Law and arts

BY ARIEL WU

I postered the Hark for Eugene Onegin, the Lowell House Opera. In addition to throwing a shameless plug for a superbly done student production, I made a shocking discovery. The Law School’s bulletin boards advertise terrifyingly few arts events!

To some, this is not breathtaking news. There are almost no law school organizations devoted to the arts (the Drama Society and its delightful Parody is a rare exception). Arts groups outside Harvard Law School seldom poster here because it is a waste of paper. Law students do not have time for fluffy artsy stuff. After class we must attend events that prepare us to be the political leaders of the world. Good preparation involves gaining legal, clinical and research experience, schmoozing with VIP speakers and attending info sessions that enable us to suck as much as possible out of the resources Harvard offers.

We may believe that our hands are full with the very important aforementioned activities, of which we are privileged to have a wide selection. But the law school’s dearth of enthusiasm for the arts may in fact result from a larger social malady — a misconception that the artistic is distinct from and lesser than the political.

For example, when my orchestra attempted to organize a tour to Taiwan, the new Taiwanese government claimed they could not support us because the economic downturn had forced shifting all funds to social reconstruction. As much as the one Taiwanese friend’s loyalties lay with this new opposition party, he considered it a travesty that they did not recognize the arts as an important part of political revitalization. America’s leaders have similarly justified drastic cuts in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and arts education by mistakenly cordoning off the arts into backburner political status.

When I advocate a greater confluence between politics and the arts, I do not refer to pop star Bono’s campaign against AIDS or Jane Fonda’s appeal for peace with Iraq. Bono and Fonda pursue the political life while happening to be artists. Many of our very own at HLS accomplish this already. You will be surprised how many of us possess talent in music, dance, acting (not just the people in the Parody!) — but keep it secret while dutifully pursuing the political life through our legal studies.

The problem is not simply that more people in politics need to be artists, but that most people — even artists — do not recognize that the arts and politics are fundamentally connected. Plato, in The Republic, describes “the beautiful” as the ideal towards which a good education teaches students to strive. The opposite of the beautiful, from which students should turn away, is not the ugly, but rather “the shameful,” or politically undignified. The arts, as embodiments of beauty, capture the essence of that which is politically dignified.

One educator, Hungarian Zoltán Kodály, applied these Platonic ideas by teaching children their nation’s folk music, which he deemed the most beautiful music available to the ear. Folk music not only opened children’s souls to the beautiful, but also strengthened children’s political identity with their nation. The children grew to be unashamed of themselves as oppressed Hungarians because they recognized the richness and beauty of their cultural heritage.

Good for the Hungarians, some might say, but beyond taking time away from our real studies, folk music lessons at the law school would just be absurd. Fortunately, this is not my point (unlike my equally absurd but genuine appeal that we all practice yoga). My point is that, as we pursue liberty and justice through the law, we should inform our pursuit with manifestations of the human spirit’s dignity grasped only through art.

Why did so many of the most talented classical musicians from a generation ago come from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia? My Hungarian violin teacher explained that these people, subjugated by Communist and Nazi regimes, worked tirelessly to let their souls speak through their music because they had no political voice. Scholars speculate that the gypsies have similarly used their brilliant music and dancing as an outlet for the sadness, shame and injustice they experience as social outcasts. The artistic activity at Terezin concentration camp undoubtedly helped keep the undercurrent of human dignity alive in a place where people were suffering the greatest of human indignities.

The absence of a strong artistic presence in the HLS community should give us pause when we consider how a good political education necessarily cultivates artistic sensibilities. Can we create more public venues for HLS students who currently live, shamefully, as artists in hiding? Can we encourage more professors to use the arts as teaching tools or to employ creative versus analytical thinking? At the very least, we can devote time to appreciating the arts, especially by supporting the few arts groups brave enough to poster the Hark.

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