Commentary: Let’s Hear It for the Arts

By Louis A. Zona

People don’t understand we’re the only country in the world that thinks art is a luxury. Everyone else in the world understands that art is an essential part of the quality of life.

Steven Van Zandt on 60 Minutes, Nov. 19, 2023

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – For it is said that a reporter once asked Winston Churchill if he would divert money from the arts and move it to the war effort.

His response was, “If we did that, then what are we fighting for?”

Churchill, an artist himself, understood the role that the arts play in our lives. This is exactly why the arts should play a vital role in our education in all programming instead of holding a secondary one.

For years we have been hearing interesting talk about an effort called STEM, which refers to education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But so many of us are motivated to change these topics to read SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, ENGINEERING, ART and MATHEMATICS or STEAM. We believe that knowledge in the arts is just as important to life on this planet as the highly technical areas within STEM.

So, let’s hear it for the arts as a vital part of the human experience. Obviously, we need science and technology and welcome what they have given us. But the arts help in raising the quality of life.

Imagine what we would do without music that exists to lift our spirits or transports us to beautiful realms and wonderful places. Think of Tchaikovsky and his ability to excite and move us.

Think of the elegant melodies of America’s own, George Gershwin, whose love songs fill our hearts and minds. Can Leonard Bernstein’s music for “West Side Story” be any more perfect? Can the voices of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand be any more wonderfully thrilling?

How often we are touched by a Broadway musical’s ability to stay with us over a lifetime such as “Phantom of the Opera” or “Man of LaMancha” sung by the masterful voice of Richard Kiley? I, for one, was blessed to be in the theater when Kiley defined the “the knight of the woeful countenance.”

When the Sistine Chapel opened its doors to the public, people dropped to their knees at the brilliant mural by Michelangelo that graces its ceiling. Folks seeing it for the first time believed that it could have been created only by the Good Lord himself.

Michelangelo, of course, continues to thrill us through the ages with his interpretation of a young David about to slay the mighty Goliath.

But we do not need to travel to Rome to find inspiration in the arts. For those unfamiliar with the art of the American star of the visual art world, Jasper Johns, you are in for a treat. Simply standing in front of any of his works of art (including his prints that we exhibit regularly at the Butler Institute) one can see what enormous talent looks like.

I am not old enough to have seen the great dancer Martha Graham perform. Her abilities were such that her legend continues.

Graham, considered to be the mother of Modern Dance, was able to use her body as if it were a piece of elegant sculpture. As a result of her breakthrough in creative dance, her students went about to create dance companies such as the Dance Company of Harlem or the Merce Cunningham Dance Company among many throughout America.

One of the great experiences of my life was watching the warm-up sessions of the Cunningham Dance Company. Those dancers were in much better physical condition than the athletes of most professional sports teams and the perfect nature of their bodies was amazing beyond words.

The art of dance extended beautifully into film in the early decades of the 20th century. Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and a host of talented dancers within the genre of film presented the art of dance in every approach from tap to ballet.

When the film “On the Waterfront” hit movie theaters back in the 1950s, the people who watched it that night saw the first glimpse of “method acting” in film.

Method acting refers to following strict spontaneous lines instead of an actor reading or memorizing lines. Marlin Brando, who starred in that historic film was a genius of method acting.

Those who saw “The Godfather” trilogy saw method acting being employed by its cast. Method actors invented the lines that they spoke as opposed to following a script.

For those who have not seen “The Godfather,” it is a must to understanding how the art of film can also produce masterpieces and a clearer picture of what all the fuss was about regarding that classic film.

I thought that I had seen great photography over the years but I really hadn’t until I saw an exhibit of Ansel Adams’ work.

His photos are unlike any other. His photos of what became some of our national parks were so great as to encourage their creation. The clarity of his black and white creations makes one think that his works could be easily achieved. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Adams’ Zone system was revolutionary and his ability to spot an ideal composition has inspired photographers over the decades.

His sense of humor came to light when he was asked by Ed Bradley to share the words to appear on his tombstone: “Here lies Ansel Adams, for better or worse, but he’s dead for good..” he said.

Ah, the arts. What would we do them?