By William Scott, Ph.D
“Don’t look at the walls,” a middle-aged woman warned as she herded a gaggle of children past the C Building walls used for decades by the art
department to display student projects. On their way to the Bellevue College classroom that their group rents for Sunday-school sessions, the
children were obviously being taught that art should be judged without looking at it because it is probably nasty and/or dangerous.
The projects on display come from drawing and design students as well as art appreciation and art history classes. Assignments range from multiple-perspective views of places and figures to exercises in color, line and texture, from ‘design a space using elements of a specific painting’ to ‘update a work of art in relation to current events or issues.’ Having helped hang many of the displays over more than two decades, I have noticed not only the variable quality of the projects from quarter to quarter but also the varied reactions of spectators. Often, people stop and chuckle or point out to companions the projects that catch their eye. Occasionally, a project may challenge viewers with its rudeness or tastelessness, but usually the projects exhibit deeper thought and greater imagination. Over the years, faculty, students and visitors have even purchased exceptional projects as works of art for their private collections. Of course, political and religious lampoons surface from time to time, and there’s always somebody who thinks another Monica Lewinsky joke might be clever. Mostly, though, students simply demonstrate with art their growing ability to express ideas and feelings with confidence.
Lately, computer technology has manifested itself in many ways in the art world, including the apparently common notion that a fuzzy computer printout is as good as or better than ‘old-fashioned’ color Xerox or, heaven forbid, actually drawing or painting something yourself. Meanwhile, ‘changing technology’ is putting the art department’s study space itself in jeopardy. What will become of the alcove and slide cabinets where students now gather not only to look at obsolete analog images but also to talk together about what they see? Were will they be able to discuss freedom of speech, rights, and responsibilities of renters, public display of art in a college building, the need for more, not less communal study space, the benefits and limitations of computer technology, or questions of humor, manners and taste? Were else can students debate why art mocking Jesus can be deemed acceptable while art mocking Mohammad apparently cannot?
Building C is the only building on campus that has never been renovated. Will computer viewing station be made available to students once the college can afford to digitalize its extensive slide collection and remodel its facilities, or will a place for social interaction be sacrificed to the notion that you can stay at home and get all the education you need by yourself online without having to risk encountering anything unpleasant in the outside world?
When students study together they reinforce mutually what they have learned independently, and in the process they have the opportunity to discuss the good, the bad and the ugly art, and to exchange opinions about it. Freedom of speech enables both makers and ‘consumers’ of art to tackle controversial political or religious issues.
Ironically, an art class is one of the few places in the public school system that legally can present and discuss religious imagery. Some students have even claimed that they learn more about their religion from art than they do from church.
None of this will matter if you scurry past the ‘art’ to the safety of a rented art-free zone, avoiding contamination of the brain by the sight of any actual art projects.
Perhaps the extra money outside groups pay the administration to rent classroom space justifies their complaining about the art as they abscond with the stools and benches from the shabby communal study area the art students share. (Please put them back). Maybe the alibis of ‘changing technology’ and ‘the serious economic situation’ will make the need to study together obsolete while convincing us that a single blurry digital image viewed on a mobile phone or a 17” monitor at home is better than two giant slide images clearly projected side by side on wall-sized screens for an entire classroom full of students to look at, compare, contrast and discuss together.
Or maybe not. I just hope they don’t make discussing controversial issues against the rules. In words or in art. I don’t think what people say matters much if they have no place to a it and no one to say it to.