Exploring the Arts – Quentin Cohan

I used to make movies. I attended a fairly artistically ­inclined high school that required students to take three semesters of art class. Since my paintings would only be considered “art” by the most modern of modernists, I followed my interest in movies into the filmmaking class. For four years (two and a half more than the required amount) I cut through the monotony of high school life by writing and directing short films. Though I received credit, the class was pass/fail.

This seems like an impossibility here at Williams. I realized very quickly that the lengthy filmmaking process cannot be squeezed into anybody’s airtight schedule. Though saddening for me, this is not my ultimate concern. The real problem is that aside from art majors, this school does painfully little to promote artistic expression among its students. For a school so enamored with Art, Williams seems to disregard the artistic abilities dwelling latently in its students. From Ls to rock fighters to whatever that thing in Greylock Quad is to WCMA, our campus is saturated with art. None if it, however, is by art students.

This raises the question of what the art is really for. Is it about having some “culture” and “beauty” on campus? Or, is it about rankings, tours, and donations? I find it hard to believe that a student has not created something artistically valid enough to possibly replace the sculpture in Greylock Quad. I am sure that sculpture is important in some way, but, at the same time, well, I sat on it the other day while making a phone call. There are some options. There are dance clubs, a cappella groups, stage performances and several other smaller extra­curricular organizations. The fact that they are extra­curricular, though, is part of the problem. Extra­curriculars, though school- sanctioned, are by definition not part of the school’s for ­credit offerings. This gives them an inherent second­-class status; nobody works as hard on their Williams Alternative article as they do on their English essay. Additionally, what if I don’t sing, dance, or act?

Why should my ability to express myself artistically be confined to these boxes? Again, is this about giving our students artistic avenues, or about saying we give our students artistic avenues? Why should my desire to do landscape photography be relegated to Winter Study, where it is seen as a joke?

Yes, there are art classes, but even these are problematic. Unlike a stat problem set, say, an artistic pursuit cannot be graded right or wrong. If my photograph looks the way I want it to, how can someone else tell me it is a B­? By that standard, Van Gogh got a lot of Fs. If I am a solitary guitarist, I could take graded guitar lessons as a half-­credit course. Until my brother did this last semester, I never realized guitar lessons could be given a letter grade. Students should have the option of taking two arts classes ungraded in exchange for one graded class. Artistic expression is not about rationality and logic, like so much else on campus. It is about finding the parts of ourselves not normally allowed to see the light.

Students who do not create or appreciate art make for dull students, albeit great employees. We claim to be a “liberal arts” school, but we seem to have forgotten about half of that phrase.

6 thoughts on “Exploring the Arts – Quentin Cohan

  1. So art clubs are problematic because they’re extracurricular, but art classes within the curriculum are problematic because they’re graded? As a non-art major who has taken many art classes here to fulfill my creative needs, it seems painfully clear that the author has no understanding of how art classes are graded here.

    I am entirely sure that were Williams’ policy to allow “taking two arts classes ungraded in exchange for one graded class,” it would raise these same complaints about art not being taken seriously here.

  2. I become interested in making movies a little over a year ago, and I do understand your frustration. Yes, people here are busy. No, this isn’t a film school, or an art school, and you can’t necessarily fill your academic schedule with filmmaking, or painting, or whatever. But it is possible to shoot a short movie here. It is possible to write a feature-length screenplay here. You just have to become comfortable with the idea of doing these things on your own time, and not as a part of the pre-existing structure of college academics and extra-curriculars. It is challenging, for sure, but there’s a great deal of freedom in doing your own work for the love of doing the work, and not for a class. In fact, you may never have the same degree of freedom again.

    Don’t lose sight of the resources that are available to you; the equipment loan center has good stuff you can borrow for free, as does the art department. There are talented actors here, and not everyone’s schedule is completely airtight. There are actually students here for whom independent creative endeavors become a higher priority than classes and classwork, believe it or not. What do you need ungraded arts classes for? What’s stopping you? If you want to take landscape photographs, and you know how you want your photographs to look, then go take some pictures! And arts classes are a great resource, not necessarily as a means for you to do the work you want to do, but as a way to learn things that might help you in your own work. Sure, grades are somewhat arbitrary, but professors here generally aren’t assholes and won’t fail you for turning in assignments that go against their personal taste. Suck it up and take a B- if you need the structure of a college course to get things done.

    It is not the school’s responsibility to promote artistic expression among its students. It’s not anyone’s responsibility to promote artistic expression. If you want to make something, the onus is solely and entirely on you to find a way to do so, or not. Getting hung up on the apparent road blocks will not only keep you from getting anything done, it’ll drive you completely crazy.

