Most artsy people, myself included, like writing. But not even the most highfalutin literary artsies that Harvard can muster like Expos. Almost no one likes Expos. It’s a marvel that the course, Harvard’s cruel admissions gift to unsuspecting freshmen, has stuck around for this long. Faculty and administrators are always rushing to reassert the importance of a humanities education in an increasingly technological world. Maybe abolishing the hefty deterrent of Expos would give the appeal of such an education a bit of a boost.
Can you blame freshmen for wanting to avoid writing-heavy concentrations when their introduction to scholarly writing at the collegiate level is almost uniformly painful? There are, of course, good arguments in favor of Expos. Harvard students come from such a wide variety of educational, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds that there is a genuine need for a single course to establish some common ground.
For my spring break, I exchanged drunkenness for drizzle and returned to my hometown, that gloriously unprepared host of the 2012 Olympic Games, London. I spent much of the week catching up on the blockbuster art exhibits around the capital, as any self-respecting artsy would.
By far the most remarkable show I saw was a retrospective of Lucian Freud’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. Freud, who died just last year, was by far the most influential British painter of his lifetime, and as far as I know, no one has stepped up to fill the admittedly enormous shoes he has left behind. The exhibition charts his work chronologically, moving from the far more whimsical and stylized portraits of his first wife, Kitty Garman, to the remarkably luxuriant depictions of the obese social worker Sue Tilley, who famously came to be called “Big Sue.”
Last week The Crimson ran a story that must have plunged a certain subset of the artsy elite into a tailspin. The article detailed potential plans to implement a university-wide smoking ban that would prohibit smoking on any part of Harvard’s campus. Difficulty of enforcement aside, one cannot help but feel that this policy deliberately targets a certain type of Harvard student for whom the decision to smoke is—much like wearing thick-framed glasses—a fundamental expression of artsiness. To be a young smoker in this day and age, and in this country, is no easy feat. In fact, being a smoker at Harvard is already well nigh impossible; the smoking table that used to serve as a perch for smokers of Kirkland and Eliot Houses is no more, and smoking is not allowed in the immediate vicinity of the houses, so smokers have to stand in the street in ignominy, puffing away under the disapproving eyes of passersby.
It is a sad truth that our culture does not compensate artists very generously. For some unintelligible reason, being able to choose the right stock is more desirable and profitable than being able to chose the right turn of phrase. This system of valuation has divided aspiring young professionals into two camps: those who want to be creative in their careers, and those who don’t—or, more crudely, those who do not care much about making money, and those who rather fancy a decent salary. The financial crisis and the ailing job market it brought with it have pitted these two camps against each other. The veiled disdain artistic people once had for those who chose more lucrative paths has been replaced by hostility. As a junior in the thick of the summer job search frenzy, I am acutely aware of the contempt the self-appointed “artsy elite” have for those seeking lucrative internships. I have heard the terms “soul-seller,” “sell-out,” and several which The Crimson could not print applied to people aiming at more conventionally remunerative careers.
To repudiate financial motives so thoroughly one must either already be quite well-off or truly devoted to lofty artistic ideals at the expense of material comfort. Needless to say, at Harvard I find the former to be the case more frequently. This is not to say that those who choose to pursue financially unrewarding careers in arts are all rich brats—far from it. I have nothing but admiration for those who prioritize artistic fulfillment over financial security. It is just to say that it is a lot easier to condemn careers in finance or management consulting if you don’t have to worry about paying bills.
I was indifferent to the Occupy Harvard movement for a long time. Yes, it was a pain to present my ID every morning as though I were trying to buy beer rather than drag myself to class. Yes, I cried out in frustration when I realized the gate I had been hurrying toward was unyieldingly barred. But in some ways I admired the protesters. If I were them, I would get bloody sick of looking at John Harvard and thinking of how many people’s pee has coursed down his breeches. One day, however, my ambivalence toward the Occupy movement turned to unbridled dislike. I was walking from the direction of Annenberg through the Yard one nippy evening during finals period when a security guard asked me, “What’s with everyone wearing these big glasses?” My reaction, admittedly, was rather severe, but I couldn’t help it. I was incensed. “Sorry that I’m minus 5.5 in one eye and have thick frames,” I snapped.
But as soon as the words were out of my mouth I felt guilty—not because I had been rude to the security guard (What right did he have to comment on my eyewear, anyway?), but because I had lied. I lied not about my eyesight—yes, my myopia really is that severe—but about the reasons I wear thick frames. Who am I kidding? Just because I’m almost blind in one eye doesn’t mean I have to go around with frames as thick as Velma’s. Thankfully, technology has advanced enough to allow large visual correction with relatively slender lenses. Indeed, technology has advanced so far that, if I wanted to, I could chuck my glasses out the window and get laser eye surgery for as little as $299 an eye, according to Google ads.