The Art of Eating
for the moment
Most Harvard dining halls are decorated with heavy, dark oil paintings of white males, presumably dead and probably Protestant. The portraits often blend into the woodwork, add to the heavy, dark feeling of some of the dining halls and make the food seem even more heavy and dark than it already is. Sometimes the paintings blend in so well, Harvard students don't even notice them. "Art? Art? I've never seen art in the dining halls," said one first-year. Obviously this kid hasn't eaten in Leverett, where everyone notices the enormous painting taking up a large portion of the north wall of the dining hall. Whether those who have seen the painting call it art is another story.
Leverett resident Sarah J. Manguso '96 claims the painting "looks like it was made with a three-foot paint roller and poster paint. The most generous thing to call it would be bright. I some-times wonder if maybe it's a joke, a cute bit of irony played on us by the masters."
But is it?
According to Leverett House Master Professor John E. Dowling '57, the Leverett residents themselves actually chose the painting a few of years ago.
Once upon a time, a drab tapestry hung in the Leverett dining hall. Then the University Art Museum snatched the tapestry away for preservation. For a year, Leverett survived without art. (What would Barbra say?) Everyone wanted something different from the banal, old portraits that Dowling describes as "the Harvard dour faces-white males looking very serious." Finally, the House Masters scraped together enough private money to commission a picture from a young abstract artist, Gerry Webster.
Webster worked in Leverett for three weeks and painted three colossal canvases. Everyone living in Leverett was invited to a meeting to vote on which picture to keep. Dowling might maintain that if you don't like the painting, blame the alumni. But house lore has it that the three paintings were strikingly similar. Judging by the winner, the selection must have been grim.
Master Dowling realizes the Leverett painting is "controversial. People are suspicious of abstract art. The fact that it evokes emotion is positive. It livens the hall and its texture fits very well. My wife and I think that it's terrific."
Emily J. Bowen '97 says that the Leverett painting "reminds me of the art that abstract expressionism detractors create when they try to prove that abstract art isn't art." Luckily for her, Bowen lives in Winthrop House and doesn't have to be attacked by painting at every meal.
For those who have to face it daily, the Leverett painting serves as something to talk about while eating. Leverett resident Amnon A. Bar-Ilan '96 says that he and his friends spent much of last year "making secret conspiracies to do bad things to the painting. Like spray paint it. Or peel the paint off one blob at a time and see if the master noticed."
Just like the National Endowment for the Arts, Leverett House has had more than one art-related scandal. "We have had other controversies," Master Dowling reveals. Once a Leverett House drawing class displayed charcoal sketches of a nude model. "Some people were uncomfortable with nude pictures in the dining room. We held a meeting to discuss the issue. We got several silly suggestions, like the idea of 'Art Free Zones.'"
Frankly, anyone who has eaten in the Freshman Union might think that `Art Free Zones' would be a great idea. The rotunda in the Union has windows instead of art and is rather pleasant. The back room, where, as Bowen describes, "everyone goes to eat alone," accosts its guests with a set of canvases that look like the remains of a food fight started by the original freshman class. No one lingers over their food there.
Maybe that's the idea, though. After all, over a thousand people pack into the Union for each meal. If everyone enjoyed themselves enough to hang around, there would never be enough room. Maybe the Union staff is trying to kick people out. Or maybe they're just trying to help first-years keep off the dreaded `Freshman Fifteen.' Like Plum Crazy Cookie Bars with prune paste instead of sugar, the backroom paintings discourage dessert.
Winthrop House recently hung huge art deco utensils on the wall over the food lines, but not many students really noticed. Winthrop resident Peter S. Galatin '95 only seemd to think about the decorations when asked. "Oh yeah. There's a giant fork and a spoon, right? I like them. They're appropriate. Much better than giant Swatch watches," Galatin mused.
Mather has also opted for unorthodox artwork, but from a much earlier century. One past House Master was a professor of Medieval studies and decorated the Mather dining hall with recreations of Medieval Florentine guild banners, reminding one student of "a fast food court."
Somehow the generic portraits do not have quite the same pull. Can you imagine sitting down next to some attractive stranger and trying to start a conversation with, "Hey, that generic-looking white male in that picture sure must've led a worthwhile life to deserve the honor of being displayed in this dining hall!"? You'd be laughed into the dish room! However, if you dropped a line like, "You know, I think the Leverett painting would look so beautiful in flames," you'd be sure to get a formal date.
Some dining halls are worth noticing. Adams has Chinese Fu Dogs and the gong. Currier has the oasis. But nothing is quite as interesting as the painting in Leverett.