This essay by Dr. Nicole Leupp Hanig, Associate Professor of Music, and Dr. Mead Hunter of Theater at UP, is part of a series of short pieces that offer faculty across the campus an insider’s tour of one of the courses that make up UP’s Core program. Since the Core involves almost a third of the curriculum for every UP student, faculty can benefit from these discipline-by-discipline essays, to better understand the breadth of their students’ campus experience.
“How many of you consider yourself to be a creative person?”
The professor scans the students for faces eager to respond, but only two hands embrace this description. They turn out to be from a graphic designer and an animation artist.
The professor continues. “So the other 33 of you are not creative?” She moves on to asking people what majors they’ve declared, and she gets a typically broad spectrum: Sociology, History, Literature, Languages, Theology, Economics and many more. Nursing and Engineering are prominently represented.
“Those of you who are engineers and nurses. You know you’ll need to be creative at your work, right? Creativity and even artistry aren’t confined to the Fine Arts and the Performing Arts.”
Later in the term, this professor will involve her students in a classroom game called “Engineer or Artist?” Students will view a series of objects with striking visual power—objects that evince artistic interest but which also have a practical function. For each object, students will attempt to arrive at a decision: Who designed it, artist or engineer? They will be surprised many times, and gradually come to realize the distinctions between the two categories break down in the face of human ingenuity.
This is FA207, Introduction to the Arts, a core course that all UP students take early in their careers here. Like all core curriculum studies in the humanities, the course can be defined in varying ways. Perhaps the simplest definition is the study of how human beings respond to and record the human experience. We learn to analyze the human experience through painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, dance, music, theater and film. All these subjects are offered as discrete, full-semester course offerings, but in FA207 we examine them collectively. In this way we come to understand the intersectionality of human expression among artistic disciplines, as well as the intersections of the humanities such as history, politics, religion, science, technology and more.
The goals of FA207 are simple: to expose students to experiences with the arts and to provide tools through which they can analyze what they experience and communicate that analysis. Students attend gallery shows, along with music, dance and theater events, all drawn from the culturally rich environment that is Portland. At the same time they learn how to see and understand the building blocks used to create specific art forms. For instance, components used in painting and many other visual arts include color, line, mass, shape and texture. Music too has many building blocks including tempo, dynamics, rhythm, tonality, melody etc. Film is put together using pan shots, crane shots, close-ups and dozens more to create the illusion of a seamless narrative. In teaching students to see complete works of art as the sum of their parts, we learn about human perceptions and associations with these parts, which then add to our analysis of the whole.
An example of this can be found within the area of color theory, which analyzes what humans associate with specific colors. Interestingly, humans from all cultures have similar perceptions of the primary colors: red, blue and yellow. When we go beyond these primary colors, perceptions start to differ by culture. Red is a color all humans identify with love, blood, anger and passion, which are in direct contrast to perceptions of other colors.
Humans have different relationships to asymmetry versus symmetry, as well as perceptions regarding shapes that are organic as opposed to geometric. Our collective and cultural perceptions of these components combine to create more complex perceptions of completed works. The ability to identify components, and to learn how we as humans have similar understandings and associations with these components, gives us a greater level of understanding in terms of how these artworks shape our lives.
Fine Arts 207 is taught by a variety of different artist/educators. Instrumentalists, actors, painters, art historians, theater designers, singers, dramaturgs, conductors and directors all teach this core class. All see the arts through the lens of their own disciplines, so the class varies significantly depending upon their own artistic métiers and, of course, depending on experience of the students in the class. Some students have extensive experience in one or more areas of the arts or can speak to rich cultural traditions that are outside the narrow confines of western art. In addition, some students have begun to see the world through the lens of their chosen academic major.
With such diverse ways of analyzing and knowing present in the room, dynamic discussions arise that take on such questions as “what is art?” We go further and ask what separates a designer from an artist, as well as analyzing what separates art from technology. Why is applied art—art created to fulfill a purpose in addition to being decorative—traditionally done by women? What do a city’s largest, most expensive buildings tell us about the people who live in those cities and their priorities? Why do we house the many artistic traditions all over the world in categories such as “World Music” or ”Folk Dance?” How does the intersection of art and commerce affect the art being created in our time? How is art used by governments, religions and commercial ventures to further their aims? What is the monetary worth of art, and how is that value established? We also ask about the validity of the art forms themselves in their ability to serve as documentation of historical record, reflecting the experiences and lives of humans from many time periods and civilizations.
Often freshmen arrive at University of Portland eager into delve a specific field of study not fully understanding why core classes like FA207 are necessary. On that all-important first day of classes, those of us who teach within the core face some students who are unsure of how this contributes to their major. But those same professors have learned to appreciate delayed gratification.
Students finish FA207 glad they got to take it. Commonly heard statements at finals time are: “I’ll never look at a building again without noticing how its form follows its function.” “I love noticing how film technique brings me into the storytelling experience.” “It’s fun listening to popular music and knowing how it achieves it effects.” And best of all: “This course has changed the way I see the world.”
-Dr. Nicole Leupp Hanig + Dr. Mead Hunter