Art as Social Action

Posted: November 9, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Ryann Doyle

On Halloween last Wednesday, the recurring chant “Go Mason, go green,” spread across the campus and rang through Mason’s hallways. The Art as Social Action students put on a “Day of the Dead Parade,” where they dressed up in creative costumes made out of trash and recycled materials, and paraded through campus to raise awareness about sustainability.

Art as Social Action instructors, Lynne Constantine, associate chair of Art and Visual Technology, and Suzanne Scott, term associate professor in New Century College, were amazed at the variety and creativity of the students’ costumes.

“There was everything from two women in sequins and rollerblade gear representing the crass materialism of the ‘80s, to someone in a gas mask reflecting the possible fate of our atmosphere, to costumes made of trash bags, water bottles and discarded packaging, to someone whose costume represented the loss of habitat for butterflies,” said Scott.

The goal of the parade was to replace wastefulness with creativity. It was also a way of creating community with those who share their goals of sustainability and of expressing hope for a better future for the planet. The parade honored the traditional Day of the Dead holiday, which celebrates the way our bonds with those we love outlast their absence from our day-to-day lives.

“We put the parade into the course syllabus because we really resonate with the idea of the bonds between the seen and the unseen, and among past, present and future that is a theme of traditional Day of the Dead celebrations,” says Constantine. “Particularly when you’re talking about sustainability, where the actions of past and present directly affect the future of the world’s climate, it seems appropriate.”

Constantine and Scott co-created the Art as Social Action class in 2003, and it is only offered every other fall semester.

“This course takes away the classroom walls and bridges out of the protected classroom environment into the community as learning environment,” says Constantine. “That’s an important lesson because it reminds students that their education brings with it a wider form of responsibility as citizens and leaders.”

Students encounter artworks by artists for whom social engagement is the inspiration for art-making, and for whom the social encounter itself becomes a creative medium. Through lectures, demonstrations, studio work, field trips and group and individual projects, students explore theoretical, historical and practical issues related to socially engaged art-making in a variety of media and environments.

“We try to help our students learn that socially engaged art is more than just making protest posters — it helps movements define themselves, get themselves through the tough times, and clarify the messages they want to communicate,” says Scott.

Some of the objectives of the class are to understand that all art springs from particular historical, social and cultural circumstances; to recognize that culture is a creative process, not merely expressive, within social movements; and to invigorate their own artistic or appreciative practice with the experience of having participated in art interventions.

“The students do four projects during the term, each of which has an interactive component. They learn that art creates conversations. Art creates community, even when the art is controversial or challenging to people’s aesthetic expectations,” says Constantine.

For more information on the Art as Social Action class, please contact Lynn Constantine.

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