley’s very own tech titan factory is an act of modest, but necessary resistance. The arts will never not be embattled here, but that does not mean they cannot thrive. It is precisely out of that embattlement that our push to make and consider art must arise.
It does not escape me that much of the savagely forward-facing nature of the Stanford personality is about diverting one’s attention from the tragedies of human existence. Last January, I was flying back to Stanford when I got a text from my friend telling me that they, together with 67 other students, many of them my friends, were going to shut down the San Mateo-Hayward bridge in support of the Ferguson Action national demands. Below the text was an e-mail from from someone I once met at a party, asking me if I wanted to do content marketing for his new startup. No time to worry, the subtext of my predicament whispered: people die every day. It shouldn’t surprise any of us that our school teaches us to look toward the future. My staunch disagreement with that notion–and my desire to tell everyone about it–is why I started writing for The Arts Review three years ago.
To the artists, makers, producers, stage managers; to the people who understand the challenge art poses before us; to those who ignore their (parents’) recalcitrance and jump headfirst into the process: I commend you. I write, and I understand at least part of that risk. I know, as do all our writers, that the first steps are always the hardest. I, too, dread the harrowing moment of silence when something I’ve written comes out. Will people like it? Will they respond to it? What happens if they hate it? Where I’m left is the place from which I started, only now, I know the place for the first time. I must be honest and authentic. How can I respect myself if my writing does not show my true opinions?
I promise you that we will treat your art with the utmost empathy and reverence in our attempts to review it. But our reviews will not always be entirely complimentary. Below is our mission statement:
The mission of The Stanford Arts Review is to fertilize a burgeoning campus arts culture by providing an Internet platform for the creation, discussion, dissemination, and consumption of the arts.
Yes, we strive to support Stanford’s artists; but what exactly is the nature of that support? If our reviews were only ill natterings of trite platitudes, nobody would benefit. We would be writing highly sophisticated ad copy, and the artists would not know how anyone felt about their work. I believe true support must sometimes wear the garb of honest and constructive criticism.
This does not mean that we will not take into account the difficulties artists face on this campus, or the toxic culture of competitiveness that insists on framing art in terms of success and failure. We know rehearsal spaces are limited. We know there is little training available in the way of voice, acting, and dance lessons. We know art supplies are expensive, and we know visual art is not as popular as performance. We know there are excellent (and still-growing) musicians with no audiences. But there has also been an abundance of arts grants in the past four years because of the Stanford Arts Initiative. There are incredible professors and visiting artists who, for the most part, want to teach students. We won’t forget any of this when we write and edit our reactions to your art. If you ever feel that we do, write to us.
In the artistic ecosystem of our school, what I see The Arts Review chiefly filling is a cultural gap, and starting a dialogue where before there was silence. A part of that effort means bringing together student artists who feel alone on a tech-oriented campus. So read our profiles, watch our episodes of Pipes, Chops, and Stacks, and come to our events to meet others who care about the awesome, tenuous, and (sometimes) downright paranormal process of bringing art into the world.
Finally, to all writers at Stanford: if you feel compelled to write honestly, to produce prose grounded in authenticity and insight; if you want to grow as a critic–to see the plays, concerts, and paintings put before you and understand them, first on their own terms, and then as parts of the constantly shifting tectonic plates of our culture; and at the very last, to understand the reasons those plates shift, The Arts Review would love to be your creative home. We are–and always have been–committed to making criticism that pulsates with the desire to overcome itself.
Photo courtesy of Alex Tamkin.