Sam Sherman | Building Culture out of Chaos
Creative Voice | It's time to give the arts at Penn more recognition — and a new home
February 12, 2014, 5:57 pm · Updated February 17, 2014, 12:51 am·
F or two decades, Som alia has been war torn. Lawlessness has permeated the country, where the AK-47 determines who has power and who doesn’t. The country has been a chronic victim of unbridled decentralization, a disease so toxic that it has replaced society with chaos. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I believe that Penn suffers from a similar disease. It is decentralized to an extreme, with each academic department and social organization living in its very own universe, each vying for attention at the expense of the others, rendering the school essentially cultureless.
One of most decentralized aspects of Penn is its arts scene, which ironically happens to also be a major contributing factor to the community’s general lack of culture. Art is not the first or even 40th word that comes to most people’s minds when thinking about Penn, largely due to the lack of a central home for the arts at Penn. Since there is no arts center, the various sources of art on campus are lost in their own nebulousness. The overwhelming effect is one of white noise, an indistinct din in the background. The arts at Penn are spread out so low to the ground that they are simply not noticed and get trampled on.
That shouldn’t be the case, though. Penn has played host to many artistic visionaries like Eadweard Muybridge, who produced his pioneering photographs of animal locomotion at Penn in the 1880s, and Andy Warhol, who held his first solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 1965. The artistic value of campus landmarks like the LOVE statue and the Button are often overlooked — they were designed by Robert Indiana and Claes Olderburg, respectively, who were major figures in the pop art movement.
Given Penn’s historic artistic presence and the many resources available to students now — including the ICA, the School of Design, a music program, arts residential programs, the Kelly Writers House, the ARCH building and countless other arts-related activities and places — it’s truly remarkable that art is so overlooked.
Fortunately, art history professor Karen Beckman recognized the lack of focus on art at Penn and established the Art and Culture Initiative. The program seeks to make art more visible on campus while improving communication between all of the art resources in the surrounding area. While the initiative is an important first step, it does not go far enough. It fails to realize that Penn needs a physical structure to serve as an arts center on campus.
In an issue of the Penn Arts and Sciences Magazine last May, Beckman said, “Many of our peers are developing expensive arts centers on campus in order to attract top students. … We embrace independent thinkers and decentralization here. So [our] goal … is to collaborate, not to homogenize.”
The problem with this statement is that it assumes a central building and independent thinking cannot coexist. This supposition is simply wrong. A central building does not synchronize thinking — it synchronizes location and collaboration. It tells the world, “Look, art exists at Penn, and here is a place where you can find it!” It tells current students and, more importantly, prospective students that Penn is invested in the arts and embraces the arts as its culture. A central building calls art out of the shadows, raising it up so that it can be seen again. A building gives the arts verticality, a requirement for being noticed in a city.
The lack of culture at Penn is a big problem and, as with every big problem, a big, expensive solution is necessary. The United States did not overcome the Great Depression by talking its way out. Instead, the country constructed a pathway out of the ruts of disaster, recognizing the need for expensive solutions. In 2012, Somalia established its first permanent central government in over twenty years. This government is now trying to gain control of the country, putting an end to lawlessness. Likewise, Penn must end its artlessness by constructing a central home for the arts. Penn too must turn chaos into culture.
Sam Sherman is a College sophomore from Marblehead, Mass., studying fine arts and chemistry. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.