  3. Hi Quentin, I disagree with a few things you said a little bit.

    As far as there being no large-scale art made by students hanging out on campus, that’s just a logistical problem- no one student has the time in their academic schedules to devote themselves to such a huge project and I doubt (though I could be wrong) that the art department has the resources for a project of that scale that they would be okay with allotting to one student. There is at least some student art hanging on campus though, even if it’s not in a super-visible place- http://williamsrecord.com/2014/09/10/the-artist-otherwise-known-asmei-kazama-16/

    I won’t deny that commissioning sculptures to be placed around campus by “esteemed” professional artists is as much about upping Williams’ artsy street cred and perpetuating that image to visitors/donors as it is about placing art around for students to contemplate and enjoy aesthetically. (The WCMA Eyes, for example, are popular both because Louis Bourgeois is a well-known sculptor and because they’re just pretty awesome sculptures.) But lots of high-end schools do that. That would only be a problem if the vibrant, inclusive culture of (visual) artsiness Williams is perpetuating with these public works did not actually exist, like you’re implying that it doesn’t here.

    But it does- there are so many amazing talented student artists here that paint and draw and sculpt and photograph and make all sorts of crazy awesome performance pieces that they slave over every day in their studio classes. Their hard work is displayed regularly at the Spencer Art Building, on Paresky Lawn sometimes and even at WCMA for senior majors, and those events are advertised across campus. WCMA also organizes a crap ton of events to get students of all majors into the visual arts (WALLS, WCMA at Night, etc) and the sheer popularity of ArtH101-102 speaks to the general interest the student body as a whole in the visual arts.

    I think the issue with the vibrant visual arts culture on campus going relatively unnoticed here by lots of people has to do with 2 things that I myself wouldn’t know how to resolve. First is the out-of-the-way location of the Spencer art building. Second is the fact that visual arts by nature are (literally haha) quieter and more individual than a cappella, Sankofa shows or the latest Cap & Bells performance, which are group productions meant to be experienced by big audiences engaging in various degrees of wild cheering. As a result of that the performing arts are a bigger of the social environment here- plenty of people are drunk at a cappella concerts but I doubt anyone makes an event of pregaming to go to a studio show. But just because they aren’t as loud, doesn’t mean that the visual arts are less meaningful to Williams students. You might have to just look a little harder to find it, but it’s there for anyone who seeks it out- including non-majors.

    In regard to criticizing Williams not offering you and others the opportunity to take a pass-fail studio class, looking at the catalog it appears that you can indeed use the Gaudino option for some studio courses, albeit not Drawing I. Also, isn’t taking one over Winter Study the perfect solution to that problem? You literally have a month where you don’t have to do anything but devote time and effort into your own creative process without the pressure of shooting for a letter grade. It shouldn’t matter if other students write off such as course “as a joke” as long as you take the class seriously and produce something you’re proud of. And the reason why studio professors grade is exactly because they want you to put as much effort, passion and dedication into the class as you would into any other, because that is how good art is made. They also want to see students making the effort to apply all of the useful lessons and techniques that they have refined from years of training and practice themselves. Art is subjective and expressive, yes, but good technique can most certainly be taught to a certain degree because it will make you better able to express yourself in the end. I wasn’t ecstatic with my drawing I grade last semester my prof’s criticisms pushed me to become a better artist which is all that really matters.

    In short, Williams says that it gives their students artistic avenues because it does. Too many, if anything, for those of us who are particularly into them. Maybe not everyone here cares about art, but that’s their fault and not the school’s. Williams put the “arts” in “liberal arts.”

    ~I won’t say I worked harder on this comment than I did writing my last paper, but I will say that I definitely could’ve spent the last 45 minutes reading for my tutorial instead.~

  4. To respond to the commentary on my article:

    hso1, you claim that if my suggestion were in place we still may not take art classes seriously, but I don’t follow your logic. The reason I suggest you have to take two is precisely to dissuade people who would view the course simply as a chance to dick around for two and a half hours a week. I’d also like to think (perhaps erroneously) that students here would only pursue art because of an interest in the field, not because of some juvenile attempt to goof off.

    Charlie, you argue that I (we) should become comfortable pursuing artistic endeavors on our own time, but that argument gives the arts a second-class status. Rarely would somebody say a student should explore his or her interest in 19th century European history, for example, on their own time in an extra-curricular manner. I also do not think the arts professors, or any professors, look to give students low grades, but art almost by definition is non-academic so to grade it in the same manner as a econ problem set seems questionable. While it is not the school’s responsibility to promote artistic expression, we actively promote interest in money-maker fields like economics and chemistry, so why not art? I just think there is a contradiction between school’s love of Art and art history (a perennial draw for perspective students), and what we actually do to enable artistic expression among our students.

    Sarah, to your point about how our student art work is out of the way–I don’t understand why that would be the case. Student art work does not need to be large-scale in order to be prominently placed. For example, the sculpture for the Reading Room is small–and it has also been compared to a post-Taco Tuesday defecation in some circles. Why couldn’t we have put there something by a student?

    I would also like to note for all those interested, that for winter study this year I will be doing a 99 in which I make a short narrative film. Maybe there is some hope after all.

    • When I referred to student work being “out of the way” I just meant that geographically the building where most student art is displayed is not in a central location, so students are not as naturally inclined to stop by and view work that’s on display which accounts for why it seems like the school isn’t encouraging participation i the visual arts. Whereas musical/dance/theater performances happen in Brooks Rogers, the ’62 center that people pass by every day so they’re more inclined to know about/see a performance. I agree with you that that doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be the case when it comes to the visual arts and I would like to see more of it around campus too, even on small scale!

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