What Did We Do?

The final class of “Arts and Social Engagement” included group presentations of a diorama of an exhibit about advertisements, a multi-case investigation of the intertwining of art and politics, and a proposal for changes to the new University Center to highlight more art and expression from students (which we started off in class, above). The occasion of the ending of the class invites the question: what did we do?

This particular formulation of reflection comes from Doris Sommer in her book, The Work of Art in the World (Duke, 2014). Sommer argues that the arts and humanities train us in “free, disinterested judgment.” The arts are a realm that do not really matter – they enrapture by pleasure not function, they work by provocation rather than specific result. And their power in the world comes from this nonlinear direction. The inspirations of the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Antanas Markus, is her exemplary case. In a city racked by corruption and chaos, he sent out clowns rather than police to direct traffic. The unexpected grabbed attention, interrupting fear and apathy. That interruption allowed for a clown to create a bit of an order (and pleasure?). A bit of order on the streets renewed a bit of hope in change and city government.

Sommer then considers how we can teach this. Her primary example is that of re-making classic novels from recycled materials, an approach developed in Latin America and now spreading around the world (see pre-texts.org). In essence, though, the lesson is Dewey’s: learn by doing. Perhaps particularly in learning about art, we need to make. The humanities quotient then enters: what did we do? Create, judge. Make, explain. Do, reflect.

I did this more in the Arts and Social Engagement class than I have done in any other class, and I think it was a crucial element of its success. Making a rap song, reflecting on the topic that emerged, the process, and the outcome. Encouraging group projects that had some form of doing beyond writing a paper – creating a diorama, writing and performing a monologue, asking all of us to draw a mandala and then interpreting them. Many students gravitated to the model of creative arts therapy. And perhaps a therapeutic end only clarifies and makes more individual the larger social good that Sommer describes. I would change the final reflection paper, though, to ask the question what did we do (or some variant of it), asking them to add judgment to imagination.

In addition to making, we also went off the syllabus to talk about events happening outside on the streets — literally. We discussed the grand jury decisions of the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, and the arts seemed ancillary at best and irrelevant at worst to this pressing moment. Some students exhorted us to stop talking and start doing; others wanted more facts and less discursiveness. As with much about the arts, humanities, and education, there was no clear end or outcome at that moment.

A truism about comedy is that it is tragedy plus time. The same may be true about art. But if there’s some use to the arts in the midst of despair, it could be the spark of optimism and hope at their core — the will to make, do, create — when there is every reason not to.