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COLUMN: Boston College's Missing Artistic Identity

Wiley's Follies

Arts & Review Editor

Published: Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Updated: Thursday, February 27, 2014 10:02

Whenever I get the chance to speak with an artist on campus, I find myself tagging the same question to the end of each interview: why do the arts matter at Boston College? The answers I get are never quite what I’m hoping they’ll be—they seldom get published, and when they do, they get drastically condensed. The responses tend to have a lot more to do with personal opinions than with the school itself. The more students I ask, the more convinced I become that there isn’t anything that intrinsically attracts artists to BC.

If I tried asking a similar question of athletes—why do sports matter at BC—I imagine the responses would be filled with long histories of BC athletics: lists of players, championship titles, current records of teams, names of influential coaches. Students very directly correlate athletics with the image of the University, while performance groups, and individual artists, are looked on as having histories very separate from the school.

Perhaps it’s unreasonable to imagine any Division I school would be defined by its artistic culture. It’s not like alumni are going to dust off their best BC apparel to tailgate a Sexual Chocolate show. The “We are BC” chant is unlikely to break out at a Hello…Shovelhead! performance, and after a great show at the Bonn, the crowd isn’t going to come out with statements like, “Wow, we really looked good today.” The arts will inherently make for less of a “we” and more of an “it” or “them” conversation.

BC has no exceptional reputation as a place for arts, and the reason I keep asking the question of “why here” is that I’m really surprised it doesn’t. Admittedly, it’s not an art school, but when it comes to college tours and even the literature that the University puts out for prospective students, the school’s many performing groups and active artists are often underrepresented. Coming to BC, I had no idea the theatre department could put together shows that could rival anything in professional theatre, or that BC is home to two of the Northeast’s premier step teams. There’s little discussion of the school’s vibrant community of spoken word artists or its competitive circle of comedy groups.

A lot of the issues with diversity at BC boil down to the disproportionate emphasis placed on very select aspects of its culture. The problem is not that the students here are too much alike, but rather that the generally accepted identity of the University suggests they are, when so clearly they’re not. BC is looked at as a monolith, and the effects can be stifling.

Artists at BC seem reticent to associate their work with the identity of the University, and in many cases, see what they do as something entirely separate. It’s not obvious to them why the arts would matter specifically to BC, and they’re not ready to think of their work in terms of the question. On one level, it speaks to the honest motives of BC artists, but on another, it indicates that the arts have been given no real place in the oral history of the University. While other area colleges like Emerson, MIT, and Harvard have built the arts into their identities, BC has kept performances groups on the fringes.

Perhaps embedded in the vague answers of these artists is the sense that, if they were to scrutinize the importance of the arts at BC, they would be confronted by the fact that they don’t especially fit into the school’s ongoing narrative. They’re not so ready to commit their stories to the monolith, and they’re relatively comfortable with the idea that their lives as performers are something separate from their identities as BC students.

Although the artists themselves might not be losing much in keeping this distinction, however, the University is. While the dialogue surrounding athletics does well in boosting the esteem of the school, for many students, there’s something to be desired in the way we talk about ourselves. In theory, “We are BC” could be a powerful statement on diversity, when in practice, it means little more than “we’re just fans.” I think it’s about time we start a new conversation on what it means to be an Eagle.

So why do the arts matter at BC?

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