A few weeks ago, Franciscan University was graced by the beautiful music of pianist and composer Eric Genuis. His concert was one of the most inspirational events I had experienced in a quite a while. Not only was his music exquisite, but he also shared so many profound thoughts about the importance of beauty and the arts in people’s lives.
As I prepare to graduate and as a life-long ballet dancer, it was a timely reminder of the value of something that has always been an integral part of my life. Genuis exhorted the audience to fill their lives and their children’s lives with beauty. “Beauty is the language of God,” he said, and the arts have the ability to encourage, uplift and offer hope to people through an encounter with beauty.
Genuis gave multiple moving examples of this power, such as seemingly hardened prisoners for whom he performed being deeply touched by the beautiful music. He shared that one man stood up and exclaimed in the middle of the first piece that he had forgotten what hope felt like.
Genuis’ testimonies are concrete example of how truly universal and unifying the arts can be. The arts, both fine and performing, have the power to unite, in cordiality and friendship, people, who might otherwise not have much in common.
Another example is the friendship of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. She is a petite, liberal, Jewish woman and he was a burly, conservative, Catholic man. They clearly did not share the same political or religious beliefs, yet Ginsburg, in her statement following Scalia’s death, said that they were “best buddies.” A noted part of their friendship was a shared love of opera. There was even an opera written about the two of them.
We live in a society that is increasingly polarized and divisive when it comes to morals, to politics, to some of the really important questions in life. These are, obviously, consequential differences that need to be respectfully discussed and considered.
However, part of the power of the arts is that they are, arguably, a great equalizer. They are a means to celebrate the joy of being alive. All people, no matter their political or religious affiliation, can enjoy and be inspired by a ballet, a play, a concert or a lovely portrait. They can be reminded that there is more to life and to the world than materiality. They can be reminded of their own capacity for creativity and for goodness or for evil.
In his “Letter to Artists,” Pope St. John Paul II, makes the important distinction between creation or bringing something out of nothing, which only God can do, and craftsmanship or working with already existing material, which is what man does. Nevertheless, he writes, “God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman’s task. Through his ‘artistic creativity’ man appears more than ever ‘in the image of God’, and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous ‘material’ of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him.”
The arts are so very important for so many reasons. The Franciscan student body is certainly not lacking in artistic talent. One has only to attend the annual talent show, a household coffeehouse or one of the drama department’s plays to experience it firsthand. Sadly, despite these venues, the students are lacking in university-backed opportunities to further their invaluable skills.
Yet shouldn’t the values of beauty, hope and friendship, all of which the arts promote, be values that a Catholic institution of higher learning should seek to foster and to inculcate in its students? Franciscan does encourage these qualities in numerous ways, but it could do so all the more through the arts. After all, St. Francis himself was an artist, who composed beautiful poetry.
It would only be to Franciscan’s benefit to invest in expanding the arts department to include more performing arts, such as dance, musical theater and other forms of music, in addition to the current sacred music program.
How amazing would it be to be able to earn a major or a minor in these fields? Furthermore, how great would it be for the arts department to have an updated and enlarged theater in which to share their talents with the community? How helpful would it be for the athletics department to back financially Franciscan’s dance team, the Baronettes?
I have been blessed to be able to teach a beginning level ballet class through Finnegan Fieldhouse, and through this I have known people, girls and guys, who have always wanted to do ballet but never could or who had always done it but then couldn’t anymore once they went to college. They were so grateful for the chance to dance at school. How awesome would it be if Franciscan students permanently had that opportunity and not only when a student was available to offer it?
Franciscan University is a wonderful place for many reasons. I firmly believe that it could be even more wonderful if it gave more priority and official support to the wonder and beauty of the arts.