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Tempered Times

A new generation of students reconciles artistic and political concerns

As student artists seek to transcend the topical, student activists use art as merely a means to an end. Is vital and intelligent political art possible at Harvard?
As student artists seek to transcend the topical, student activists use art as merely a means to an end. Is vital and intelligent political art possible at Harvard?
By Beryl C.D. Lipton, Crimson Staff Writer

Linden Street is one of the many inconspicuous side streets in the heart of Harvard Square. Its low profile is due to the collection of back entrances that comprise the block, a series of geographical afterthoughts. If one didn’t know to look for it, one would likely walk right by the nondescript alcove that leads to the Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) Department Linden Street Studios, its exterior cookie-cutter red brick Cambridge’s ancient staple. But inside, prime Square real estate takes on a modern, industrial tone—white walls, concrete floors, noisy metal air ducts.

Seemingly secluded from Harvard’s conventional clique of the politically-minded, from the Student Labor Action Movement to the Institute of Politics, it is perhaps not too surprising that the collection of VES theses growing in the senior concentrators’ respective studios displays little explicit connection with topical concerns. In a year when WikiLeaks revelations and revolutions in the Arab World have injected our culture with new foci for a discussion about government distrust and dissatisfaction, there is a dearth of artistic political dialogue at Harvard. Outside of VES, however, students have devoted themselves to artistic projects that further political and social agendas above artistic goals. While VES students seek to produce art as a personal pursuit regardless of its social implications, students without the same degree of formal experience use art as a means of political protest.

SUBTLE POLITICS

The left-leaning tendencies of artistic Harvard students are often palpably obvious within VES classes. "Like any kind of homogeneousness, it can be silencing or stifling," says VES Professor Carrie Lambert-Beatty. Lambert-Beatty teaches VES 104: "Culture Jam: Art and Activism" since 1989, a biannual class that seeks to question whether or not all forms of political public discourse may be seen as artistic expressions. When she explains to shopping week attendees of her class that she wants conservative students to take her class, Lambert-Beatty reports, she receives disbelief in return. She insists that such a varied perspective, though rare, is rejuvenating for intellectual engagement. "It was not only having these lefties in the class, but having one student who was conservative," she cites as one of the reasons for the success of the class’s maiden voyage. "Having that tension is what really builds the discussion."

Of course, there is no way to construct the optimal composition of classroom political profiles. Partially as a result of this homogeneity, the ideological motivations of student work are expressed less loudly than they may have been in previous generations or would be in a less segregated political environment. "[We’re] a lot tamer in the way that we think about social issues, partially, I think ... because we are in a progressive little bubble," offers VES senior Rachel D. Libeskind ’11. "Talking specifically from a Harvard perspective, I don’t need to go out there [in protest]. My rights aren’t being compromised that much … I’ve seen very little Harvard art that’s made politically-minded, in the sense of very direct, clear political allusions." Political implications might exist in Libeskind’s work, but they are implicit and may appear unintentionally. For her thesis, she is working with mixed media—newspaper clippings, old pornography, toothpaste—to create images that aren’t developed with predetermined social motivations but still clearly engage in social dialogue.

Therefore, and in keeping with the conceptually-driven pedagogy of VES, students’ work is not necessarily apolitical. Rather, some student artists produce pieces that expand beyond the artist’s personal motivations to include implicit political and social meanings. Lambert-Beatty refers to one theory of art’s social value that considers the social as comprised of multiple aesthetic levels, which consist of "what is thinkable and not thinking, what we can notice and don’t notice, what is considered a social category and what isn’t. Those have explicitly political effects." So while some students have used their work in the department as a means of expressing and furthering particular social and political goals—for example, the catalog Martha A. Wasserman ’10 created for her thesis last year on the Carpenter Center’s "ACT UP New York"—most have found that the conceptual challenges brought up in their classes and critiques have contributed more nuanced approaches to the message behind their art.

