Yes, Art is Essential to Learning
Fr. William J. Rewak
A couple students recently walked by one of the sculptures on campus; they stopped and looked. One of them said, “That’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.” The other one disagreed, “No, man, it’s cool.”
They left it at that and walked on, but it would have been instructive if they had stayed for a minute and discussed why one thought it ugly and the other thought it “cool.” That’s why the sculpture is there: to be looked at, talked about, appreciated for what it tries to do and criticized for what it fails to do. It is there because the Santa Clara campus is an educational institution where contemplation, discussion, and learning take place. It is there to elicit comment and to teach how we recognize beauty.
We all come to a piece of art with different attitudes and prejudices, all of which have been developed through our cultural upbringing
We all come to a piece of art with different attitudes and prejudices, all of which have been developed through our cultural upbringing: through reading, classroom instruction, or the kind of pictures that hung in our baby bedrooms. We’re also conditioned by our earliest visual stimulants: Someone growing up in the Rocky Mountains has one vision of beauty, while someone else growing up in the plains of the Midwest has another. Both are reliable visions that help us appreciate the beauty that exists in our world.
But we can become stuck in our own visions. Imprisoned in the Rockies, or marooned in the plains. That’s why education is important. It broadens horizons. It allows us to move outside our comfortable space and recognize that there are other spaces just as comfortable and just as stimulating.
So it is important that art be a visible element on our campus - paintings on the walls in our buildings and sculptures on the lawns. They are as instructive as classroom sessions on Kant or Walt Whitman. They teach us to use our critical faculties to make judgments about what is beautiful and what is fake. They bring Art and Art History classes out into an arena where all students can be engaged in an extremely important discussion about how beauty is created and how it affects the viewer. A discussion about why we are concerned about beauty at all.
to create beauty is to imitate the activity of God, giving form, life, and meaning to the world around us
And we are concerned because to create beauty is to imitate the activity of God, giving form, life, and meaning to the world around us, letting our imagination play as God’s surely did when by divine Fiat all the beauty we have learned to appreciate - mountains or plains or daffodils, Africans or Indians - was lavishly poured out onto a vast canvas of shapes and colors.
Pedro Arrupe, S.J., a former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, greeted a delegation of Jesuit artists in 1972 with these words: “Heart speaks to heart in mysterious ways, and it is the artist who holds the key to the mystery. The artist releases the energies of the soul that the rest of the world does not suspect.”
It is our work, as an educational institution, to help our students release the energies of their souls.
Cover image credit:
(Left) Brian Wall, Thor, 2013, stainless steel, 148 x 126 x 60 in., courtesy of the artist and Hackett | Mill, San Francisco
(Right) Brian Wall, Fugue, 2013, stainless steel, 81 x 153 x 94 in., courtesy of the artist and Hackett | Mill, San Francisco