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Learning About Art, BEEyond the Classroom

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Learning About Art, BEEyond the Classroom

By Madeline Penn.

As a first semester freshman coming from a small high school that emphasized the importance of conversation between teacher and student, I hesitated to enroll in a 300-person lecture. I longed for a small classroom, a safe forum where everyone knew my name. Hoping to find a space where my voice could be heard, I perused freshman seminars on Penn InTouch. When I stumbled upon the course description of ENGL 016-301, the following sentence hooked me: “Members of the seminar will visit and review Philadelphia area exhibitions, including shows at the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.” Upon further research, I learned that the instructor, Susan Bee, is a well renowned artist, editor, and writer. My pre-major advisor, Kelly Writers House director Al Filreis, sang Susan’s praises and endorsed Writing About Art. How could I not register?

In Writing About Art, I did not just write about art, but I read about art, discussed, questioned, and explored art. I even argued about art. Consequently, art not only permeated my thoughts for three hours every Wednesday in the fall, but continues to do so.What’s more, even after all this “art-talk,” I feel like I haven’t exhausted it. Quite the contrary, and cliché as it sounds, I’m ready for more. As a second semester freshman, I am now enrolled in History of Art’s Renaissance to Contemporary (ARTH 102). I also plan to explore the student-involvement opportunities at the Institute of Contemporary Art and apply for the student advisory board.

Upon reflection, I am continually impressed at the breadth of styles, time periods, and topics that we covered and explored in Writing about Art. From Rodin to Renoir to Rhoades, the list spans an amalgam of artists and art critics, some revolutionary and others less-renowned (for instance, Baudelaire and Bartlett respectively). I don’t have to think hard to remember the contorted and hermaphroditic sculptures of Rodin, the hundreds of paintings of Mr. Barnes, the mismatched and monochromatic shapes of Léger, and the sanctity and profanity of Rhoades’ mosque of neon-lighted vagina euphemisms. Because these museum excursions occurred in my current residential metropolis, Susan Bee’s Writing About Art gave me a deeper appreciation of Penn’s urban location. I’m thankful that in my first semester of college, I explored the city beyond the comfortable campus bubble.

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I have thought about the importance of art on a broader scale beyond the confines of the classroom, museum, or even the city of Philadelphia. I have realized that art, belonging in the humanities sphere, is part of what makes us human. I didn’t reach this epiphany single-handedly, but was guided by group discussions. One example is an argument my peer had with her hall-mate that compared the humanities with the sciences, which she relayed to the class. My classmate Maura Reilly-Ulmanek vocalized a pitch for the arts and humanities; her neighbor scoffed at her view, claiming that his pursued field — pre-med or engineering maybe — would save and help more people and was therefore superior. As a class, we added fuel to the fiery debate. In a circle of writers, though, the argument was skewed in favor of the arts.

Writing About Art both fulfilled my dream class criteria and furthered my appreciation for a liberal arts education. Not only did I learn from the museums, Susan, and my own writing and deeper thinking about art, but I also learned from my classmates, which I wouldn’t have been able to do in a big lecture hall. In the forum, our class was learning for the sake of learning and not for a grade. I learned through conversation with my peers, through hearing each other’s voices both on and off paper. Through organic conversation, we reached a higher place as a collective than an individual might have reached on his or her own.

It goes without saying that I miss Susan’s class, but I look forward to my journey delving deeper into the art world as a young adult. I hope to build a career out of this recently discovered and piqued interest. I’m currently exploring the History of Art and English majors and Writing About Art was a perfect fusion between these two disciplines. I encourage incoming freshman to sign up for this course in the fall (and undergraduates to look for a potential spring offering, as it is being taught now).

Edited by Naomi Shavin.