On the fourth floor of Emery-Woolley Hall, I have met a great number of artists, whose sheer abundance seems to defy the limited space of the narrow residential hallways. A glance into the floor lounge may not reveal it. There, you may only find a group of students in conversation or hard at work on their studies. But once you get to know each person a little bit better, as I have, their talents become apparent. I have come to witness them in the form of a violin concerto scintillating outward from behind a closed door or in the expressive visage of a photorealistic portrait, gazing down upon the viewer during an impromptu dorm tour. And still there are more artists to count: A flautist in the orchestra, an aerial acrobat, a trumpeter in the band, a budding guitarist, a ballet dancer, an architectural artist or even an a capella pirate.
I don’t think I expected it when I first came here — the extent of artistic experience all around — at least here at Brown. But now that I have acclimated myself to life in college and in Providence, I have come to deeply appreciate it. Part of my perspective no doubt comes from my proximity to art. Again, it surrounds me, as I return in the afternoon, and I hear Stravinsky’s Petrushka twittering from a piccolo a few doors down. I am constantly reminded of art’s unexpected and immediate beauty. But beyond its hedonistic value, I would argue that art is not just an addition, but an integral factor to the Brown identity. As supporters and makers of art ourselves, we should treat it as such. We ought to see art not just as an extraneous joy, but as an imperative, something in which we should consciously and constantly immerse ourselves.
Art is ill-defined, but at its core, it challenges what it means for something to be worthwhile. Why do we choose to augment something, to highlight a particular melody or the nuances of a still-life? Why do we find things beautiful? There is an immense value to artistic creation, because we are forced, in some sense, to reflect on the things that we are making. In the process, we become more prone to introspection, more attuned to the things that make us feel happy or inspired in the world.
These feelings are not exclusive to art, but art possesses a special kind of universality. Art transcends academic categorization. All people can find value in it. In fact, it is often most valuable for those who think that they are not artistic, those who think that their own academic interests somehow preclude them from the enjoyment of painting or theater.
Of course, there are cynics in the world who may deride such a view — the idea that art is a necessity, particularly for a college student. Some still hold the view that college is a vocational ladder, preparing us for a career that requires a rigid set of skills and knowledge. These same people often also hold the view that creative experiences and “practical” skills are somehow mutually exclusive. But as students at Brown, a place that prides itself on the Open Curriculum and the idea of intellectual freedom, I think we should ignore such outside pressure. Every time we take a class on Ghanian drumming or try a Bob Ross painting in our dorms just for fun, we contribute to the ethos of the Brown identity — the idea that we do things because we are curious about them and because we love to do them.
Indeed, we all ought to become artists in some form or another during our time here at Brown. But our identity as supporters of the arts is equally important. For those of us with so many artistically inclined peers, this should be an easy task. We can readily go to a show and see our friends perform or display their work. But doing so also requires deliberation and a certain sacrifice. We have to make time for these events, and in the flurry of midterms and under the weight of a boatload of extracurriculars, this can become difficult. Part of the solution, I think, is to give art more precedence.
We can treat artistic experience as equally worthwhile to conventional concepts of academic experience. And I do think we have the time for it. We can all exchange a couple sessions of Netflix reruns for a visit to a new exhibit on campus. It may be a little inconvenient, and the weather will only get colder, but I think that the trip will be worth it.
Art can be intimidating. Sometimes it is difficult to understand. Having been to a number of modern art museums and having once seen an exhibition of a basketball suspended in a resin fish tank, I recognize that art can at times be esoteric, daunting and utterly absurd. But I would challenge us all to try and understand different forms of expression and thought. In some types of art, understanding and enjoyment are inherent. Take, for example, the bubbling vitality of a Lizzo song or the solemnity of a nocturne. But other times, there is a burden on the observer to engage with the piece.
At Brown, learning about art is more accessible than many people realize. Students are often aware of Brown’s academic resources; its artistic resources remain covert. But if you simply look— and really look — at Today@Brown or the flyers on bulletins, you will realize that interesting shows and exhibitions are open all the time around campus, and oftentimes, there are even faculty and artists that present perspectives and stories about the work. Furthermore, many of these events are free.
In the end, I urge us to explore the arts because they are crucial to the Brown experience. As I reflect on my first few weeks at Brown, I realize that so many of my fondest memories have involved art, whether I knew it or not. From singing sea-shanties in the lounge with a member of ARRR!!! to painting a banner for Unit Wars to witnessing an a capella show under the Wayland Arch, my own life has been enriched by these weird and always wonderful artistic experiences. They have required me to open myself up to the new and unfamiliar, and time and time again they have proven to be unequivocally worthwhile. I know that these experiences exist for all of us here at Brown — a play, a performance or a painting that inspires or moves us — but I also know that they are more often found when we choose to pursue them. To that end, I encourage us all to go out and seek them.
Johnny Ren ’23 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.