For Art’s Sake

How far will Marlboro students go in the name of self-expression? It seems to me that they would dig their way to China, if that’s what it took to put up something called a public art wall. Members of the Public Art Committee and a sturdy crew of volunteers began work on the long-awaited and much-anticipated wall d’art last week. At first I thought it was just some sort of performance art when I saw students sticking their heads into four deep holes, strategically placed between the library and the science building. Wrong. It turned out that they were just digging holes for the wall, getting a little lesson in Vermont geology as they discovered armloads of glacial till below the grassy surface of Potash Hill.

This week, after making very sure that all students were extracted from the holes first, the committee has overseen the placement of four sturdy posts held in place with cement footings. At first the four posts were tastefully held in place by angled braces, leaving me to wonder if they symbolized the artistic tension between form and function and the fragility of meaning in the internal post-apocalyptic landscape? Wrong again: this is still not the art, Rembrandt. That will come later. For now, two spans of whitewashed plywood “wall” are attached to these posts, looking very much like billboard ads for Antarctica. One wall is oriented north-south and the other is oriented east-west. All of campus is eager to see what manner of art will show up on these hallowed walls, but in the mean time they may be helpful in orienting students who get lost on their way to the science building.

 

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The Axis of Etiquette

When you visit someone in Iran, they don’t even ask if you would like something to drink, some coffee or tea or seltzer or Vitamin Water or Diet Coke, they merely set tea down in front of you. That’s why it just felt right when Hooman Majd, Iranian-American journalist and author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, sat down to tea on Tuesday in the Campus Center with a group of interested students. Hooman has an up-close and personal knowledge of Iranian society and politics: although he grew up mostly outside of Iran his father was a diplomat under the Shah’s regime and his grandfather was an Ayatollah; he has visited the country many times over the years and personally knows several major players.

The students were eager with lots of complicated questions, and Hooman had the complicated responses for each, holding forth with informed opinions and insightful stories. Like any other nation or culture you look at longer than a sound bite, Iran is, well, complicated, and Hooman helped us navigate the winding roads of the Islamic Republic like an expert and very chatty taxi driver.

Just for an example, Hooman writes about the importance of a Persian social ritual known as ta’arouf, a sort of self-depreciating graciousness that runs through everything from retail transactions to national politics. Just settling a cab fair may take several exchanges of “How much do I owe,” “It’s unworthy, forget it,” “Please, I beg you, let me pay you,” “Please, you are my guest” and so on. Even if the goal in the end is to gain some advantage, it’s not exactly the image you typically conjure up for one third of the so-called “axis of evil.” Actually, it sounds infuriating to an impatient American like me, but ta’arouf also helps explain some of the paradoxes found in Iran today. Hooman went on to explore these in detail at an evening lecture titled “Modern Iran: the people, their lives and what makes them tick.”

 

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Food, Glorious-Looking Food

“You are what you eat,” or so the saying goes. Well, okay, I can see some huge practical obstacles to this bit of advice, but if we take it at face value then some Marlboro students were particularly stunning yesterday afternoon. This is because they were learning to carve beautiful botanical shapes out of carrots and cucumbers, which some of them promptly ate. Most of the students assembled in the dining hall were part of anthropology professor Carol Hendrickson’s class called Food and Culture. While other classes were busy pondering the significance of transcendental idealism, or something similarly abstract, these lucky students were getting tangible vegetable-carving tips from Tukta Long, a gifted chef and food artist from Thailand.

Tukta made carving a flower out of a carrot look as simple as trimming your fingernails, but of course it was much harder than trimming fingernails for the rest of us mere mortals. I mean, nimble young hands that might deftly cut a bagel or write Arabic calligraphy or play a guitar suddenly looked all thumbs when it came to carrot petals. I have to honestly report that some of the carrot flowers looked more like carrot pinecones or carrot hedgehogs or, simply, mistreated carrots. Still, the results were what you could call attractive, at least before they were rapidly eaten. So rapidly I was left to wonder if there are enough raw vegetables available at meals. Along with cultural food practices like carving vegetables almost too beautiful to be eaten, Carol’s students are also looking at less tangible things like the political economy of diet, food and globalization and something she calls gustatory meaning systems. Whatever these are, if they are anywhere near as practical and satisfying as carving vegetables they will serve these students for many meaningful years to come.

 

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