Princeton Arts Profiles

Why the Arts Matter

Perspective, self-discovery, compassion, tolerance…the interpretations and descriptions of the artistic endeavor have become cliché, but no less true.  

David_E_Kelly_0092-RecoveredThe arts at Princeton? Just look around. Walk through the campus, and you’ll be surrounded by the Gothic architecture; but watch where you’re going, lest you collide with a sculpture. Try poring through the course catalog without finding options to study film, painting, poetry, and dance. Then there are the libraries filled with floors, stacks, rows, of the greatest literature known to man: Chaucer, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Tolstoy…it goes on and on. The arts and Princeton seem synonymous—it is, after all, a liberal ARTS university; you simply cannot study there for four years without being exposed to the arts in all their glory. Well, perhaps you can. I almost did.   

Certainly, exposure to the arts seemed to be part of my early undergraduate experience. I’d admire the beautiful buildings as I ventured from class to class. I’d listen to a cappella groups singing in the arches. I attended a Theatre Intime production once, took a film class, occasionally I’d even stop to marvel at Oval with Points, though mostly to wonder what the hell it was and how much of my tuition money had been allocated to its purchase. The arts were all around me at Princeton. They just weren’t in me.  

It was not until midway through my junior year that the true meaning of the arts came to me, and it did so in the form of a grilled cheese sandwich. While running late for my Soviet politics class, I stopped at the student center for a quick lunch, only to discover a prohibitively long line, which I chose to skip, settling instead for a bagel and a Coke. While eating, a short-order cook—he called himself Doug—brought me a sandwich, one he’d heard me ask for on so many consecutive days that he took a chance. Turned out the short-order cook was a fellow student, we had a smattering of mutual acquaintances, and soon Doug and I became friends. He was also a member of Triangle and one of those rare aliens from space (in the ’70s) who thought he might actually pursue writing as a real career. (Come on, who did that?)   

In my senior year, Doug the cook persuaded me to try out for an acting role in the fall Triangle show—in those days that was the smaller production. He had a special interest in  this particular show; he’d written it. My tryout led to a callback, then another, then much to my surprise, a third, and suddenly I found myself in a musical. Singing, dancing, acting; equally terrible on all three fronts; the reviews of my performance first occasioned me to apply to law school.   

But something transformative happened to me while I was on that Triangle stage: Aside from the unmitigated fun of being part of a musical, I became aware, for the first time, of the pure joy of artistic expression. I think of it still as the emotion that defines the true meaning of the arts— its purpose, its potential. And I don’t mean only exposure to the creative works of others, but rather the opportunity to engage in the expression of art firsthand. The education and emotional growth that goes along with creating artistic representations, symbols, and language is too vast and all-encompassing to possibly quantify. Perspective, self-discovery, compassion, tolerance…the interpretations and descriptions of the artistic endeavor have become cliche, but no less true.   

For me, the joy always was, and still resides, in writing. To be able to get inside yourself, to figure out how you think, how you feel, to dare express your emotions, beliefs, and opinions, and thereby move others to think, laugh, perhaps question their own feelings and reactions…that’s a joy, a fulfillment even, at once both intoxicating and meditative. Wrestling personally with all the creative muck we hold inside, providing a way to let the screams deep within your belly find their way out…that’s what the arts mean most. It’s why the arts at Princeton matter— always have, and always will. I did not enroll at Princeton to pursue a writing career. But because the community was there, albeit in nascent form, the arts found me. I tried to be reasonable, continued on to law school, practiced law for three years…it was a world where making up the story was frowned upon. I quickly left, though I still use legal pads. Creative writing had hold of me. And 35 years later, it has yet to let go.   

Perhaps more surprisingly, the arts at Princeton have also clung to many of my like-minded classmates who similarly participated while in school. Granted, after graduating, they would go on to become teachers, doctors, fish farmers, engineers, even lawyers…but their earlier exposure to and involvement in the arts remains in play and continues to be very much a part of them, still essential in their determination to connect their minds and souls with the outside world. It’s messy stuff, creativity, not easily measured. But it matters. Wow, does it matter.   

As Doug, the short-order cook, once told me, “It fills a hole.” That might be as accurate an explanation as any. Incidentally, Doug went on to become a screenwriter, playwright, and a director of both film and theater, collecting Oscar and Tony nominations along the way. And he still makes a great grilled cheese sandwich.