Fall 1996, Volume 13.3
Neila C. Seshachari
The latest newsletter of the Utah Humanities Council features the first in a series of articles titled "Doing the Humanities," written in response to the UHC Board's request to its Executive Director "to prepare a series of short articles on how the humanities are part of everyday life."
The National Endowment for the Arts has convened a nation-wide initiative of regional and community forums called "American Canvas." These forums, held in six states selected for their innovative strategies to promote the arts, will each explore a different aspect of the successful integration of the arts into communities. I attended the sessions held in Salt Lake City on 11-12 July earlier this month on "How the arts support education, children, families and communities."
Beleaguered by funding cuts and lack of Congressional support, these arts and humanities agencies have been compelled to take their case directly to the public to lobby for support.
I value these public dialogues on the usefulness and creation of the arts and humanities. We, as a nation, have concentrated our energies too long on business, industry, electronic media, and technology, ignoring those aspects of human pursuits that have given meaning and civility to our existence on this planet. Any national dialogue on arts (including the literary arts) in the past decade has been aimed at crippling the aesthetic/creative spirit. It's time we dialogued on the inherent usefulness of the arts and humanities for all citizens, not just the art and literary communities.
What role do the arts and humanities—and critical thinking which is a prerequisite to the development of both—play in shaping our national aspirations in family life, education, business, global communication and technology? How do the arts and humanities infuse our runaway technological advances with the splendor of human ties? It's worth thrashing out the endless answers to these questions in a sustained national dialogue. As Deepak Chopra has said, the quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our thinking. The more we think and talk about the value of the arts and humanities in our hectic, mechanized daily living, the more hope we have of redeeming ourselves from the excesses of technology and the resultant anomie that has led to delinquency and crime.
I have begun to think of our devaluing of the arts and humanities as the moral equivalent of our national crime. A "talking cure" (with apologies to Freud), which in this case may be defined as a national dialogue on the value of the arts that is already taking place, may well help us rethink our priorities.
This issue of Weber Studies features two articles that provide fresh views on the process of writing and appear to continue the NEH public dialogues. Robert Olmstead, probed by Christopher Zenowich in the featured interview, observes that we assume "that writing is about words, that it comes out of story-telling, but maybe your writing comes out of something else, something more visual, like what they [family members] didn't say, like what was left to your imagination silence more than sound." Musing on how students are not asked to write "compositions" any more, how they are asked to "essay," Olmstead notes that "to compose is an artful act. It links writing to the rest of the arts, to music and painting. The idea in that word is that there are a multitude of elements all in some kind of dynamic. That's basic to art, to writing."
K. Narayana Chandran explores aucitya (pronounced auchitya), a complex concept in Sanskrit poetics, in the works of modernists Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams. Keeping in mind that no word or meaning approximates the resilience of the Sanskrit word, we could think of a combination of "decorum, propriety, appropriateness, and proper placing/location" to comprehend it. K. Narayana Chandran's article curiously suggests too the close connection of all arts—the literary, visual, and performing arts—since aucitya is a governing principle in all.
We feature the works of seven fiction writers, in addition to Olmstead's that goes with the interview, and seven poets, along with Judy Elsley's sensitively written personal memoir, "An AIDS Patchwork." We include five book reviews, and we also announce the winner of the Dr. O. Marvin Lewis Award in poetry (p.27).
As I mention the poetry award, I recall a frantic call I received one afternoon from New York poet Karen Swenson, who judged this year's award.
"Neila," she says, "I don't have to give this award to only one poet, do I?"
"I think you do," I say gently.
She groans. "I hadn't realized Weber Studies features such consistently high quality poetry. After reading all the poems in the past nine issues three times over, I can't make up my mind among three poets!" she complains.
Readers, you will note that she eventually did make up her mind. It gives me great pleasure that Karen Swenson had a hard time. Other judges in other years have faced it too. That's what this journal is about.