The Role of the Arts in a Liberal Arts

by Mark Wethli, A. LeRoy Greason Professor of Art
Adapted from a 2006 talk

Mark Wethli

There’s a story about a man who was visiting some friends and met their 5-year-old daughter for the first time. When she asked him what he did, he told her he taught drawing at a nearby college. She looked puzzled for a moment, and then asked, “Do you mean they forget?”

It’s a wonderful remark, but one that also evokes larger questions about the role of the arts in a liberal arts education. While most of us have a pretty good idea of what the sciences and humanities have to offer, the academic and intellectual dividends of the creative arts are often a mystery, even to other faculty and to those who value, enjoy, and appreciate the arts in general.

In my experience, people often wonder what it is that professors of art, dance, theater, and music actually teach, what our students are learning, how we measure their progress, and how this learning experience contributes to the larger goals of a liberal arts education.

Naturally, I have a few thoughts on the topic. My examples will be drawn from what I know best—teaching visual arts—but please bear in mind that what I’m describing has parallels in dance, music, theater, and writing as well, not to mention the more creative elements that we see in courses throughout the curriculum. Innovative teaching, whatever the subject, is an art in itself and one that encourages students to think and work creatively on their own terms as well.

So what actually occurs when someone learns to draw?

When students enroll in a drawing course they often assume that drawing from observation is a rote process, a kind of visual stenography in which the artist transfers visual facts from the subject—a face, for instance—to a piece of paper. What they quickly discover, however, is that the job is more subtle, more challenging, and more engaging than that, more like translating a poem from one language to the other than copying it from the board—much less writing poems of one’s own.

While the visual arts aren’t quite as codified, the analogy of drawing to language is one that we often use. Like a visual vocabulary, lines, marks, tones, colors, and so forth are the common building blocks of images from Lascaux to Picasso. And just as language is constructed through grammar and syntax, the artist’s vocabulary achieves form and meaning through its own rules of construction—composition, perspective, harmony, rhythm, and so forth. In other words, while the visual arts might appear like a free-for-all, drawing—like painting, photography, sculpture, and design—are teachable.

As I tell students on the first day of class, when you study drawing you are actually embarking on three studies at once—the study of art, the study of nature, and the study of self.

The study of art centers on the work of art per se—what materials to use, how big to make it, whether to use color or black and white, and how to go about creating it. It also means learning as much as possible about the art of the past and present—who made it, when, how, and for what personal, social, religious, or political purpose.

The study of nature is that aspect of drawing that comes closest to scientific inquiry. The same way that Leonardo used drawing to understand human anatomy or the motion of a bird’s wing, drawing can be a tool not only for self-expression (which T.S. Eliot described as the lowest form of art), but for examining, recording, and understanding the world around us as well as the world within us; that is, developing greater self-knowledge through an empathy for what is other.

Late each semester, when I have students draw portraits of one another, they often report that they had never realized how beautiful a fellow student’s face was until they drew it. In a world in which we often look without seeing, drawing slows us down and confers greater value and meaning on the things we see.

In addition to the study of art and the study of nature, students also discover that working creatively makes them more aware of the workings of their inner life as well. This is what I refer to as the study of self. While the uncertainties of perception and the question of whether there can ever be an objective point of view are addressed theoretically in physics, philosophy, psychology, and elsewhere in the curriculum, in the creative arts students confront these questions constantly, first-hand and in real time, with no other source but their own reckoning. Through this process they learn to question their senses and to negotiate more sophisticated solutions each time they go to work. As the creative process unfolds, most students can’t help but notice how much more acutely aware they’ve become, not only of the world around them but their relationship to the world as well.

One student wrote that drawing reminded her of conducting original research, and it’s precisely this kind of rigor that’s at the heart of every creative endeavor. Every time you make a drawing you are gathering and manipulating visual information that no one else has encountered; in fact, information that didn’t exist until you made your first mark on the page. You may have drawn apples before, but you’ve never drawn this apple, at this angle, in this light, at this time of day or year. You can’t find the answer in a book, on the Internet, or in someone else’s notes. It’s a type of learning that centers on individual perception, values, and judgment and which has educational, personal, and social significance far beyond the outward activity of art-making. The benefits of this kind of experience are not limited to artistic achievement alone and have been shown to improve people’s self-confidence and sense of fulfillment in other parts of their lives as well.

We can all be proud that Bowdoin has included a new distribution requirement for a course in the creative arts, which not only puts this kind of experience in the hands of all Bowdoin students, but sends an important message about the parity of creative expression alongside verbal and mathematical literacy and analytical and interpretative modes of thought.

Beyond preparing future artists (though we do that as well), and beyond providing our graduates with a better appreciation for the arts in society, the arts play a vital role by providing students with yet another way of thinking looking, and knowing themselves, their community, and the world around them.

But also because the little girl was right—they really do forget.