Vendler on the Arts

Tonight I’m reading Helen Vendler’s lecture “The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar” in preparation for her visit to the university as part of the celebration of American poet A.R. Ammons, a Wake Forest alumnus. The 2004 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities draws on the poetry of Wallace Stevens to propose a more central role for the arts in our understanding of the “humanities.”

Our culture cannot afford to neglect the thirst of human beings for the representations of life offered by the arts, the hunger of human beings for commentary on those arts as they appear on the cultural stage. The training in subtlety of response (which used to be accomplished in large part by religion and the arts) cannot be responsibly left to commercial movies and television. Within education, scientific training, which necessarily brackets emotion, needs to be complemented by the direct mediation–through the arts and their interpretations–of feeling, vicarious experience, and interpersonal imagination. Art can often be trusted–once it is unobtrusively but ubiquitously present–to make its own impact felt. A set of Rembrandt self–portraits in a shopping mall, a group of still lifes in a subway, sonatas played in the lunch–room, spirituals sung chorally from kindergarten on–all such things, appearing entirely without commentary, can be offered in the community and the schools as a natural part of living. Students can be gently led, by teachers and books, from passive reception to active reflection. The arts are too profound and far–reaching to be left out of our children’s patrimony: the arts have a right, within our schools, to be as serious an object of study as molecular biology or mathematics. Like other complex products of the mind, they ask for reiterated exposure, sympathetic exposition, and sustained attention.

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