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Conversations About Beauty: New Book by Dean’s Professor Harvey Teres Probes ‘Unseen Power of Aesthetic Experience’
People’s encounters with beauty is the subject of a new book by Harvey Teres, Dean’s Professor for the Public Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S).
“Conversations about Beauty with Ordinary Americans: Somebody Loves Us All” (Common Ground Research Networks, 2019) contains interviews with 16 people, including a waitress, an exotic dancer, a choir director and several store owners and store clerks.
Teres will read from, discuss and sign copies of his book on Friday, May 3, at 7 p.m. at the YMCA’s Downtown Writers Center (DWC) at 340 Montgomery St., Syracuse. The event is free and open to the public, and is part of the DWC’s Visiting Author Reading Series.
“Conversations with Beauty” attests to what Teres calls the “unseen power of the aesthetic experience”—from former Berkeley, California, mayor “Gus” Newport reflecting on the role of beauty in organizing under-served communities, to Syracuse business owner Janet Lutz reveling in the “sisterhood” of quilting, to local salesman Anthony Frisiello responding to the sublimity of a Thomas Kinkade painting, to Manlius Art Cinema owner Nat Tobin championing high-quality films.
An expert in 20th-century American literature and culture, Teres says beauty triggers myriad responses in people. “Some responses are moral or political in nature, others are religious or spiritual. It is a territory of human experience that remains uncharted, even by the media and the academy,” he adds.
The anticipated follow-up to his book “The Word on the Street: Linking the Academy and the Common Reader” (University of Michigan Press, 2010), “Conversations with Beauty” considers people’s responses to beauty as solitary individuals and as part of a community of shared sensibilities.
With the possible exception of Newport, all of Teres’ subjects are relatively unknown. They are mostly local, middle- or working-class people who value the arts, but do not rely solely on them for income.
Teres spent more than 15 years on this oral history project. He met some of his subjects through chance encounters or word of mouth; others he actively pursued.
For all of them, opening up about their personal experiences with beauty was a first.
Jean Fahey, for example, describes how selling ballet shoes has enhanced her appreciation of Degas, renowned for his drawings and paintings of dancers. “Degas gets it right,” the dance supply store owner tells Teres. “Lots of artists and photographers think they can do it, and they don’t. They miss something. It may not be something that you could explain to them, but it’s in the line. If they can’t feel it, they’re not going to get it right.”
For Marshall Blake ’70, listening to opera cultivates empathy, enabling him to be a better labor organizer. “You know the cliché about the Italian guy hearing opera and crying? Until I became interested in opera, I never got it. Then I found tears running down my cheeks listening to ‘Vissi d’arte’ from [Puccini’s] ‘Tosca,’” he says during his interview.
Other examples abound, including a person breaking out in a “happy dance” in front of a sculpture, a husband-wife team restoring old cars and a community organizer using art to transform an inner-city neighborhood.
“Most of our conversations about beauty are not about us, but rather are about other people or places, such as the attractiveness of a celebrity or a stunning sunset. I am interested in the important, permanent effects of beauty on ourselves,” says Teres, who made his literary debut with “Renewing the Left: Politics, Imagination and the New York Intellectuals” (Oxford University Press, 1996).
Since joining the English faculty in 1993, Teres has held various faculty and administrative positions, including director of the Jewish Studies Program and inaugural faculty representative to the Syracuse University Board of Trustees.
He began his teaching career at Princeton in 1986, after earning a Ph.D. at The University of Chicago.
“English professors need to engage with the public and listen to what our fellow citizens have to say about literature, culture and the aesthetic experience,” Teres says. “Projects such as this one shed light on our own experiences, while providing insight into our own vital, perennial concerns.”