In the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, a smashed video game console is worth more than a working one.
The department’s reimbursement policy refunds students for materials used in art projects, including annihilated electronics in some cases. But strict rules apply—anything a student could use for personal gain after the project, like a working Xbox, cannot be paid for by VES.
Students say that financial constraints can pose major obstacles for completing VES assignments. Purchased materials can often enhance—and are sometimes necessary for—students’ artistic endeavors. The VES reimbursement policy exists to alleviate these concerns about price.
The department resides within the Carpenter Center, a monstrosity sitting atop the frozen ground right outside the wrought iron gates of Harvard Yard. It rises like a concrete stalagmite from a deep valley, looming large against the grey Cambridge skyline.
image id=1328182 align=right size=medium caption="Carpenter Center."
The office of Financial Administrator Yaneris A. Briggs is secluded behind swinging doors. In contrast to the open floor plan in the rest of the building, Briggs works in a small white room, closed off on all sides except for a glass door. She explains the subtleties of the policy.
The VES department’s reimbursement policy has existed for over a decade. Any materials purchased for class can be paid for, within a price range set by teaching staff. This system works to alleviate financial worries from students. It allows them to create art and do coursework uninhibited.
The policy is more complicated for individual projects like senior theses. For art made outside of a formal class, the administration has set up a list of rules and regulations that students must abide by, all enclosed in a huge book given to thesis students at the start of the academic year.
The VES department is willing to repay students only if items are entirely consumed by the art and do not have any potential for future personal use. Uber rides are reimbursed in full, as are cheap “props” like paper or boxes. The department will not pay for other items such as small drills, though, because they can be used later. The department also will not pay for costumes, which can be returned from where they were bought. Food for the cast and crew of a film is fine, but a hot plate for melting wax is not.
Hard drives under $100 can be reimbursed for up to half their price. Electronics are sporadically reimbursed, depending on the project. The only way to ensure the department will refund electronic devices is to smash the appliance into oblivion in the process of creating art. Begrudgingly, the department will give students the check for these mangled devices, but they now encourage students to buy used machines that don’t cost much money.
Art has rarely ever existed solely for its creative contributions to society, and it always comes with a price tag. VES determines that price based on the market costs of materials that were used in the creation of the art, but student artists like Serena A. Eggers ’17 must decide how to place monetary value on abstractions such as passion, imagination, and vision.
“My thesis consisted of physical paintings, so those had a monetary value based purely on the materials and the time that went into creating them,” Eggers says. “They also had an added, less calculable value based on what they evoked and how much they mattered to me and to others.”
To Alex R. Cohen ’18, a student of Studio Arts and Film, money poses a significant hurdle in the industry he hopes to join. Cohen buzzes with energy as he sits perched at the edge of his chair. He’s on his way to submit an overdue reimbursement form, hoping that the department will be lenient about the 30-day post-purchase deadline.
“You can’t have something that is pure art and no business,” Cohen says. “When what you want to contribute to the world is something a little bit more abstract in terms of its societal benefits, commodification of art is inevitable. It’s capitalism, you know.”
For Cohen, the commercialization of art exists as a necessity. In a sense, the limitations of the policy prepare students for a life of professional artistry. Sacrifices of artistic vision are constantly made due to affordability.
“Use your talent,” Cohen says. “But you need to support yourself. There has to be money coming from somewhere.”
—Magazine writer Margaux R.E. Winter can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MrewGnu.