As the film cut to black at the end of the screening of Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi's "Z32" on Sunday, a perplexed audience waited in quiet anticipation for the director to approach the Harvard Film Archive podium. The group primarily consisted of salt-and-pepper heads and a handful of students with previous ties to the documentary's subject: the extensive moral strain on an Israeli soldier after his involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But the film did not suggest the outrage one would expect; it instead refused to convey a clear sense of Mograbi's attitude toward the conflict, whether he found the soldier's war crimes deplorable or forgivable. This was not propaganda; it was provocation.
Two days later, the arts and political world crossed paths on a national level. News hit the blogosphere about a conference call in August arranged by the White House and National Endowment for the Arts with a few dozen artists. Those who saw the meeting as a step toward a full Obama-administration takeover of an organization meant to uphold artistic integrity, a veritable propaganda machine for the president, cried "fascism." In a statement, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman responded, claiming that the "call was not a means to promote any legislative agenda and any suggestions to that end are simply false," further ensuring that the call was "completely unrelated to NEA's grant making, which is highly regarded for its independence and integrity." But despite varying opinions on the character of the call—one ABC News commentator said that he wasn't "sure how many laws that breaks, but I'm sure there are some"—the message that art and artists can be a powerful tool in influencing public political opinion came through loud and clear.
Harvard made much the same statement last December, when President Drew Faust announced the release of the long-awaited Report of the Harvard Task Force on the Arts. "[W]e have, in relation to the arts, failed to foster a sense of urgency," the Report said. "What is missing—what the university has yet sufficiently to recognize and to broadcast—is a sense that the arts matter, and not just for one's private pleasure, but for one's public person and career." As the University actively works to incorporate the arts into the education of its students both in and out of the classroom, politically-minded artwork has been appearing more frequently around campus. This past week alone featured a film on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an exhibition on Darfur, and ACT UP New York, an exhibition of over 70 politically-charged posters and visual media from AIDS activism, is slotted for mid-October.
As social and political issues heat up domestically and abroad, the need to get creative about informing Harvard students, and the greater public is becoming even more urgent.
When the Task Force outlined its recommendations for integrating the arts and education, it stressed the actual utility of creative pursuits, not simply the importance of aesthetic appreciation. Departments throughout the university are seeking to negotiate this line between artistic value and social resonance, though often placing greater emphasis on one aspect than the other.
For the HFA, while the main objective is to exhibit films that are visually challenging, the content's sophistication is also taken into consideration.
"We tend to avoid showing films whose main objective is to deliver information, to deliver an ideological message," says programmer David Pendleton of the HFA, "because we try to show films that have a certain aesthetic complexity."
This stylistic complexity can contribute to a film's overall intricacy, as in the case of "Z32," where the weighty conversation between the Isreali solider and his girlfriend is interspersed with Mograbi singing Grecian chorus style. The director effectively confounds the gravity of his subject matter with the frivolity of song, a component that offended Palestinian audiences when it was screened in the West Bank.
But whether Mograbi's work is sympathetic to the manipulation of the Israel Defense Forces, implicitly drawing the audience into a mass protection of the soldier's war crimes, or seriously questioning the tactics of the Israeli army, the point is, it triggers a consideration of these topics.
"Artists always have their own point of view and angles," says the Consul General of Israel to New England, Nadav Tamir, who co-sponsored the screening at the HFA. "You can't ask them to speak for a national narrative. It's always their story. And they play an important role in society in raising questions."
Using art to foster debate has been an approach that some Harvard departments have employed in service of veritas.
For Paul Beran at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, whose primary focus is academic rather than aesthetic, art is used to stimulate such discussion out of which academic truth can emerge.
"It's not at all about balance," he says, referring to an equal presentation of two contrasting sides of an argument. "I think balance is used to pigeonhole stuff; I think it's about understanding." But this thoughtfulness does not have to promote a particular agenda.
"For me, what separates propaganda from art is not the place from which the art comes, but are they approaching it from a place that is academically rigorous," Beran says. "Are they asking good questions?"
STUDENTS TAKING ACTION
Brightly-clad figures hang in photos on the wall near the Tsai Auditorium in the Center for Government and International Studies. Sudanese refugees invite passers-by to enter their camps through photos, taken by Mia Farrow and Brian Steidle among others.
The photographs—which will be moved later today—were first exhibited at the Democratic National Convention, but with the help of the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur, the Harvard Darfur Action Group has brought this small sampling to campus in an effort to inspire interest in their cause.
Trevor J. Bakker '10, one of the co-presidents of HDAG, hopes that the exhibition—which also includes paintings by Sudanese artists—will remind students on campus of a conflict in a faraway section of the world. To this end, the art is largely accessible; the photographs play with identifiable imagery, capitalizing on something that one may have once seen or felt.
"[This art] may reference things that people have already seen but try not to think about or just haven't thought about in a while," Bakker says. "I think when you see the image of the burning village in one of those photos, I think that's probably an image that many people saw back in 2004 or 2005, so that's a reference point."
The idea for bringing the exhibition to campus had been in the works since last year, shortly after the release of the Task Force Report, which helped the group get the ball rolling.
"We looked to the report of the Task Force on the Arts that was released because we felt that arts do have an important role to play in student's education at Harvard," Bakker says. "And in this case outside of the classroom…. "
"It's almost like puberty for the arts at Harvard."
Daniel R. Pecci '09 served as an undergraduate on the Arts Task Force and now works as the Program Associate for the American Reparatory Theatre's Club Oberon. He's moved from one side of the fence to the other; it's now his job to implement many of the recommendations that he helped to create. In a way, it's kind of like puberty for Dan too.
For the A.R.T., this means drawing more students to the theatre with more interactive, interesting works, such as this season's inaugural performance, "The Donkey Show." "I've never seen so many young people worried that they won't get into a show," Pecci says of the disco-club remake of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Though last week the Oberon featured "Water Board: A Play About Torture," there's still a long way to go before there will be students lining up outside to see a show about political misdeeds. The Arts Task Force's statement is only the first step.
The Task Force Report gave HDAG the "confidence to go ahead with [the exhibition]: applying for funding, looking for spaces…knowing that this was something the University had made a priority, bringing the arts to Harvard." It is really through this kind of symbolism that the Task Force itself, according to Pecci, has made the most impact.
"I feel like that sort of ignited this fire now," he says. "An excitement."
"Today, more than ever," the Report declared, "artistic practice will need to contribute to intellectual inquiry and help construct new forms of social practice."
Getting to this point will require a greater interest in the arts that encourages involvement in social causes, a tough feat for the smaller student groups that are often behind such efforts. In the end, for both art and social interests, infrastructure and hanging frames are not as important as people power.
"[W]e can't be with rose covered glasses about what art and film and photography can actually do," Professor Tamara Kay of the Sociology department said during the HDAG reception. "In thinking about the limitations and strengths, its actually very hard to measure the impact of an image."
—Staff writer Beryl C.D. Lipton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.