"I had the pleasure of taking a class with [Professor Amie Siegel], and she said, ‘Don’t make political art. Make art political,’ and I think that’s exactly what the VES department does," says VES concentrator Jason R. Vartikar-McCullough ’11. "That is to say, the process of making the work, the philosophical act of making a piece of art is the thing, not that the artwork’s subject is some sort of political commentary." Art can be political not only in its overt content, but also more subtly in its creation itself. "If you want to make a political commentary, make the work in a political way. Make it in a conceptual way, in a way that reveals its own process, in a way that questions and inquiries different lines of thinking and philosophies and opens itself up to conceptualism as a whole, which is a very process driven thing. But don’t paint Obama."

AMBIGUITY AND AMBIVALENCE

The nuance and complexity of opinion that characterizes the way visual art is made and critiqued complicates the task of creating any sort of protest-driven political art. In fact, this predicament extends to an ambiguity and ambivalence that pervades political discourse in today’s society.

Consider October’s "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," for example, an effort by Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to gather together those "who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs)—not so much the Silent Majority as the Busy Majority." The essential sentiment behind the rally seemed to be that, contrary to the belief that most Americans are apathetic, they are justifiably too divided on issues to want to shout their opinions out loud and force them onto others. Issues of political expression are not limited to an artistic context, but even extend to political discourse itself.

On our own campus, Harvard’s largest partisan political organization is attempting to engage in this increasingly brand of political-artistic creation. Since last spring, the Harvard Democrats have been working on a project called "1000 Ways To Be A Democrat," a collection of photographs that depicts individual Democrats along with text explaining their conception of what it means to be a Democrat projected onto them. "The basic idea of this project," says president of the Harvard Democrats Meaghan M. Riether ’12, "is to highlight the differences in our party, that we’re not all crazy, left-wing liberals—because to a certain extent that’s what people think of—but that people in our organization really are everywhere on the spectrum left-of-center and that we represent … a lot of different ideologies and … a lot of different stories." Tellingly, this project is less focused on aesthetic and conceptual quality than works produced by students in VES, and takes a much more obviously topical bent.

INTERROGATING THE STRUCTURE

This kind of practicality in artistic production, which eschews artistic goals in exchange for advocacy, is featured in classes outside VES. A new class in the Department of African and African American Studies (AAAS) this year, AAAS 109: "Using Film for Social Change," taught by Visiting Lecturer Joanna H. Lipper ’94, is being used as a platform to unite students’ idealistic motivations with a realistic means of communicating their objectives.

The class was introduced as part of the concentration’s Social Engagement Initiative, an interdisciplinary track led by Department Chair Evelyn B. Higginbotham. As part of the track, students are required to incorporate a visual component and policy recommendations into their work, as well as the traditional academic essay. The aim is to make the theoretical and more academic elements of a student’s learning more tangible in a real-world environment—whether that means practically implementing a clean water system in Ghana, as the first Social Engagement participant Sangu J. Delle ’10 did, or simply finding ways of interviewing subjects in order to capture the most important theme of a particular social narrative. "What I wanted our students to do was to wed these two things: academic work and the kind of work they would learn from," Higginbotham says. Academic work, she suggests, may present an insubstantial engagement with the real events of the world outside academia. "The idea of media across cultures, how to interview, how to capture the most important theme that is being conveyed by people in different parts of the world, how they are unique … the same interpretation and selection has to take place in a visual form [as in a written one]."

Higginbotham, who had been personally moved by Lipper’s films and photography, approached and hired Lipper as a Visiting Lecturer. "She is someone who combines both the intellectual standards we are looking for and the quality of a first-rate artistic project," Higginbotham says.

Lipper completed her own undergraduate career at Harvard in 1994 with a special concentration in "Creation and Expression in Literature and Film," which she used to study, among other things, questions of identity. She sees her own work as giving a voice to unrepresented groups, among them children and teenage mothers.

