The Art of War

Some Harvard students are voicing their views on the war in Iraq not with loudspeakers but with paintbrushes.

David E. Stein

Anti-war puppeteer joins a growing, visible community of undergraduate artists working to entertain and engage the public on issues surrounding the war.

In the studio of Nancy C. Selvage, director of the ceramics program at the Office for the Arts, a sculpture begins to take the shape of an Iraqi territory—one which she thinks resembles the silhouette of a tank going down a hill.

Selvage’s work exemplifies how the war in Iraq—long a topic of political debate—is becoming a promiment theme of artistic expression.

“The effect of this war and the imagery of this war definitely permeates into our work, whether it happens consciously or not,” Selvage says.

In the weeks leading up to the war, poets held teach-ins at Harvard, theater groups performed their pleas for peace and hundreds waved handmade signs in a Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice (HIPJ)-sponsored walkout.

But with troops in Baghdad, anti-war polemic can seem futile. While images of the war dominate the airwaves, Harvard artists have begun to explore individual suffering and violence in Iraq. And they say their art might open up the dialogue about both sides’ perspectives in the war.

The styles of their protest art are still taking shape, lacking the forms of Dadism or the lyrics of Bob Dylan, and most students have never lived through the reality of war.

Yet anti-war sentiment still filters through the artistic community, both on campus and nationally.

As celebrities speak out at award ceremonies, concerts and poetry readings, Harvard has reacted in its own way. With a relatively small visual studies program, much of the protest art has centered around text and theater.

Students hold improvisational open-mics and political stagings, and artists have put up soundboards—all in the hopes of opening dialogue about world affairs, they say.

According to Adams House photography tutor Lisa L. Gordon, people involved in these movements hope to avoid the “sloganeering” of simplisic political art.

“I feel that political art can be very easy,” said Gordon, who is organizing a one-night show about homeland security in the Adams House ArtSpace this month. “We are trying to offer inroads beyond that. We are opening the forum to people of all political beliefs.”

Inevitably, U.S. military intervention abroad will draw comparisons to Vietnam—but it seems that the artistic reaction to this war remains far from the charged days of ’60s and ’70s, when artists stated often dogmatic opinions through the canvas and the microphone.

With the war still relatively new, today’s artists have not quite established a cohesive movement—but they say that their work provides an alternative forum for discussion.

Doing Their Part

Two young men dressed in army fatigues stand on the rocks in front the Science Center. They have guns taped to their hands. Blindfolded, they point their weapons across the cement path at a group, clad all in white, who are holding signs.

Nearby, another group of students stages what appears to be a pro-war rally, though their mock chants are dubious to the careful listener.

With this powerful trio of vignettes, Performance Artists for Responsible Thought (PART) made their very public debut at Harvard last month. Formed in response to the then-impending war, PART aims to “use the impact of art and performance to bring information about social and political issues to a potentially wider audience than is afforded by traditional forms,” according to founder Susan E. McGregor ’04.

While the group—which has thus far staged three performances, or “actions”—is decidedly anti-war, organizers say the main goal of the demonstrations is to disseminate information and give voice to opinions that might otherwise not be widely publicized.

“Usually, the information we bring forward reflect issues that we feel are underrepresented in more traditional media, such as the majority of newspapers or television,” McGregor writes in an e-mail.

That information has included everything from announcements of rallies on other campuses to the contents of the Patriot Act.

Former Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) President Daniel A. Cozzens ’03, who participated in PART, says he hopes the actions will not only pique people’s interest in the issues surrounding the war, but that observers will be inspired to take action themselves—on either side of the debate.

PART was inspired when McGregor attended a HIPJ meeting where students discussed a recent publicity stunt which involved two HRDC actors, bubble wrap and a joust.

“It occurred to me that staging theater compositions would be a more effective way of getting people to pay attention to certain issues than handing out leaflets, or even protesting,” McGregor says.

A few e-mails later she formed PART with some actor friends.

From Actor to Action

Before they perform, the group works collectively to create their four to seven minute compositions. Starting with a topic that they want to present, the group brainstorms ways to stage it. Compositions are based on gestures or motions that can be repeated and varied. After improvising with these gestures and topics, the group pieces together their performance.

The only requirement of each composition is that information and facts be incorporated in the piece, according to McGregor.

“I also make sure to cite the source of all information, so viewers can verify it or find out more for themselves,” McGregor says.

Letting the audience decide for itself is a major theme in PART’s stated mission—and McGregor and Cozzens both cite it as a reason why artistic protest can be more powerful than rallies. While protests can easily be ignored, they say, street theater impacts people differently. Not only do the actors provide entertainment, but, McGregor says, “they are informative but not necessarily obvious.”

“We are able to engage people because it takes some effort for them to figure out what’s going on, and we’re obvious enough that they’ll want to,” she says.

Performers say there have been mixed—but strong—reactions from passersby to their feelings about PART and the war.

McGregor points to two students who discussed going to an anti-war rally that PART publicized. And Cozzens notes that a man with a bullhorn cursed at the group from a Holworthy window.

While PART’s work is not modelled on any other movement past or present, it does recall the “guerilla theater” that developed in protest of the Vietnam War—which also tried to harness the power of art in changing public sentiment.

“It’s easy to ignore numbers, but it’s art that stays with us—an image, a tune—and in the end may force us to confront our reality,” McGregor says.

Battle of the Brushes

While theater has quickly taken the stage in protesting, visual artists are taking longer to pick up their paintbrushes and clay.

But their involvement shouldn’t come as a surprise, Selvage says, noting a funny coincidence.

“I realized that the words ‘stop war,’ when they are deflected and land in reverse—it spells ‘raw pots,’” she says. “[The war] will obviously have an effect on future work of artists. In many cases, this takes a long time to absorb.”

And indeed most undergraduate visual artists, hurrying to finish theses, have not focused on creating full-fledged exhibitions of protest art critical of U.S. policy.

In these early stages, the art has taken the form of soundboards in hallways, open-mics in dining halls and banners and picket signs carried in rallies.

Visual and Environmental Studies Head Tutor Paul Stopforth says it will take more time for the war to filter into painting and sculpture and other media.

“Making art requires a level of reflection,” Stopforth says.

But Stopforth says there hasn’t been time for a thoughtful movement to progress.

“There isn’t clearly a body of work directed to social and political issues,” Stopforth said. “But there certainly are individuals who are who are conscious of it and introduce aspects of it in their work.”

He described one student in particular: “He is dealing with ruins, which until recently had a kind of romantic quality to them. And they have shifted toward something which is in a sense a lot more sinister: the presence of clouds caused by fire or smoke or explosions.”

And though student visual artists have not organized a structured political effort, protest art may find its place in upcoming shows.

Both student and professional artists will participate in a one-night-only show on April 19 in the Adams House ArtSpace.

The show, “Better Homes and Guardians,” will take on homeland security and focus on survelliance and the household.

None of the artwork is up yet, but co-curator Gordon—who became interested in political art after her involvement in humanitarian projects in Afghanistan—says she has received submissions from both visual artists and writers.

“We were trying to captialize on the strengh of the student body, which is writing,” Gordon said of the more than 40 pages of poetry and first-person writing that will be in the show.

One non-textual piece she described was a sculpture—a music box that will translate “letter by letter” the state of the union address into musical notes, which would play from within a pillow.

“My own aesthetic preference is this carnival atmosphere,” she said. “It is a good release when you are very, very depressed about things.”

—Staff writer Alexandra N. Atiya can be reached at

—Staff writer Stephanie E. Butler can be reached at