Not many members of the Harvard old guard could forget 1963. Several years earlier, a Harvard capital campaign secured a gift from Alfred St. Vrain Carpenter, Class of 1905—to the tune of $1.5 million—for the construction of a new arts center on campus. Now, they could only sit back and watch as the University spent a fortune on what many regarded as a monstrosity. Modernism had come to Harvard with all the force of a hurricane.
Perhaps the conservative establishment should have seen this coming. The Graduate School of Design had appointed famed Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert as its dean in 1953. He had gone on to design a slew of bare, concrete structures in and around Cambridge, including the Holyoke Center, construction on which began in 1958. Still, the Carpenter Center—designed by famed Swiss architect and Sert’s personal friend Le Corbusier—was something altogether different. It was designed from the ground up to be a place to view and create art. With its wide, cylindrical body intersected by a huge ramp, the Carpenter Center was created to be an open, inclusive space which promoted movement and interaction by both artists and patrons. It was functionalist and utilitarian in a way that no one at Harvard had seen before.
Fifty years later the Carpenter Center still seems like an anomaly. Despite the fact that it’s now part of Harvard’s landscape, it stands in stark contrast to the classic New England red brick buildings which surround it. Still, this sense of inconsistency suits the building and the department of Visual and Environmental Studies which it houses. Unlike the rest of the University, the VES Department is tasked with training artists as well as scholars, and it very much functions like a conservatory contained within a liberal arts institution. The building’s half-centennial birthday has proven to be a perfect opportunity for self-reflection within the concentration. On Saturday, as part of the Arts First festival, the VES department will begin a film series called The Eyes Have It in which it screen works made by Harvard students over the last 50 years. The program includes works of fiction, documentary, animation, experimentation, and everything in between.
As the department reflects on its origins and seeks to define the space it occupies at Harvard, educators and students alike must grapple with the question of whether an arts department as one part of a large university really can provide budding filmmakers with what they need to pursue a career. By teaching a holistic approach to filmmaking while still engaging with Harvard's broader liberal arts curriculum, the VES department has succeeded in creating a program that educates its students both intellectually and aesthetically.
The construction of the Carpenter Center was a watershed moment for many reasons, but primarily because it created a space in which the practice of art was elevated above its study. “The building of the Carpenter Center was very important,” says Professor Alfred Guzzetti, an acclaimed filmmaker and Visual Arts professor. “It is now 50 years old, and it is a center that is precisely dedicated to educating through doing things with your hands. Filmmaking as part of the curriculum dates back to then, to 1963.” The filmmaking program—which surprisingly predates instruction of film history and theory—grew out of the vision of a man named Robert Gardner, a well-respected documentarian who made a name for himself making ethnographic films that explored the lived experience of peoples around the world. At the time, he was the director of the Film Study Center at the Peabody Museum. Gardner envisioned a program built on documentary filmmaking and animation—an art form that he thought had a unique ability to access the mind of the artist. This spirit still pervades film instruction on campus today.
“Filmmaking is taught in a way that begins with observation of what real people do in real situations,” Guzzetti says. “So the beginning point of the curriculum for a long time has been nonfiction. That has been very important for pedagogical reasons but also for historical reasons.” The introductory class in the department, VES 50: “Introduction to Nonfiction Filmmaking,” requires students to create a documentary film. After they complete this course, they can go on into other genres, such as fiction or experimental film.
The upshot of this style of education is that there is a real emphasis on the comprehensive range of skills required to make films. “I try to give [the students] control of the medium most of all, so they can actually make the images and sounds that they have in their heads. The development of those skills is terribly important,” Guzzetti says. This also leads to courses that offer students a broad range of skills as opposed to a deep understanding of a certain specialty. This style of education stands in contrast to how the art form is taught in graduate programs and art schools. “We try to teach a type of filmmaking that is centered in one person, so one person can do it all, even in the nonfiction courses,” Guzzetti says. “In a film school the division of labor is very important because it reflects the industry. But we try to have as little division of labor as possible so everybody learns everything.”
The question remains how well this sort of educational philosophy serves film students after they leave Harvard. Due to their broad historical scope, the The Eyes Have It film screenings will provide ample opportunity to examine not only the current state of film education on campus, but also how well it has served the department’s alumni, many of whom have gone on to pursue careers in the industry. For example, recent graduate Andrew N. Wesman ’10 concentrated in VES and is currently studying filmmaking at University of California, Los Angeles. At Harvard, he made a short film called “Shelley” that was an official selection of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and will be screened as part of The Eyes Have It. For him, the practical education he got at Harvard has paid huge dividends. “It forced me to be creative. I was in VES 150, and I had to direct a film. I had to write something, so it forced me to sit down and write a script, and film it, and take risks. It forced me to be on set and get experience working with actors and getting shots, and with film that’s the best type of education you can get,” he says.