Tempered Times

A new generation of students reconciles artistic and political concerns

Melissa C. Wong

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?

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.



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."


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.


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