MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – With insight and humility Joseph Polisi, the president of the renowned Juilliard School, declared that the arts preserve our culture, give quality to our lives and connect all people to their own humanity.
Polisi made a vigorous case for strengthening the arts in his lecture titled “The Arts, Education and the Human Experience.” The former recipient of an honorary doctorate from Middlebury was invited to give an address during the celebration of the College’s new Steinway concert grand piano on March 1 at the Mahaney Center for the Arts.
The guest speaker decried efforts by some to neglect, malign or cut funding for the arts, and he offered arguments to counter those who would relegate the pursuit of the arts – music, theatre, dance and the visual arts – to a lesser position in the American educational system, especially at the primary and secondary levels.
Quoting sources as distinct as Aristotle, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy, Polisi also mixed in anecdotes and his own first-person experiences to argue for the cultivation of the arts in our lives today.
“We live in a society that evidences little effort to make a distinction between art and entertainment, achievement and fame, liberal and vocational education, and quality and quantity,” he said. “[But] all entertainment is not art and all art cannot be expected to function as entertainment.
“America today represents a consumer-oriented culture deeply influenced by materialism and technology. The arts are also experiencing an identity crisis in contemporary society. I hope that all of you gathered here would consider the primary place that art has in preserving our culture and the quality of our life. The arts help us to better understand ourselves and to more clearly focus on the experience and ideas that give value to human life. Great works of art are in fact the summation of the human condition.”
Polisi, who has served as Juilliard’s president since 1984 and holds a doctoral degree in music from Yale University, continued: “The arts are not a frill. They educate the emotions. They focus desires. They train the senses. They stimulate curiosity. They nurture tolerance for individuality. This is the stuff of which character is made. This is also the makings of what a democratic society should be.”
The guest speaker drew a connection between the arts and “the great tradition of a liberal arts education, which is at the foundation of the Middlebury experience.” During the question and answer session that followed his prepared remarks, Polisi noted that he has infused elements of the liberal arts into the conservatory experience for Juilliard students by: offering courses in the “great books,” hiring faculty to teach courses in the humanities and foreign languages, insisting that Juilliard graduates have intensive writing and public-speaking experiences, and initiating outreach programs into the neighborhoods of New York City.
“We live in a world of great complexity where we are all confronted every day with international incidents, economic challenges and personal concerns,” Polisi said.
“Yet the power of the arts can cut through this dense and complicated network of human interaction to allow us to be more creative and empathetic human beings. Conversely, the absence of the arts in our lives makes us that much poorer in all that we address in our country and in our world.”
Perhaps the most resounding case for the arts came in a quote Polisi shared from historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: “If history tells us anything it tells us that the United States, like all other nations, will be measured in the eyes of posterity less by the size of its gross domestic product and the menace of its military arsenal, than by its character and achievement as a civilization.”
For Polisi and the majority of the audience gathered in the Concert Hall to celebrate the arrival of a new grand piano, those achievements will most definitely come from a “sustained, concentrated and unyielding devotion” to the arts.
By Robert Keren, Photo by Todd Balfour