As an artist, I sometimes feel like a sellout.
Choosing to come to Harvard was, for me, the easy choice: Going to college is what the world expects of its youth. College is the road most traveled, the societal norm, the path of least resistance. If I were a true artist, comfortable with sacrifice, shouldn’t I have been strong enough to stray from the norm and follow my heart? And though I love being a college student — my classes, my peers, and everything else — dance captures me in a way that academia never could. The pandemic, which moved us to online classes, granted me a second chance to attend a pre-professional ballet program and devote most of my days to training. But this experience — with one foot still in college and the other in the ballet world — has only reminded me of how difficult it is to pursue art.
This was something I had wanted to do in high school — to move away from home, like most pre-professional dancers, and train full time. And though I would like to think that I am strong-willed enough to choose the right path for me, the pressures to follow the prescribed societal path were, and are, incredibly strong. Most artists have been told, likely many times throughout their lives, that art is great, but you must continue in school as a “backup plan” in case it doesn’t work out — the implication being that it likely won’t, and the subtext being that art isn’t a valuable skill to pursue full-time. Once, a mom told me, “You can’t waste your brains on dance, you have to go to college.” As if art doesn’t require brains.
This isn’t just a case of bad (and common) advice. It’s indicative of the way that art is valued in our society. In a widely viewed Ted Talk called “Do Schools Kill Creativity,” Sir Ken Robinson describes how our society seems to have internalized a sort of hierarchy of talents, based on their usefulness to society, with academia and STEM on top and arts at the bottom. Academic ability, Robinson says, “has really come to dominate our view of intelligence,” with all other talents valued far less.
But this is a mistaken outlook. Intelligence is far more complex than that: Some people are kinesthetically intelligent, wired to move, to dance, or to do sports. Others have extremely high EQs (Emotional Intelligence Quotient) that allow them to empathize, understand, and work well with others. Intelligence is not just being able to calculate integrals, and this hierarchical view of various skills is detrimental to individuals who might have the potential to become the next Picasso, yet are led to believe they aren’t smart and are discouraged from developing their artistic abilities.
The advice to get a “useful” degree and find a “real” job, if flawed, isn’t necessarily wrong — though it shouldn’t have to be that way. A career in art, particularly one that is financially stable, much less successful, is incredibly difficult to come by. Underappreciation for the arts has led to a chronically and critically underfunded industry, with America ranking particularly poorly in this regard. This is a disparity that has only been further highlighted by the pandemic. While countries in Europe provided relief funding to the arts, President Trump was attempting to, once again, dissolve the National Endowment for the Arts.
Actually, it’s in the best interest of the government to fund the arts, as they can play a hugely influential role in society. The arts are integral to community building, playing an important role in shaping social and cultural capital among citizens. They can both reflect the general climate of the times, and spur further change. Most importantly, we turn to art in times of crisis such as these, for comfort, for escape, for solace.
As Robinson put forward, if there’s any hope for significant change, schools must reform their arts education policies. The division that exists needs to dissolve. Growing up, I always felt that my school life and my dance life were two entirely separate worlds. I was envious of my brothers, who ran cross country, because their teammates were also their school friends, and it was so easy for them to balance academics and athletics considering that the two were ensconced in the same building. A disparity exists amongst the arts as well: While music, visual art, and theater had fairly established programs in my high school, dance was never on the table.
We need art, and we need artists. Therefore, we need to stop quashing artistic inclination in young people, and start supporting them, both on the individual level, and the macro level. Go to a museum, attend a Broadway performance, and go to the ballet! And more than this, we need to reform our schools to broaden arts education and challenge our societal understanding of intelligence.
—Sara Komatsu ‘23’s column “Backstage at the Ballet” explores anything and everything ballet-related, from its moments of joy and despair to the broader, systematic issues within it.