I was blessed with three wonderful history teachers in high school. History class was story time. I went to each class eager to know that happened next. That I would major in history in college seemed an exercise in pleasure.
But something happened. I finished all of the requirements for my degree by the end of my junior year. I could take anything I wanted in my senior year and I felt that some of my history classes were not so much fun. I astounded my advisor that telling him that I was going to register for as many English courses as I could in my senior year. I registered for five American literature classes and I found myself surrounded by English majors.
I had a wonderful time. My professors were brilliant and kind but while I loved the material, we were studying I asked myself the question why were we reading some material and not other material? What was behind the choices to present material to the students? In other words, why did some art remain art?
This question struck me through graduate school. Showing more pluck than brains I took the advanced literary criticism seminar at Iowa not once, but twice. The formation of critical stances and strategies was the first chapter of my dissertation. The question stayed with me when I was out in the world of full-time college teaching. I wrote a slim undergraduate text in 1983. I revised that text in 2010 while I was at Wentworth. The simple-minded question of "why" would not go away. One of my teaching specialties became adult students who had not taken an English course in years, who perhaps had had an indifferent experience with the subject and we were convinced in their own minds that "literature" was not for them.
Wentworth Institute of Technology sits across the street from the Museum of Fine Arts, one of the best museums for its size in the United States. Wentworth had an institutional membership in the museum.
An undergraduate id card gave a student free admission to the museum. A word about museums: Museums are like a cafeteria. At the MFA no more than 20% of the collection was ever on display at any time. As in a cafeteria you don't have to "eat" everything. You can look at what you like and don't have to like everything. One of the strangest sights is to see visitors dutifully moving from piece to piece feeling they must spend an appropriate amount of time in front of each piece.
The first reason why art remains art is TRADITION. At least four generations of school children have been exposed to and sometimes forced to memorize the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Longfellow was perhaps the most popular American poet of the 19th century. He wrote "Evangeline," "The Song of Hiawatha," "Paul Revere's Ride" and "A Psalm of Life" was the most popular poem in America in the 1850's (Tell me not in mournful numbers, /Life is but an empty dream...."') One of the theories of the time was that reading good literature filled with noble ideas made for good people. Many professors of literature, some of them not particularly religious, see themselves as some sort of missionary to the students. They will present them with great ideas. Not only will they present them with the ideas, they will tell the students what they are to think about these ideas, grading them accordingly. This will make the students good people.
Longfellow had the experience of hearing his words quoted from pulpits. He wrote for the masses. We see the same moral purpose in many writers in the 19th century. In the same vein as Longfellow was Mason Locke "Parson" Weems whose biography of George Washington gave us a fictional story of the cherry tree in hopes that the tales of a truthful Washington would produce truthful young people. Unfortunately, students are often not presented with the background that informs the works they are studying. There may be "higher" purposes that have influenced the choice of materials for years. No, Art is like spinach. Eat it, It's good for you, and no questions about what's on the other end of the fork.