Encounters with Culture Encourages Consideration of New Forms of Art

Posted: December 5, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Catherine Ferraro

For the second time this week, you find yourself in line at Starbucks for another tall caramel macchiato with extra whipped cream.

As you settle into a table above the logo of the twin-tailed mermaid (from Greek mythology) and hook up your laptop to the coffeehouse’s Wi-Fi, customers speed in and out of the store, coffee cups in hand.

For most people, a trip to Starbucks is nothing more than a way to satisfy a coffee craving. However, Mason’s Encounters with Culture program encourages students to look at how ordinary aspects of their lives, such as going to movies, concerts and even Starbucks, can be considered art. The program also helps foster discussion and reflections between students and faculty on major social and ethical issues confronting the United States and society.

“Students don’t often consider these types of activities as art. They think of art in terms of a painting or sculptures at an art gallery,” says Susan Serafin, who was the graduate assistant for the program in the 2006-07 academic year. “Encounters with Culture will help them recognize that art is all around them, and they are always interacting with it.”

The program was established in 2006 as a joint project between the College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS). Steve Vallas, chair and professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, assembled a group of 10 faculty members from CVPA and CHSS to develop a program of using the arts to learn about continuing social issues.

“The goal of the Encounters with Culture program is to encourage students to perform their own research in areas of cultural and social engagement,” says Lynne Constantine, associate chair and assistant professor in the Department of Art and Visual Technology. “Students and faculty often look at art in completely different ways and don’t realize that it doesn’t have to be just paintings or sculptures.”

Constantine and Mark Jacobs, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, were awarded grants to conduct the program as University Life Faculty Fellows. The program is sponsored by the Office of the Provost and University Life.

To encourage reflection among students about art and its social implications, the program arranges for students to attend performances, lectures and other events. After the event, a facilitator guides students in a discussion of the event from a cultural and sociological perspective to help students understand how art often dictates the way people think and act.

Some of the events that have been scheduled include lectures on Chinese culture by Carma Hinton, Robinson Professor of Visual Culture and Chinese Studies; and the impact of hip-hop culture by Chayla Haynes, director of the office of Orientation and Family Programs and Services. In addition, the group has hosted film presentations and performances by various artists and authors. The group also tries to coordinate performances and lectures with Black History Month, Women’s History Month or other events that are already planned at Mason.

Events scheduled by the group are open to all students. Participants have come from a range of disciplines, including women’s studies, music and theater. With this variety, many different viewpoints can be shared about the performance and its social implications, according to Serafin.

In the future, Constantine and Jacobs would like the program to evolve into a class that would be cross-listed in CVPA and CHSS. The professors hope the class would foster doctoral research projects and allow students the opportunity to travel abroad.

For more information about Encounters with Culture, contact Constantine at 703-993-4554.

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