Artistic literacy is for everyone

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Art is inaccessible for many. But it shouldn’t be that way.

I asked my brother the other day if he wanted to visit some museums with me, to which he said, “No. I don’t see a point. I just don’t get art.” 

I’ve come to understand that the ability to get art isn’t innate but instead can be learned. I, too, was baffled at contemporary art exhibitions in the past. I am still confused these days, but I know now that confusion is part of the journey to understanding. Or perhaps the point of art is to never quite understand.

Now that I am armed with a bit more experience and knowledge, I firmly believe we can all learn to appreciate, practice and understand art.

This idea was emphasized to me at Cal Performances’ inaugural Artistic Literacy Institute, where artists and educators came to discuss how “meaning-making through the arts is a human right.” We had some incredible workshops, including one where we made moving sculptures that represented ourselves.

Before I started college, I caught up with a friend who spent a year studying French and art in Paris. She talked about how, as a musician and person interested in film, she often didn’t gravitate toward visual arts, as they felt boring and static. Music and film were in motion, engaging and dynamic. However, after a year of perusing museums, she’s come to realize that it was all a matter of learning how to appreciate it. 

Her final sentence, “I guess if you fall in love with something, it changes everything,” most enamored me. It seemed that she was able to access a part of the world previously locked and now had a greater appreciation for life beyond the arts. I, too, wanted to see that side of the world.

One of the primary ways of cultivating artistic literacy is through direct contact with works of art. Luckily, we are very blessed at UC Berkeley to have so many world-class resources at our fingertips. 

One of the reasons I love being a college student is that school is like a carnival. There are classes, DeCals, lecture series, workshops, interdisciplinary research centers, student organizations and access to faculty mentors. Our school is so diverse that you can try just about anything: dance, music, performance, experimental, visual. The list goes on and on.

However, before really jumping into it all, I’ve had to overcome my fear of participating in the arts community. Coming in as a career-oriented student, I never expected to pursue a liberal arts degree focusing on the humanities. 

My father always valued art and made sure I received some form of arts education. He told me that while he never got the opportunity to learn, he always consumed art broadly and appreciated many music and art forms. His early teachings made me wonder about art from a young age. 

I love art because I love stories and talking to people. Art, for me, is a form of dialogue and expression that gives you a more nuanced understanding of the world around you. Art doesn’t have to be esoteric. My art history professor said that noticing the most obvious things is the first step to reading art.

While many resources on and off campus give students subsidized access to arts, I find that these resources are often underutilized. Access to the arts can feel guarded and reserved for people in more privileged and mobile socioeconomic statuses. 

I often feel the urgency to try everything before I graduate, attempting to cram as many experiences as I can within my limited time here. People tell me to relax, that the end of college does not signify the end of learning and that I have my whole life ahead of me. 

To support their claims, I am researching the many incredible institutions facilitating artistic literacy by making arts accessible to all. I’m especially impressed by libraries that ran online painting lessons, exhibits, artist talks and even small group ukulele lessons during the time of the pandemic.

Like libraries, many nonprofits facilitate accessible arts education; however, they are often targeted at youth. At the same time, it’s important to note that these resources are largely enabled by living in a wealthy, affluent area that values the arts. 

I feel this urgency to do it all before I graduate because it feels like there are significantly fewer opportunities to engage in educational arts communities outside of college. It also seems much more challenging to make time for arts as you lose your flexible student schedules.

There is a gap in arts programming designed for audiences outside of youth. These challenges are exacerbated by the fact that adults often have increased responsibilities and dependents, as well as less time.

I have more questions than answers in regards to improving the accessibility of arts. For now, I will keep trying my best to learn, attend, share and promote the diverse and exciting arts opportunities to my friends and family. 

I’ll also gently nudge my brother to visit some museums with me this summer.

Shuge Luo writes the Wednesday column on creativity and belonging. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.