New Creative Arts class explores difficult theater and art

January 19, 2018

Aiming to explore controversial art and theater, CA 125: Provocative Art: Outside the Comfort Zone is a new course offered this spring. The course is taught by Professor Gannit Ankori (CA) and Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas plus a variety of guest lecturers. It comes in place of a theater department production of the play “Buyer Beware” by Michael Weller ’65.

Weller was named the 2017 recipient of the Brandeis Creative Arts Award and commissioned to write a play for the theater department. After obtaining a draft script, however, some students objected to the play’s language and treatment of minority characters.

Brandeis originally announced plans to offer a course alongside the play’s production, but ultimately, due to student opposition and difficulty in coordinating with the administration, Weller decided to withdraw his work.

Weller will still accept the Creative Arts Award on Tuesday, Jan. 23, and the course plans to discuss the issues raised in “Buyer Beware.”

Brimhall-Vargas described the role “Buyer Beware” played in creating the class, stating, “The turbulence around provocative art made us realize that in fact a venue, a setting to actually explore provocative art in an academic way was missing from campus.” He continued, “We realized that this is a good opportunity to bring students through a structured process, to engage intentionally difficult material, and to provide students an opportunity to view it through a variety of lenses.”

The course plans to discuss and analyze provocative works of art, as well as the issues they raise, ranging from major themes in works of art to the larger context of freedom of speech, civil discourse and expression. The class does not have the rights to “Buyer Beware,” so the play itself will not be used in class. However, Ankori is hopeful for Weller’s participation.

“Since many of our students expressed interest in hearing Weller’s perspective, we’re hoping that he would be willing to come towards the end of the course to engage with students,” said Ankori, adding that a visit by Weller scheduled to take place Jan. 24 is slated to be an extra-credit activity for students of the class.

Professor Thomas Doherty (AMST) is hosting Weller on campus in an event sponsored by the American Studies Program and Division of Creative Arts on Jan. 24. The event is free and open to the public and will take place in Levine-Ross at 10 a.m.

Provocative Art: Outside the Comfort Zone is taught by Gannit Ankori, a member of the Brandeis Creative Arts Faculty for the last seven years, and Mark Brimhall-Vargas, the Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Ankori is teaching several other arts courses this semester and has taught classes on difficult topics such as violence, rape and the Holocaust in the past. For Brimhall-Vargas, whose background is in facilitating and mediating discussion, this course will be his first.

The course plans to engage with a variety of content, including a discussion of the legacy of Lenny Bruce and a discussion of race and gender with visiting Native and African-American artist James Montford.

Ankori elaborated on the content, saying, “We’re talking about difficult materials that relate to sexuality, to gender, to identity in general, to race… violence, death. I mean, we’re not talking about art as just something that’s aesthetically pleasing. We’re talking about art that addresses profound issues that relate to the complicated and often conflicted experience of being human.”

Many Brandeis employees will assist with the course. Students will discuss spoken word with Dean Jamele Adams, study Anne Sexton’s “Briar Rose” with Professor Dawn Shorszewski (ENG) and explore gender and art in the Middle East with Dean Eric Chasalow, according to the syllabus. The course will take students out of the classroom several times, venturing to the Lenny Bruce Archives with Professor Emeritus Stephen Whitfield and the Rose Art Museum with director Luis Croquer.

The course is comprised of participation in class discussions, weekly journal writing assignments and a final presentation where students will choose an artwork and elaborate on why it is provocative and important.

CA 125 meets between 2 and 4:50 on Fridays in Shiffman Humanities Center. The class is currently at the student limit with 35 students enrolled, and others, according to Ankori, are requesting to join. The course will be offered again in Spring 2019.

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