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Jamie Block: Don't alienate the arts with another living-learning community

BY JAMIE BLOCK
Daily Local Arts Policy Columnist
Published March 16, 2010

There are a lot of delicious foods out there in the world, and I myself enjoy a tasty treat every once in a while. Sometimes, I’ll even combine two of these delicious items together to make an even more delicious entity. But even someone with as little cooking experience as I have knows that you can’t just throw a bunch of random-yet-tasty ingredients into a pot and expect a good result.

I fear that in creating the new living-learning community Living Arts on North Campus, the University and the Arts on Earth Program have made this same culinary error. All the individual parts are worthwhile, but the idea as a whole might not be constructive.

Inspired by a University class on the creative process and slated to initiate next fall, the goal behind the community is to encourage the sharing of creative ideas across disciplines and to get students more involved in the arts on campus. Beyond that, not much has been specifically laid out. The plan is to let much of the programming arise naturally from the students’ creativity.

On a checklist, this seems like an awesome new option. Being in a think tank with my fellow creative minds? Seems awesome. Getting inside access with performers and lecturers who come from across the nation and the world? Seems yet more awesome. Living next to people with whom I may actually have something in common? Seems awesome for me, but maybe not so awesome overall.

In essence, Living Arts is a Residential College on North Campus, and it’s likely to develop a similar reputation. Now, I’m a member of the RC, I love the RC and I would recommend the RC to anyone. But there's one problem with the RC that I'm afraid will rear its ugly head again in Living Arts. If we put all the people with pink mohawks, a bajillion piercings and off-the-wall artistic projects in one place, there will be some level of alienation.

I’m certainly not blind to the stigma that all RC students are crazy progressive liberals with weird hair and hobbies. Many of us here in the RC make the same comments, but in a more loving tone. I worry, though, that Living Arts will be a second beacon of alienation. It is a place that the artistically reluctant could see as a corral, keeping those weirdos contained in a single area, a safe distance from the rest of the students.

When a certain group of people is deemed the "artistic group," outsiders are even less likely to get involved. It’s like when the girl you had a crush on in middle school would dance in a circle with her friends. You’re far less likely to talk to her if you have to break into an established group. Trust me, I was a shy little kid. It’s intimidating.

Instead of implementing the Living Arts plan into a specific community, why not just have similar programs that are universally available? If we want a creative think tank, we don’t need to take the “tank” part literally by making everyone live together. The nobler effort would be to create some special program or campus group that made a conscious effort to recruit artistic thinkers not only across the disciplines, but also across campus. Not only does this provide a more diverse perspective, but it allows the students to share the ideas they learn from other program members with the people around them. In Living Arts, you wouldn't be able to share these ideas with your community because your ideas came from within that community.

And there’s really nothing Living Arts wants to do that can’t be done on this broader scale. If the people behind the program think there ought to be a chance to have some casual conversation time with the speakers and performers the ‘U’ brings in, they should certainly arrange this. But why not make it available to everyone? To be honest, there aren’t enough people who would have the interest and free time to attend every event, so overcrowding should hardly be a worry. Besides, nobody reads flyers or campus-wide event e-mails, so most people won’t even know the opportunity exists. This way it’s still a self-selecting program, but without the corral.

Basically, Living Arts is taking the wrong approach to the right ideas. Perhaps the culinary comparison could use some revision. If I want to make a delicious smoothie (and why wouldn’t I?) I will get some delicious fruits and throw them in the blender. Living Arts aims to make itself a smoothie too (I mean, who doesn’t love smoothies?). But while all its fruits are ripe and tasty looking, they’re getting thrown into a wok instead of the ultimate blender that is our campus. And if Living Arts were a bit further reaching, maybe someone involved could have stopped me before I used this artistically appalling metaphor.