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Jack Smith

There's an art to getting the most out of college, and students might benefit if we keep them spellbound

June 17, 1987|Jack Smith

A college art professor's despairing acknowledgement that his students misspelled Gauguin as Gogan, Van Gogh as Van Gouge, Salvador Dali as Stevedore Dooley and Pablo Picasso as Pablum Picasso, has raised a question of whether art ought to be taught at all.

Myron Kayton of Santa Monica asks, "Why are the taxpayers encouraging two-year college students to memorize the names of painters and paintings, a form of amusement invented to provide topics of conversation for the sons and daughters of the 18th-Century European gentry?"

He suggests that instead of studying art they study French, Italian and German, and learn a useful trade or profession.

"They can enjoy paintings without memorizing trivia; they'll have plenty of time to study the liberal arts when they grow up, at their own expense. The liberal arts are wasted on kids anyway."

I concede that if the results obtained by Prof. William Hill from his art history students at Santa Monica College are typical, then perhaps he is wasting his time, the students are wasting their time, and we are wasting our money.

But is it a waste of time and money to teach our young people the liberal arts?

What are the liberal arts? According to Webster's New World Dictionary: "the subjects of an academic college course, including literature, philosophy, languages, history, and, usually, survey courses of the sciences, as distinguished from professional and technical subjects."

I will suggest, for the sake of argument, that Kayton means fine arts, not liberal arts, for to deprive our young of an education in the liberal arts would be to turn out a generation of almost complete illiterates.

I believe UCLA recently considered dropping fine arts (painting, sculpture, music) from its undergraduate curricula, as if they were irrelevant in today's society.

UCLA had previously dropped journalism, evidently on the theory that journalism is a trade, and one can learn it on the job.

That fails to consider that any journalist today ought to be grounded in history, political science, natural science, and the law, with special reference to the laws of libel and civil rights, as well as in newswriting and the ethics of the profession. Those are merely the basics. I should also add fine arts.

I can hardly imagine a reporter today who does not know something of Picasso, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Degas, and To Lose a Truck, as one of Prof. Hill's students spelled it.

Furthermore, if I were a city editor, I wouldn't send a reporter out to cover a dog fight who was not familiar with Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Cole Porter. I would assume that he had no curiosity.

A reporter today, whatever his specialty, ought to know something about the culture he lives in and its origins.

If UCLA were to drop fine arts as an undergraduate option it would surely not then miss journalism, since it would have no need to train reporters to write about current events for readers who don't know Millet from Miller Lite.

But it would no longer be a great university.

I am not suggesting that our sons and daughters ought to be able to write a dissertation on German Expressionism, or to explain Schoenberg's 12-tone system, but they ought to be familiar enough with the names and works of the greatest artists and composers to nod intelligently when their names come up. That goes for the great writers, too.

I know that if you want to be a surgeon or a computer programmer, it won't do any good to know who Shakespeare was. But it might come in handy some day when you meet an attractive young man or woman, depending on your preference, and he or she says:

One touch of nature makes

The whole world kin

If you don't know that he or she is referring to that base emotion, jealousy, the opportunity is lost. Nothing kills a romance faster than the discovery that the object of one's interest is a fine arts illiterate.

There is nothing snobbish in this. A smattering of fine arts is easy to come by. Enough to give one a sense of belonging in space and time can be taught in high school.

Most of what I know about the arts is what I learned on those somnolent spring days at Belmont High School in art appreciation and music appreciation class.

We saw slides of the great masters and heard scratchy records of the great composers. We dozed off and doodled in our notebooks. But some of it stuck. Almost all I know about art and music today I owe to those idle hours.

When I stood in front of Michelangelo's David in Florence it was the fulfillment of my visions of that masterpiece from a slide I saw in art appreciation. When I hear Mozart at the Music Center, my appreciation of it is derived from those records in high school.

My first taste of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Corot, Yeats, Tennyson, Brahms and T. S. Eliot all came from high school. (I could have done without T. S. Eliot.)

Our young people will not introduce themselves to those giants "after they grow up," as Kayton imagines. They will be too busy getting and spending to familiarize themselves with the artists of the past. I doubt that any college graduate reads Shakespeare for the first time after graduation, or discovers Beethoven or Mozart or even John Steinbeck. Too late.

No, let's keep after those little nippers until they can spell Van Gogh.

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