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Duke needs to prioritize arts education

I entered Duke wanting to study Public Policy. I dreamed big, with admittedly girlboss energy, of briefcases and government and suits and promotions. However, within my first semester at Duke, the image I’d constructed for myself peeled away, revealing a person who was deeply flawed, filled with anxiety and yearning for more. 

As I further developed my politics, I understood that my dissatisfaction was tied to the lack of radical imagination within Sanford, which I felt was essential to my growth. Many of my friends were also initially prospective Public Policy majors, and we did not know all that existed beyond government-based reformist policy. But as I continued to expand my political understanding and envision a more just world,  I found what I had taken for granted all along: the arts. 

After much deliberation, I’ve recently declared an English major. The English major is not without its faults; the curriculum is extremely whitewashed, as senior Victoria Priester explained brilliantly in a previous article in the Chronicle. However, I’ve found that English—like other arts disciplines, including visual arts, photography and theater—is regarded by many of my peers as easy, unusable. Anthony Cardellini, a Trinity senior and English major, says that when he informs some students of his major, he’s met with questions like “‘What's your goal with that?’” Cardellini continues, “You don't ask that question to people in Pratt.” 

Megan Mauro, a Trinity senior and a double Dance and Evolutionary Anthropology major, shares the sentiment of having a major that feels somewhat disregarded. “It's the perspective of you wouldn't go to such a prestigious institution and then just have an arts major,” she says.

Moreover, Neha Vangipurapu, a sophomore and Public Policy major, who spent much of her first year playing violin for Duke Symphony Orchestra, remarked that she’s been to other schools’ orchestra concerts and “there's a lot more of a student presence in the [other schools’] audiences than there are at DSO concerts.”

Arts education at a whole isn’t just delegitimized by individuals: Duke has shown that it values other disciplines over this form of study. One of the most stark examples of this intent is Duke’s refusal to tenure theater, dance and visual arts professors, in contrast to peer institutions. Jody McAuliffe, a Professor of Practice in Theater Studies and Slavic and Eurasian studies, says, “When I first came to Duke there was a professor in painting, Vernon Pratt, who was tenured, but as far as I know, he was the last artist to have been tenured.” Professor McAuliffe also tells me that Duke used to have a mode of inquiry known as “Interpretive and Aesthetic Inquiry,” through which “students can develop an awareness and appreciation of the styles, designs, performances, arts, and narratives by which societies—in this and other cultures—organize their lives.” This Mode of Inquiry was a vital means of delving into cultural and ethnic studies through the arts; Duke’s removal of this requirement from the curriculum after 2000 effectively communicated the nature of the University’s priorities. 

However, Duke’s first full-time Vice Provost for the Arts, John Brown, disagrees that arts is not a central mission in university curriculum. Brown was initiated into this role on July 1. He says, “I have been very proud of how Duke has made a serious commitment to the arts between the day I arrived and now, and I see firsthand how the university has made serious commitments to strengthen the arts across the board at Duke.” Brown will no doubt be an essential voice in advocating for arts-based education, and the creation of this role demonstrates some form of increased engagement. Nonetheless, I believe that we have a long way to go. 

Even when not explicitly stated in University curriculum, Duke’s undermining of the arts appears in more subtle ways. When Henry Haggart (‘20), a Public Policy Major, wanted to expand his photography skills after taking photos for the Chronicle, he found that “options were incredibly limited. There was very little nuance and levels of photography.”

A discipline that is generally inaccessible will always gatekeep BIPOC students the most. Duke runs a pre-Orientation program called Project Arts, which allows students to explore a form of art in which they are most interested. It’s a pipeline to meeting other artists at Duke. James Mbuthia Ndung’u, a junior and double Gender Sexuality and Feminist Studies and International Comparitive Studies Major, and a Project Arts Crew leader, says that white students have the “privilege of knowing that they can come to this place [Project Arts]” and that they will belong. The program offers need-based scholarships, but only for students with a focus in visual arts, photography or film. Mbuthia says that the program is specifically inaccessible to Black students and International Students. He tells me that these students, when he talks to them, say “I don’t feel I can afford [this program]” or “I don’t know where to start.” 

Obstacles also exist for low-income students. Haggart says that although administration has the money to supply more art resources, “there is a financial barrier to starting out as a photographer.” 

These steep institutional and interpersonal barricades prevent so many talented, capable artists from discovering their potential. So many of my peers believe that corporate-level jobs are some of the only out-of-college financially-stable careers. Duke Career Center Reinforces this notion by offering a Consulting 101 course and a “Finance for Students Without a Finance Background” information tab. In reality, employment in the arts is readily available, as demonstrated by the wide reach of the Duke Entertainment, Media & Arts Network (DEMAN).

Duke is supposed to foster academic and personal growth. It’s instead turned into a money-making machine churning out graduates with high base salaries. The arts, I would argue, divert attention away from these capitalist outcomes. The arts are intentional and patient. The arts are imaginative. The arts are revolutionary. 

Somewhat ironically, it was the coronavirus pandemic that led me to more extensively tap into my creativity. I was grieving those passing conversations while sprinting to class on Science Drive. I was grieving the tight hugs of my friends before we said goodnight. I was grieving unfathomable amounts of COVID death. So I tried to build what I could not experience. I read books and anthologies. I wrote copious amounts of shitty poetry. I widened the breadth of my music taste. I picked up my violin for the first time in a year. I took a theater class. I painted murky waters and baby alligators and my German Shepherd. The arts helped me to heal, to process, to find myself again. 

“The arts is the most important way of educating,” Mbuthia says. 

“The reason I love literature is because I love to be moved,” Cardellini says. 

“Art is really about having other people understand what your identity is and what your expressions are,” Vangipurapu says. 

“It’s [my teaching job] been a real source of energy and light on a strange journey, and one way to remember the poet part of me which can sometimes feel auxiliary if I’m not careful. No one else is going to protect that,” Nicole Higgins, a PhD student in the English department, says. 

In addition to providing spaces for healing and expression and emotion on an interpersonal level, the arts are revolutionary on a structural level. Prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba “points to art...to help give the message a common heartbeat, a rally cry, a conversation starter to "disrupt patterns and old ways of thinking." Many of the most radical political organizers of our time have been Black poets and artists.   

However, the message of art can only be heard if we provide the conditions in which it can play. At Duke, this means more integrative curriculum funding and prioritization of artistic spaces, especially, says Mbuthia, cultural centers such as the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture and the Center for Multicultural Affairs. This means granting tenure to arts professors and implementing a more arts-based curriculum. Professor Brown says of the arts program, “I would never refuse more financial support! We are on a course to be best in class when it comes to every area in which we can possibly be, and the arts are no exception to that.”

During this past year, art has become a means of catharsis and of coping for me. Through this discipline, I’ve found a new perspective based on mutuality, respect, and care. A bolstered arts education, needless to say, will not solve Duke’s deep-seated problems. But it’s a start. With this support, I believe that we, as a collective, can begin to write and dance and paint our way into a better world. 

Lily Levin is a Trinity sophomore. Her column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays. 

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