“I believe in art” | eric casero, Professor of English, Umass Dartmouth, 2018
I believe that the arts have the power to change our lives by developing emotional connections between people. While this belief has been shaped by many experiences and people throughout my life, one of the most important factors was a college English professor who taught me about the work of the writer James Joyce.
As a high school student, I didn’t like to read all that much. Sure, I could pass my college English classes without much trouble, but I often skipped reading assignments, and I never picked up a book outside of class assignments.
My attitude started to change when I took a class with this professor. I especially remember one class when he played a cassette tape (these were the days before YouTube existed!) of the author reading from his novel Finnegans Wake.
As we listened, I noticed that a tear had started running down the professor’s face. At first, I couldn’t tell if the professor was actually crying or if this was a facial tic; however, by the end of the recording, he had pulled out a handkerchief and was blowing his nose repeatedly.
After the recording stopped, he made a self-deprecating remark about how silly it was to cry at this moment. And while some students in the class poked fun at the professor afterwards, I found the fact that he was so moved by this recording quite endearing. The fact that a person could be so deeply affected by literature made me feel that serious art does matter, and that it can change a person. My high-school indifference to reading was starting to feel a little silly.
While I didn’t think too much about this incident after the class had ended, I did enjoy the semester enough to want to take another class with the same professor. This class focused generally on early 20th Century literature, rather than on James Joyce specifically. However, since Joyce is considered such an important author, we again read some of his writing in this class.
Once again, the professor pulled out his cassette tape of Joyce reading from Finnegans Wake, and once again, by the time the tape ended, tears were streaming down his face. And all of a sudden, something occurred to me that hadn’t during my first time hearing the tape: This man has probably listened to this tape dozens of times, and he has probably cried literally every time.
It amazed me that somebody could be so deeply affected by a work of art that they could show such visible emotion not just once, but repeatedly. What’s more, I found that witnessing those emotions allowed me to experience Joyce’s work more deeply. It was sort of like a transitive property of art: by watching somebody else respond to Finnegans Wake, I myself gained a better appreciation of the novel.
These experiences demonstrated to me not only that art can deeply affect a person, but that the effects of art create communities. By experiencing the emotional impacts of art together, we become more deeply bonded as fellow humans. This idea applies not only to literature, but to music, which is best performed in groups, or even to political actions, which are often galvanized by art. To this day, I believe that art is not only for fun (though it is that too), but that it creates human communities.