An end-of-year reflection: taking art out of the abstract

by Shelby Grebbin / Beacon Staff • April 20, 2016

Dancers in a room of mirrors can never miss a step. More glide into the music, and the formation of sleek figures is fraught with a brief frenzy of confusion—a distraction remedied by a tune the performers already know.

Emerson College exists as a grand ballet of dancers—dancers who dance; dancers who sing; and dancers who write, make movies, report stories, and make media and art. But who for? With students creating films about racial inequality, poetry readings about feminism, zines about body image, and plays about intolerance, the answer seems clear. We perform for something much more than ourselves—we speak for social justice.  

Yet, sometimes I wonder who’s listening. It’s no secret that the idea of a culture of inclusion at Emerson is, in many cases, nothing more than an idea. Sure, when controversy arises within our immediate environment, students from across majors and mindsets will drop a line—as they should. And when we voice our anger regarding issues of racial diversity or sexual assault in our collegiate realm, the world pays attention. But when we dance, we tend to reach for the closest partner—working only with fellow students who, regardless of race, sexual orientation, or gender identity, usually come from varying levels of privilege.

The writing is on the wall. If we continue to collaborate only with our classmates, our walls will likely crumble before they expand—crushed under the weight of stories we’ve all heard before. I’m not saying there isn’t value in the projects we work on with our peers in the name of social change. I’m saying there is a difference between social change and social chivalry. Opening the door for diversity is different than tearing down the framework that forces it to be pardoned in.

Emerson exists in a city which, like most cities, is torn between strife and success. The ideal scenario for creating change has always been that those with more help those with less. To even pursue higher education in Boston is to have the most. Students studying engineering at Northeastern University can set their sights on the physically palpable—a safer bridge, a solution to carbon emissions, or a more sustainable way to produce food. Likewise, pre-med students at Tufts University can use their degrees in tangible ways like performing operations, seeking cures for diseases, and caring for patients. At Emerson College, we are governed by the presumption that our art is destined to affect real change simply by being there.

This is not to say that art is not important. It’s a vital form of expression, a language with the capability to extend across barriers. This year, I’ve interviewed many of Emerson’s artists on their work. Seeing students’ faces light up while describing their passions evokes a wonderful feeling—one that remains unshared beyond the bounds of our Boylston block.

The Bird Street and Emerson Civic Engagement Project is one of the few programs on campus that goes beyond the abstract notion of social change through artistry. The Bird Street Community Center of Dorchester is a non-profit youth center that serves at-risk children and young adults in Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, Hyde Park, and Jamaica Plain. In recent years, a handful of Emerson students have worked with these students on speeches, essays, and presentations.

Last month, students from the Bird Street Community Center and Emerson collaborated on a talent show that featured dance, poetry, and song.

Gregory Payne, chair of the communication studies department, advises the civic engagement program. When interviewed last month, Payne said he would like to see more social outreach projects on campus.

“If we had more activities like this here at Emerson we would not have some of the strife and tensions that are prevalent,” Payne said in that interview. “I don’t mean to say that this solves all problems, but I think that it’s one thing to read a book or have a discussion with people like you, but if you are truly engaging in the community the way that this project is doing, it is a remarkable learning experience for both sides.”

In February, I wrote about the pressure students at Emerson feel to succeed immediately and indefinitely in their artistic careers. I didn’t have a precise remedy to our fear of failure then, but I do now. By seeking out human connections outside of our immediate circles, we achieve beyond the limited success of our creations. We can do more with our art here at this college—by bringing the idea of social change from the abstract to the actual.