Remarks given at the Winter Exhibition Opening Gala at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Arts
Good evening, everyone. I am very happy to have the opportunity, as this wonderful event comes to an end, to share a few thoughts with you on why we are here. But before I do that, I have to acknowledge there are other reasons that make this celebratory event so special. It is elating to celebrate the Manetti Shrem Museum and its Winter Exhibitions with a group so deeply committed to promoting excellence and involvement in the arts at UC Davis and beyond.
The evening is all the more dazzling for the presence of more than our share of luminaries, experts, and civic leaders. Even in this distinguished company, we are especially honored to have in our midst Wayne Thiebaud and Maria Manetti and Jan Shrem. I trust I speak for everyone here when I say that, reflecting on the respective contributions of these exceptional members of our community, it is impossible not to be inspired by what our university has accomplished and what it has the potential to accomplish in the years ahead.
I’ve been assigned the task of capping off our formal program with some thoughts about the arts delivered from my provostial perch. And in truth, I do spend a great deal of time ruminating on the role and state of all of the arts on our campus and in society—literature, music, dance and other performance arts, and visual arts.
I begin with the blunt acknowledgment—which I hope is not out of place on this celebratory occasion—that the arts today are under significant threat. The fact that certain prominent public officials think we should defund both the NEH and the NEA, the National Endowments for both the Humanities and the Arts, makes it clear that we live at a time when many question the value of the arts, their creation, their appreciation, and their study.
The primary reason seems to be the widely accepted wisdom that society should prioritize so-called “practical” pursuits over artistic ones. No one would deny the great importance, and often the necessity, of practical pursuits. But if we wish ours to be a truly civilized society, one with a robust and healthy culture, we must do better than direct all or most of our efforts and resources toward creating useful or marketable innovations, or financial gains.
The desire to create and enjoy art has been fundamental to all of human history. A society without a commonly shared reverence for, and engagement with, the arts may be highly advanced in material ways, but it will be deficient in heart, soul, and imagination. It will also be deficient in its ability to understand itself, the people within and beyond its borders, and the life and history of our planet. In fact, if one recognizes these great benefits, are not the arts among our most “practical” enterprises?
I have claimed that the arts are a unique and indispensable benefit to our lives. Here are a few of my reasons:
A work of art—and by that, I mean any work of serious artistic intention—is not reducible to a narrow and easily understood message, or even a wholly logical or coherent utterance. The work is, rather, a portal to an experience.
Engaging with a work of art, even one that outwardly seems very simple, gives access not merely to a discrete thing—say, a bowl of fruit—but along with it an entire world of variety, complexity, surprise, and mystery. What is more, every artistic world we encounter has the power to lead us beyond the concert hall or covers of a book to any or every part of the “real world” in which we live.
At the start of Proust’s great cycle of novels, the narrator claims a madeleine launched his entire “remembrance of things past.” And for Sappho, one particular girl is:
Like a sweet-apple
on the tip
of the topmost branch.
Forgotten by pickers.
they couldn’t reach it.
(tr. Julia Dubnoff)
In just such a way, a canvas of cupcakes can raise social, aesthetic, and existential questions of the highest order.
If we give an artwork our serious attention, we have the opportunity to become immersed in its world at the most granular and nuanced level; and we are enabled to explore it with a rare sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and imaginative engagement.
What I am describing is the way the arts can make us unusually receptive, opening our intellects, our hearts, and our ethical selves to what it presents.
Artistic content is partly intellectual. The arts traffic in ideas and values that, in the artist’s view, deserve the public’s attention. This intellectual aspect may include one of art’s great gifts: the presentation of new perspectives or criticisms of existing ones. The arts are thus indispensable advocates for the new—whether that means moving further along some present course, or for striking out in a different, perhaps previously unimagined, direction.
But even at their most assertive, the arts do not constrain. Rather, they empower. A work inevitably makes certain “arguments,” if you will, about such things as the world, an idea, a value, or an attitude. But in the end, it is up to us, the audience, to do with those arguments what we will—accept, reject, alter, or build on them.
Whatever our responses are to a given work of art, our serious engagement with it helps us, often in indirect ways, to become more knowledgeable, understanding, empathetic, imaginative, and wise.
My final proposition is so familiar that it needs no explanation. It is that the arts have a unique power to bring us into contact with great beauty and give us great emotional rewards. I bother to mention this in part because too often in public conversations the idea of beauty and enjoyment from art gets short shrift. I could point out also that the experience of beauty, whatever its form, may well contribute to both intellectual and moral growth. But I happen to think that the enjoyment that beauty brings to our lives is sufficient alone to recommend beauty—and also, for that matter, to justify our commitment to the arts.
As I said before I began my case, these are my personal thoughts on the subject—but I trust that all of us here hold some version of them.
Let me reward your patience by hastening towards my conclusion, but not before making a brief and admittedly unlikely stop in Heorot, the mead or feasting hall in the Old-English epic Beowulf. Heorot, where bards entertain the king and his warrior-retainers around the warmth of its hearth, is home to music, poetry, and conviviality. The hall symbolizes human civilization and culture itself.
Heorot is “artfully worked,” the “most beautiful of dwellings,” and the “most famous of all dwellings.” It has “beautiful walls” and “gables . . . covered with hammered gold / and glowing in the sun.” It towers “majestic, its glittering roofs / Visible across the land.” (Beowulf, tr. Raffel, pp. 25, 32, 47)
It is not capricious to say that UC Davis, like all of the University of California, serves something of the function of Heorot in our state and larger society. As our motto Fiat Lux reflects, we are an institution uniquely dedicated and able to keep the light of civilization and culture burning brightly against the darkness.
This function is dispersed among numerous facilities across the campus. But if we are looking for the best analogues to Heorot, two stand above the rest: our Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, and, of course, the very place we gather to celebrate this evening, our Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.
With their distinct but complementary missions, these facilities together play an especially vital role in unifying our university and surrounding communities and fostering arts excellence and engagement. They anchor our ambitious “Arts Renaissance,” which will fulfill Margrit Mondavi’s early vision of “The Good Life.” And while neither the Mondavi Center nor the Manetti Shrem Museum has “gables . . . covered with hammered gold,” their architecture is just as magnificent as their imaginary medieval predecessor’s.
Both facilities are young, but their contributions to our university are so great, and their presence so powerful, that today it is all but impossible to imagine what our campus was like without them.
This brings me to my final point—really, the most important point I will make this evening. The Manetti Shrem Museum would not be a reality without the vision and generous support of Maria Manetti Shrem, Margrit Mondavi, and many other great friends of the arts and the university. To all of you, and to all who will provide additional support to the Museum in the coming months and years, we express our profound gratitude.
We hope you will return to campus as often as possible, and continue to participate in your UC Davis community.