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What Is Art?
Michelle Leddon, Alum
School of the Arts 2000

Thomas Roma, even though he wouldn't know my name, was by far the best teacher that I had during my tenure at Columbia. I spent five years in the school of the Arts doing my MFA in the Film Division. We were allowed to venture out to take classes from time to time, and so, in my third year, I dipped my toe into another school of the Arts Division -- the arts school, where Thomas Roma, formerly of Yale, had recently started teaching photography.

I had long been suffering in the Film Division -- suffering for a lack of dialogue about what art is and why we make it. While I had found technique and craft in the Film Division and had learned a great many useful skills, I hadn't learned anything about art. I felt uninspired, lost and helpless. Having already committed myself to a career in a very non-lucrative field and borrowed a significant amount of money to come to Comumbia, I was in a precarious position. Not only was I putting myself in debt for life, I was slowly forgetting why I came to art school in the first place. What I learned in Roma's classes was to think about what was important in art. He insisted that human beings (or things with eyes) were the only things worth photographing. He insisted that we not detach ourselves from the living world around us through art and that craft wasn't as important as the burning, undying need that an artist has to capture some small piece of truth. I didn't learn art theory, or how to develop film, or history of photography or how to compose an image from him, but I did find great inspiration by being in the presence of a man who saw a glimpse of a great human truth: there is no endeavor more important or essential than the creation of art. He encouraged us -- all of us, even those of us that some might say had no apparent gift -- to seek, to be irreverent and to dare. I should have taken more classes with him.

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