Commencement by Professor Kirk Ambrose
December 19, 2014 “This morning I want to make a rather immodest prediction: art will save the world. At first blush this assertion may sound both naïve and overstated, even adolescent. For don’t we live in a society in which the arts are relegated to the “entertainment” section of the daily newspaper and in which school boards regularly cut arts programs from elementary school curricula in order to save money? The implication of these and other gestures in twenty-first-century American society is that the arts are somehow a luxury or a pastime, but not of fundamental importance, and certainly not capable of saving the world. Indeed, I remember very well the response of my father when, as an undergraduate, I told him that I wanted to be an art historian. He said, “but you’re so smart, why not become a lawyer”? He’s come around, but I suspect that some of today’s graduates may have encountered similar reactions from friends or family at some point when they decided to pursue degrees in the arts. So, to adopt a legal metaphor—one that would please my father–let me make a brief case for how essential art is for humanity. For reasons of time, I want to focus on just one aspect, but one that is of fundamental importance, namely the way in which art promotes empathy.
The very fact that art comes in so many forms makes us confront other perspectives, perspectives that may not obviously align with our own. In other words, art asks us to attempt to understand other ways of looking at the world. Ming Dynasty paintings have a different message for us than, say, Nubian sculptures. In recognizing such differences, in coming to terms with different modes of creation, we develop the faculty of empathy. This skill is vitally important for surviving and thriving in today’s complex world and many artists are taking up this cause. Shikeith’s moving project, #Blackmendream, fosters a nuanced discourse around black manhood in America that is essential, for one, in the wake of the tumultuous events in Fergusson, Missouri. Emma Sulkowicz’s performances on Columbia University’s campus this fall made us confront the problem of violence against women and, even more broadly, issues of misogyny that persist on a global level. Mel Chin has long been a pioneer in using art to reclaim despoiled environments and to encourage community development. I could go on and on, but I am extremely heartened whenever I survey artists working today, for so many help us confront and engage the most pressing issues that we now face.
This became very clear to me this summer when I had the honor of having dinner with Enrique Chagoya, a great artist who teaches at Stanford University. Over dinner I couldn’t help but ask Enrique about his take on a controversy involving his art that took place here in Colorado. In 2010, a woman used a crowbar to rip up one of his large format prints, entitled “The Misadventures of Romantic Cannibals,” that was on display in a museum in Loveland, a town just to the north of here. The woman claimed that Enrique’s print desecrated Jesus, something the artist denied since Jesus was nowhere represented in the work. Regardless, the national media pounced on the story, including the Huffington Post and Fox News. The former, rather predictably, focused on first amendment rights, while the latter, equally predictably, focused on issues of values. Within a few days, these liberal and conservative media outlets moved on to other stories, never to return to what both media outlets had cast as a clash of cultures. What happened next, however, is to my mind the most important part of the story. Jonathan Wiggins, an evangelical minister at the Resurrection Fellowship Church in Loveland with approximately 3,000 parishioners, contacted Enrique via email about this controversy. They struck up an email conversation in which Jonathan ultimately wondered what a loving image of Christ would look like; Enrique then offered to paint one and donate it to Jonathan’s church. Enrique stressed to me that he is not religious, but that he felt compelled to make a painting of Christ’s Resurrection, a gift that he described as an act of “civility.” Jonathan accepted the gift, which he hung in the foyer of his church.
This is a remarkable story, for art served as a bridge of understanding between two cultures that the national media often cast as irreconcilable: that of a liberal professor and that of an evangelical minister, or, in the hackneyed phraseology of our day, of Red State versus Blue State. Enrique’s and Jonathan’s story offers testimony to the unique power of art to promote peace and understanding, something that will be essential if we are to save the world from the forces of hate and of division. I realize that some might characterize art as a form of escapism that allows us to retreat from the complexities of “real life” into the rarified realm of aesthetics. But, I would argue the exact opposite, namely that art serves the fundamentally important role of communicating across cultural lines, of promoting empathy. Empathy, I believe, will be an essential skill in the coming decades as the forces of globalization increasingly bring diverse cultures into contact with one of another. These many contacts could become a source of conflict. But I hope these contacts will serve as an opportunity for learning and expanding our view of humanity. Art, I believe, will continue to serve as an essential vehicle for promoting cross-cultural understanding in the years ahead. This is why I believe that for today’s graduates that your studies of art at CU have been so vitally important. And, for this reason, no matter what career path you may take after you leave CU, I encourage you to keep art at the center of your lives: visit museums, watch films, and read poetry. Broad engagement with the arts nurtures our humanity and may ultimately be what saves us all.”
Family Weekend at CU-Boulder
Each year, parents and families are invited to CU-Boulder for a special weekend on campus during one of Boulder’s most beautiful seasons. This annual fall event provides an opportunity for you to visit your student’s campus home, talk with university faculty and staff, attend classes and presentations, and tour the campus and Boulder. For more information, please visit http://parents.colorado.edu/
Campus FERPA Policy
FERPA is a federal law designed to protect the privacy of students. This law applies to all educational institutions that receive funds under any program administered by the U.S. Secretary of Education. Therefore, the Department is not allowed to discuss information about the student with anyone other than the student unless we have specific written or electronic permission from the student. Visit the Registrar’s website for more information on FERPA.
Students can provide written or electronic permission to allow parents or others the ability to discuss and obtain their educational records if they so choose. Students can allow parents to inspect and discuss all educational records (grades, schedules, etc.) by providing written consent to the Office of the Registrar.
The Visual Arts Complex Plaza is located at 1085 18th Street, behind the Euclid Parking Garage, east of the University Memorial Center.