It is this inclination that forms much of the appeal of the class for its students. "I’m interested in how you use the micro level of a community or people’s individual lives and use those to interrogate the larger structures of government and policies and how [effective] are they actually," says Sheba M. Mathew ’13, an anthropology concentrator, and one of a few students who are currently trying to establish a Social Engagement secondary. "Film—especially the way we’re approaching it in this class—is a pretty good way to … just ask people about their lives. And some people are a little put off, but most are honored that someone is willing to listen to them," Mathew says. "Professor Lipper wants film to be used for social change in terms of telling people’s narratives and looking at those narratives and questioning the social structures around us."

Lipper’s class incorporates a number of angles to approach the relationship of film and social issues in creating awareness or playing the role of advocate. It involves weekly film screenings, featuring both fiction and non-fiction, technical skills training, mandatory ‘internships’ with the organizations on which the students will be focusing their respective final film projects, and readings. Comparable in size to a VES studio or a seminar, the class has drawn students from across the University. Mehron H. Price ’13 plans to use the class to supplement personal objectives that have been in the works for years. Though she has no prior experience with filmmaking or editing, she and her sisters have run their own non-profit, Kids Helping Needy Kids, since Price was 11 and they were struck on a family trip to Africa by the child poverty in her mother’s native country of Ethiopia. For her, the multimedia aspect of social work is not only an effective means of communication but a necessity for motivating involvement in a particular cause when there are so many from which to choose.

"I think the multimedia can strengthen your request [for donations], and I think people react really strongly to seeing individual life stories," Price says. "You can tell statistics about so many Ethiopian children are orphans, or you can follow one child throughout their day in an orphanage. And people will react more strongly to an individual life story." For Price, artistic integrity is secondary to social progress.

It is clear that AAAS 109 is not meant to replace the traditional VES video class; its goals are focused more on content and less on form. But it does make institutionally accessible the film equipment that may otherwise draw politically-concerned students to VES courses "We really try to make sure that for students who try to do this kind of work, there is a body of people who are guiding them," Higginbotham says.

NEW PROTESTS

Constraints on the political nature of artwork, then, lie most heavy on the shoulders of professional artists. For students in anthropology, a socially-motivated film might lend some legitimacy to a broader political project. For full-time artists, on the other hand, there exists a tension between the freedom that imagination allows and the compartmentalization that occurs in the public consciousness when a particular piece of art is identified as having specific political goals. Inevitably, the broader societal aspersion of political art filters into the creativity of Harvard students. And although this complex algorithm of consumer concerns and public perception may deter students from making explicitly political work, Harvard provides VES concentrators with ways of employing their critical eyes similar to those of other concentrations.

"Harvard is proving itself to be an incredibly productive crossroads for someone making art—an institution immersed in the universe of words and numbers, which has opened its rich ocean of ideas to young artists pursuing a different kind of path to the same set of human truths," Libeskind wrote via email.

Maybe the change lies less in perceptions of art, then, and more in political realities. "It’s a complicated time right now, so a lack of political art can reflect that—that it’s just hard to know what’s right and wrong. The issues aren’t super clear," says filmmaker Sam Green, whose film "The Weather Underground" about the radical anti-Vietnam War youth group was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004 and who recently visited Robb Moss’s class VES 51a: "Fundamentals of Video." "[There are] wars going on most people don’t think about anymore, the economic meltdown. In the sixties, anti-war movement or civil rights movement were these very clear cut, easy to see, right and wrong issues." Political commentary, then, comes easily in times of social clarity.

"[T]he young people in Egypt, they were very clear that … they wanted nothing to do with the older activists. And they did that—it obviously was smart—because they wanted to come up with their own new way of doing things and they did it," Green says. "So I think in some ways, it may not be happening now, that younger people will come up with their own ways of talking about the world, representing the world, but also trying to make changes in the world." The efforts of Harvard student artists may not look like our traditional idea of political art, but that might be because our idea is outdated.

—Staff writer Beryl C.D. Lipton can be reached at blipton@fas.harvard.edu.

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On CampusVisual ArtsPolitics