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The heart of art: The importance of painting and poetry

One of my favorite quotes from John Adams comes from a letter he wrote to his wife Abigail from Paris in 1780. He wrote, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study painting and poetry.” There he stops and crosses out “painting and poetry” only to replace it with mathematics and philosophy. Adams continued his reasoning, saying that his sons must study math and philosophy so that his grandkids may study the arts.

The quote is one of Adams’ most famous and is still one of my favorites, but this correction has always irked me. I like John Adams, but he is wrong here. When it comes to education, the arts, both liberal and fine, are equally as important as math and science; however, they are never taken as seriously. 

The liberal arts help you to argue and think critically. They teach you how to write and ask questions. You may get your job through your major, but I can guarantee you’ll get your promotion through the liberal arts. The arts have always been more than just about artwork. Leonardo da Vinci understood this by blending his love of math and science with art; in fact, he considered them the same thing.

By looking at his notebooks, we have discovered that he was dissecting muscles of the mouth at the same time he was painting Mona Lisa’s smile. Anatomy was vital to his artistic pursuits, which means not only is it a piece of artwork but also a piece of science. Mona Lisa’s smile is biology and philosophy; it’s painting and poetry. It’s everything that makes us human.

And how would we even know any of this without history? The less liberal arts training students have the less people understand that smile. Without that appreciation or understanding, Mona Lisa’s smile will cease to exist and us along with it. When the arts are attacked in education, paintings like the Mona Lisa depreciate in value because people aren’t learning what it means to be self-expressive, which diminishes what it means to be human. 

Why then are the arts always the first thing to get cut in education? What puts athletics ahead of the arts so often? The honest answer is money. Sport teams can bring in money, where the arts do not. Although one may think this is a matter of practicality, schools are supposed to invest in their students and frankly there is little to no chance of a student becoming a professional linebacker. They’d also be far better off.

Learning to read is obviously more important than how to hit somebody. I am not saying to get rid of sports entirely, just requesting that it not trump a student’s education. In my undergraduate institution, my tuition went to buying our unsuccessful football team new jerseys every year, meanwhile the ceiling was leaking in history classrooms. The University of Wisconsin has plans to drop majors such as history and English and focus on majors with “clear career pathways.” All under the dim-witted guidance of the state’s small-minded Gov. Scott Walker. If one has read the novel “Fahrenheit 451,” where firefighters start book fires instead of stopping ordinary ones, they’ll remember the power to learn was surrendered, not taken. It’s an important lesson, which is why these studies must be cherished.

We should all be given the opportunity to do what we want and what we’re good at, whether it’s sports, art, math or history. Da Vinci was a genius because he explored his curiosity. He asked questions and sought out the answers even if he didn’t always find them. He took bold steps and believed in the importance of his work.

We shouldn’t be afraid to argue, to think, to ask and to offend. This is the arts, and for them I choose a new John Adams quote, “Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.” Here I believe Adams is right and the sooner we do this the longer the Mona Lisa can keep her smile.


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