I read an article in the Daily last month entitled “Push for Arts Boosts Stanford Image”, written by Nitish Kulkarni. It starts off with a memorable quote:
“Stanford’s ascendancy to the pantheon of higher education is most commonly linked to the University’s prowess in technical disciplines. Less heralded, however, are Stanford’s programs in the arts and humanities, even as the University continues to make great leaps forward in those fields.”
I will spare you the summary of this article, since you’ve probably read it a thousand times before. The rhetoric at work is as old as the university itself: we’ve invested all this money in new programs, it’s really promising, Stanford’s still top. Phenomenal.
You need only read the article’s title to understand that Stanford’s investments in the arts are not being celebrated because they promise to enrich artistic life on campus. Rather, they are being praised because they promise to “boost Stanford’s image.” The light in which the arts and humanities have been cast makes them out to be the problem children of Stanford’s academic family, while the article attempts to convince us that these problem children have been whipped into shape. Rather than a genuine celebration of arts on campus, the article struck me as a justification for Stanford’s reputation as a well-rounded university, a justification whose motives I seriously question. While I can stomach this sort of thing from a newspaper that I don’t hold to a very high standard in the first place, I cannot take it from Stanford itself. That is why I am frankly embarrassed by the #madeatstanford campaign, launched recently by the university to promote the arts here.
To be clear: I am happy that we are beginning to turn our attention towards the arts in some fashion. It needn’t be repeated that the news-grabbing headlines that we generate, as a community, speak mostly to our calibre as a breeding ground for future-defining research and transit-defining iPhone apps. While I am the first to rejoice when a Stanford cell Biologist wins a Nobel Prize, or when a boisterous alum is offered more money for an app than you’d pay for some countries, I think these achievements can crowd out valuable artistic work here at Stanford, work that is not as sensational in nature. And so to some extent, I am proud that Stanford has decided to advertise the underappreciated work that our resident artists put in on campus. However, it is this very thought that also worries me—the thought that this is all an advertisement.
The #madeatstanford campaign is not an initiative, nor a project. Have a look for yourself, here’s the link. It is an online showcase of the creative arts at Stanford, as if to prove that there really is art at Stanford. I know many of the people up there. They have been doing their thing long before they became the subject of some preposterous hashtag, and often in defiance of the university’s traditionally shabby funding of student-run creative projects. The well-timed, well-curated and well-promoted sneak peek that Stanford is offering the world into their daily lives strikes me as opportunistic. This sort of opportunism might be justified if it was needed, that is to say if our arts programs really were in need of a little PR nudge, but they are not.
In truth, we go to a school where arts flourish. Our Music, Science, and Technology program has no equivalent in the world, the Cantor Center for the Arts could pass off as a National Gallery in most countries, and the Bing Concert Hall is probably better than the Sydney Opera House. Why is it then that we must always speak about the arts on campus as the missing piece in Stanford’s puzzle of greatness? Surely the quality of our arts programs has earned them the right to be discussed on their own terms. This is why I am constantly puzzled by the defensive tone that is adopted when the arts are spoken about on campus. It seems obvious to me that we will not thrive as an artistic hub until we have stopped speaking about the arts as the black swan of our academic roster.
This is because (brace yourself) our arts programs aren’t perfect, and when we speak about them defensively, we are masking these imperfections. No matter how much we invest in the arts there is always room for improvement, and this is something we should embrace, rather than dissimulate with contrived twitter campaigns. Let me give you a personal example: I was involved in drama throughout my first two years here, with the now defunct STAMP and then with Ram’s Head for the One Acts. Not once was there enough money for me to get a costume for my character. During the One Acts, we were actually deprived altogether of a set through lack of funding, and performed in an empty black space for the three shows. My point is that in general, this defensive attitude towards the arts hides from view the issues that exist within the programs, issues that should be discussed more candidly, issues we should be excited to discuss more candidly.
So what am I asking for exactly? I am asking for a change in tone. I am asking that we articulate our thoughts about the arts at Stanford in a way that speaks to their artistic value, and not to their potential for boosting our already glowing reputation. This means, for instance, that we shouldn’t speak about the arts generically. As it stands, I get the impression that John Hennessy called out to his assistant one day and told him to put a few million dollars in an arts fund and, oh, to get the Daily to write an article about it. If we are to do our programs justice, we must at the very least address their qualities individually and on their own merits. It is a courtesy that we render the sciences, so there is no reason that we should not render it to the arts. I think if we can do that, then we will have started speaking about the arts in a way that does justice to all those who make it here at Stanford.