Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Arts as Intellectualism

By Dave Coffey

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Last night at the Campus Center auditorium, University of Massachusetts associate professor Nicholas McBride delivered a lecture titled “Body and Soul: Arts and Intellectualism,” wherein he spoke to students about the cultural connection between the artist and the intellectual in American society.

Maria Uminski/Collegian

McBride was introduced by Commonwealth Honors College senior lecturer Alex Phillips, who described McBride as someone with, “raw intellectual power, artistic integrity and the ability to represent ideas with conviction.”

McBride began by comparing the average lecture to a more “aesthetic” experience such as a basketball game or a concert, “where the right and the left brain are engaged.”  He continued by describing the perils that come along with the increase in technology in the digital age and the “plugged-in generation,” namely short attention spans.

“This is the new reality. We have to figure out new ways of creating aesthetic experiences that are tied to the educational process,” said McBride. “The arts touch at our deepest essence as human beings.”

According to McBride, the world of academia tends to favor the cognitive over the effective, often separating linear thinking and logical reasoning from emotion and feeling completely. This, said McBride, is where art comes in.

“Art … makes us feel really alive and gives us the will to keep going and it enhances cognitive function,” said McBride.

McBride gave a myriad of examples of artists of the body and soul who simultaneously defied standards while transcending artistic and intellectual social values. These included bluesman Willie Dixon, iconic basketball players Julius Erving and Connie Hawkins, jazz musicians Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, and impressionist painters Edgar Degas and Claude Monet.

“Monet always reminds me of [the musical genre] bebop,” said McBride.

McBride compared these artists and art forms – which are now accepted at an academic level but were once vilified – with more contemporary art forms such as rap music and graffiti that are often criminalized as inherently negative mediums of expression.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” said McBride. “Intellectualism, and who qualifies as an intellectual, is just as closed of a discussion.”

McBride admitted “I had to humble myself to really learn” how rap could portray social issues in a meaningful way. He then showed a clip of the groundbreaking hip-hop track “The Message” performed by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. McBride accompanied the clip with a quote attributed to Chuck D, former member of the revolutionary political rap group Public Enemy.

“Chuck D once famously said that rap is the CNN of black America,” said McBride.

McBride went on to give several historical examples of cultural and artistic figures that are now revered for their strides forward in their respective fields, but were demonized in their lifetimes for their ambition and forward thinking.

“This was not just some hip posturing, “said McBride, “this was life and death.”

One of McBride’s examples was legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, who is now considered among the greatest female jazz vocalists of all time. At the time, however, Holiday repeatedly sang about issues such as racism and sexism in an era where an African-American woman speaking up could mean violence or even death.

“Billie Holiday was the embodiment of feminism before the term was popularized in society,” said McBride.

Another example given by McBride was pugilist Muhammad Ali, one of the most revered boxers in history. Despite being born with dyslexia, Ali was renowned for his intellectual and psychological approach inside and out of the ring. While Ali is considered a universally adored figure now, McBride said that the boxer’s opposition to the Vietnam War based on his Muslim spirituality was both revolutionary and incendiary.

“Muhammad Ali was a heavy-weight, jazz-inspired assault on the Vietnam War,” said McBride.

McBride’s final major example was the graffiti artist turned painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who McBride deemed, “the Charlie Parker of painting.” Basquiat began his career by tagging walls and buildings in his New York City neighborhood, and eventually developed into a neo-expressionist, “overtly politicized” painter whose works sell for millions of dollars.

McBride began his conclusion by referring to artists and intellectuals as counterweights to a system of mass incarceration that has replaced slavery as a means of social control. In addition to physical incarceration in prison, McBride claims this extends to the incarcerating weight of debt on the lower and middle classes, such as students who graduate with thousands of dollars in debt.

“We have to understand that we are all in prison,” said McBride. “Once you have earned the A, the question becomes what do you do with it now?”

He also alluded to the Occupy Wall Street movement, stating that, “the 99 percent are being jerked around, and have been jerked around for some time.”

He closed his presentation with a quote from Charlie Parker that McBride felt paralleled his thoughts on intellectualism and art: “Music is your experiences, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t like it, it won’t come out of your horn.”

After the lecture, McBride fielded several questions from the audience. Several students asked McBride various questions about the balance between appealing to the masses and the preservation of the artist’s individual statement. McBride admitted that “there’s no rulebook on it,” but gave the example of Marvin Gaye’s landmark record “What’s Goin’ On?” as an example of popular mainstream art wherein the artist truly fought for his or her message.

“It’s difficult within structures and institutions to retain a voice of integrity,” said McBride. “It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible.”

McBride is an associate professor of journalism, and has taught at UMass since 1990. In 2005, the University awarded him the Distinguished Teaching Award for outstanding teaching accomplishments. He teaches newswriting and reporting, philosophy of journalism, community journalism, journalism ethics and covering race.

The lecture was the final installment in the Commonwealth College lecture series on “Ideas that changed the world.”

Dave Coffey can be reached at [email protected]

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