VES: More Than Just a Major

The name of Harvard's Department of Visual and Environmental Studies may elicit sneers from cynics who sense pretension in its long-winded title. It may even evoke images of androgenous New Yorkers waving their clove-cigarettes in the air as they emphasize a point about the role of relativism in Jackson Pollock's later works.

But concentrators and faculty claim that those willing to take a closer look at their department will find, instead, a legitimate outpost of creativity unique within the ivy-covered walls of academia.

While the majority of Harvard undergrads are closeted in libraries or hunched over their computers, VES students are spending their time painting, making films, and designing models. To some, VES may sound like a great way to get through Harvard without doing any work, but studio classes meet for a minimum of six hours a week, and concentrators must spend an additional 15 to 20 hours per week working on projects outside of class. A senior thesis is mandatory, but students are allowed to indulge their imaginations in a creative project or an upper-level class, as well as a written essay.

Under Twenty

The department was established in 1968 through a merger of the Department of Architectural Sciences and a then fledgling program in the visual arts. But many feel that the department has not received the recognition and respect it deserves from University Hall administrators. "The University doesn't take [VES] seriously," says Associate Professor Jane B. Tuckerman. "They don't take studio art as a serious discipline for the future lives of young people. We're the black sheep of the University."

But the chairman of the department, Louis J. Bakanowsky, says that the study of visual arts is "an important aspect of life, and of an undergraduate education."

"The focus is not on technical aspects of art, but on training students to see more inclusively," he says. "The aim of the VES department is to expand and deepen the vision of people taking the courses, not to just lecture to them."

The structure of the department reflects the importance of combining disciplines; the three "tracks" of study are studio arts, film and photography, and environmental design. Bakanowsky says that the combination of these disciplines is "very rare but extremely important in the study of visual arts today. They feed and support each other."

But senior concentrator James Wolf calls VES "the bastard child of an art school and an architecture school," and some students dislike the concentration's breadth, saying they would like to see it's subject matter broken down into smaller, more intensive departments. This breadth can lead to disillusionment among concentrators. "VES is a real Harvard invention," says concentrator Sergio Huidor '88. "They want to make sure that everything interlocks, and this results in careful but not thorough teaching. There are only two painting courses, introduction and intermediate, and then you have to do everything through independent study."

The department's chairman says that independent study allows students to branch out from conventional methods of study. Still, Bakanowsky insists that his department is not an art school. "The real opportunity is the richness achieved by the mixing of disciplines," he says. "You could hole up here and make some interesting paintings," he says, "but that would be missing the whole point, and missing a true Harvard education."

A relatively large number of concentrators--seven percent--join the department as part of a combined major. Students and faculty agree that such a combination of disciplines allows for greater flexibility, giving students more freedom to be creative. "VES is good because it lets you break [conventional artistic] rules and get away with it," Huidor says. Rebecca D.T. Abrams '86, who is working on a photographic study of the role of beauty parlors in American culture agrees. "There is a lot of leniency and support in the department," she says. "It strongly encourages creativity and diversity of ideas."

Personal attention from faculty members is what accounts for the department's open and supportive environment, Abrams says. In studio courses the student-faculty ratio is about 15 to one, and by working with a faculty member intensively on a project over a long period of time, she says, a "bond of understanding and mutual growth is established within each class."

"The nature of the education is so personal, you know how [the professors] think and they have an understanding of you which lets you work well together," says Huidor. Abrams, who frequently dines with her professors--and has even gone on vacations with some in the past--says that the personal rapport she has established with faculty members is "the best thing that has happened to me at Harvard."

The close-knit structure of the VES department may cause it to suffer more than most departments from the University's strict tenure policy. There are six tenured professors in the department--none of whom are women--and two have joint appointments with the Graduate School of Design. Since students in the department tend to work very closely with one particular faculty member, if he or she is denied tenure and leaves it is particularly disruptive. "Freshman and sophomore year I studied intensely with one film teacher who then had to leave," says Abrams. "After that I completely changed my course of study to photography."

Tucherman, an eight-year veteran of the department, is leaving after this semester. "It's criminal that there's only one full-time teacher in every area," she says. "Students would get a broader outlook if they got two different points of view, especially in the studio arts."