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The Universal Language of Art

By Cherie Z. Hu, Contributing Writer

The artists:

In defense of foreign language study, American author Lydia Davis wrote in the New Yorker that every language is “a form of music. Each music is different … [and] it is variety, and the rich provocativeness of variety, that we lose if we give up foreign languages.” Over 400 years earlier, French writer and dance theorist Jehan Tabourot wrote in his treatise on 16th-century Renaissance dance that “dancing is a kind of mute rhetoric by which the orator, without uttering a word, can make himself understood by his movements.”

While Davis argues that language is art, Tabourot argues that art is language. This centuries-old discourse between language and art suggests that the two entities are interchangeable, which is perhaps a reason for art’s persistent relevance on the global level today—all over the world, there are people who have listened to the same Beethoven symphony, who have learned the same Samba dance routine, or who have viewed the same paintings. In this vein, what unites dancer Gaby D. Czarniak ’17 and violinist Sumire Hirotsuru ’16 is their belief in the power of art as a universal language, as a ubiquitous communication tool that transcends traditional language barriers.

The primary connection that Gaby and Sumire make between art and language comes from their own international backgrounds. Sumire grew up in Japan and had little English speaking ability upon arriving in the U.S. as a freshman. As a participant in Harvard’s Freshman Arts Program, she found herself using music, rather than words, as her primary communication tool. “Music became the way I communicated with other people and how I made friends and expressed myself,” Sumire says. She regards music as an effective language in itself; in fact, she enjoys saying that she speaks “Japanese, English, and music.”

Sumire is particularly passionate about music as a communication tool in an academic environment such as Harvard; she explains that the opportunity to amalgamate the arts and academics into a single educational experience is unavailable to most students in Japan. “There is no music curriculum in the University of Tokyo, and it is rare in Japan to do music and academics at the same time,” she says, adding that it was for this reason that she turned to the U.S. for higher education. In order to bring more music opportunities to Japanese students, Sumire helps run a program every summer called Summer in Japan, in which a small cohort of Harvard students travel to the Japanese city of Oita to teach English classes to Japanese schoolchildren as well as run diverse cultural programming, from classical concerts to film screenings.

Gaby, a dancer and beginning choreographer, comes from a similarly international upbringing. Although she went to school and grew up in the U.S., she was raised in a multilingual household. “We spoke a lot of different languages at home, so languages are now really important to me,” Gaby says. Despite her linguistically diverse background, she sees dance as her most evocative means of expression: “Sometimes it’s hard to express myself with words, so dance ends up being my favorite language of choice.”

For Gaby, dance is an effective language because of the power of physical gestures to instigate subtle yet surprising emotional responses in the audience. “Dance incorporates a lot of psychology,” she says. “It relies on our assumptions about how body language will be interpreted, how bodily movement leads toward understanding.” To demonstrate the psychological power of dance, she cites a fight sequence from the Harvard Ballet Company’s latest production, “The Jungle Book,” in which she walks slowly in a straight path toward the character Mowgli with her back to the audience. “That positioning in itself has a scary undertone, and it’s really cool to be able to communicate that statement,” she says. “Even small things like the degree to which you’re turned away from the audience makes a difference.”

Gaby and Sumire share a mutual sensitivity to language as well as a genuine passion for the “art” of communication that could inform a collaborative project in novel, poignant ways. There already exist several art projects today that integrate international voices and transcend linguistic boundaries, creating truly unique outlets for artistic creation. Examples include the Silk Road Project, an organization initiated by cellist Yo-Yo Ma that explores multicultural exchange through collaborations among artists, composers, visual artists, and storytellers, and OneBeat, an annual initiative of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that brings together 25 musicians from around the world to write and perform original music and to develop innovative approaches to music-inspired social entrepreneurship. In these projects, although participants come from diverse cultural backgrounds with different means, standards, and gestures of communication, art becomes a powerful unifying force, serving as the common language that all involved can speak. Echoing these initiatives, the combination of music and dance against the backdrop of international perspectives can become a means not just of acknowledging, expressing, and distinguishing different cultures and languages but also of fusing these cultures into a single, common understanding of the human experience.

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