Exposing the Risk-taking in Art-making

Harvard Arts Initiative will showcase examples of bold art-making featured in classes

Art is a discourse and language that the average Harvard student is rarely compelled to examine deeply, particularly if that student is in the midst of midterms and exams, or churning out papers and problem sets. It is precisely this problem that the Harvard Task Force on the Arts has sought to rectify. As the Task Force has affirmed, “To allow innovation and imagination to thrive on our campus, to educate and empower creative minds across all disciplines, to help shape the twenty-first century, Harvard must make arts an integral part of the cognitive life of the university: for along with the sciences and the humanities, the arts—as they are both experienced and practiced—are irreplaceable instruments of knowledge...” To this end, the Harvard Arts Initiative is presenting the event “Art-making=Risk-taking” this Thursday in the Ticknor Lounge at Boylston Hall from 3 to 5 p.m. This event is the culmination of a months-long attempt to maximize the presence of the arts in Harvard classrooms.

The event is an interactive showcase of 12 to 14 classes inspired and supported by the Harvard Arts Initiative. The Initiative includes freshman seminars, General Education and departmental courses, all emphasizing a strong focus on engagement with art and development of students’ understanding of what it means to create art. The classes featured in this event are only a few of the classes supported by the Initiative, and are intended to offer the viewer a cross-sectional view of the project.

Literature and Arts B-85, “American Musicals and American Culture,” taught by Professor Carol J. Oja, will be featured in the event, focusing specifically on a visit to the class by Lin Manuel Miranda, writer and composer of “In the Heights.” Miranda’s visit was documented on film and will be presented at the event. Miranda was an invaluable addition to the class, according to course participant Margaret E. Johnson ’11. “I thought it was one of the best classes we had. He was incredibly entertaining, and he made the class even more current and relevant, because his work is so current.” The class studied Miranda’s work as the culmination of a survey of American musical theater history and its political implications.

Culture and Belief 12, “For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures.” will also be showcased at “Art-making=Risk-taking.” Taught by Professor Ali Asani, students in the class experiment with differing media traditional to the Islamic world, such as calligraphy, mosque design and Islamic poetry. According to Asani, focusing on a more interactive and personal way of understanding Islamic art and culture is unusual and not without its challenges, but ultimately successful. As he says, “[The class has] convinced me of the effectiveness of the arts and literature as pedagogic bridges to understand the Islamic worlds. It may be useful to just my specific subject, but I think it may be useful to others. Arts are a fundamental aspect of the human experience and what it means to be human.”

Courses such as Culture and Belief 12 can compel its students to come to an individualized understanding and expression of a certain art. For that reason, the class and others like it are not for the faint of heart. As Professor Asani says: “Those [Harvard students] who are afraid of taking a risk are not likely to take a course like this, but the students who are open to challenging themselves would find this course rewarding.” Peyton G. Greenside ’11, a student in the course, agrees. “I really enjoyed the artistic projects in the class because they offer a new way to interact with the material,” she writes in an e-mail. “You gain something more when you not only study religion, history and culture, but use them to construct an original work like designing a mosque for an urban American environment.”

Art can sometimes seem like too abstract of a concept in the often quantitative academic environment of Harvard. In reality, however, the creation of art is simply another form of understanding and thinking. “Art-making=Risk-taking” celebrates a new direction in the pursuit of knowledge at Harvard.

—Staff writer Catherine A. Morris can be reached at morris6@fas.harvard.edu.

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