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The Dartmouth
May 30, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

What Could It Mean? Exploring Art’s Relationship to Activism at Dartmouth

Students and faculty at Dartmouth reflect on how their artistic endeavors have strived to catalyze social change.

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This article is featured in the 2024 Winter Carnival special issue. 

Art is inherently intertwined with the world that inspired the artist. Art often reflects the state of the world, and while it is used to shed light on the world’s problems, some artists use their art to heal the problems they notice. Curator of academic programming at the Hopkins Center for the Arts Samantha Lazar and two artists in the community, Katie McCabe ’21 and Daniel Lin ’23, share their experiences using art as a form of activism. 

Lin is currently an Edward Connery Lathem ’51 Digital Library Fellow who digitizes data and creates digital exhibits. Combining his passions for music and activism, one of his current endeavors, which he calls the “Black Creative Music Project,” is an archival effort to source old recordings of jazz artists that have visited Dartmouth, process them and then send them out to be digitized. Lin has also been looking into the digitization of Rauner Special Collections Library’s jazz reel-to-reels, which he says serve as a relic for the College’s history with jazz. 

“Rauner has a pretty significant history of jazz and Black creative music, and they’ve had a very complicated relationship with it,” Lin explained. “I am planning to have a digital exhibit for the digitized works to advertise the fact that Dartmouth has this really, really deep collection of jazz and Black-created music history. People should know more about it.”

Lin’s other work in music and activism includes an independent project he completed his senior year: a four-part musical composition based on his research on the history of Asian American studies and Asian American activism, generally, at Dartmouth. Lin described the project as a musical interpretation of his feelings regarding this history that he later performed in conjunction with a final exposition of his research. Lin discussed the impact of the medium of art as a vessel for dispersing and observing social issues and phenomena. 

“Music can be a mode for introducing conversations with people who would otherwise not be receptive to just being talked at,” Lin said. “Music is tied up in struggle and collective liberation for all people; it's something that cannot be separated, like art cannot be separated from someone's life experiences and from the state of the world. Art and music can be used as an escape, but that doesn’t mean they’re in a vacuum and separate from whatever’s happening in someone's daily life. I think the question: ‘Why are you making this art so political?’ in itself, is a political statement, because the person who asks this believes they are removed from what is happening in the world.”

Also invested in the inextricability of art and politics is Lazar, who is a performance scholar in addition to her role at the Hop as curator of academic programming. In her role at the Hop, Lazar is very involved in the process of selecting which performances to feature and especially enjoys working with pieces that push discourse. 

“We don’t shy away from performance with a strong message,” Lazar explained. “Even if it’s controversial, I think it is imperative that we bring performances from people with different perspectives to shine light and show new ways of engaging with these topics.”

Recently, Lazar moderated the performance “Kristina Wong for Public Office,” a comedy show that discussed current political and social issues. Lazar reflected on some stand-out moments of Wong’s performance.

“Wong tailored it to her audience, referencing New Hampshire politics and making comments that were pointed toward specific audience members,” she said. “Once she said, ‘Asian Americans have the lowest voting turnout percentages’ and then she looked right at an Asian American student in the front row and was like, ‘Come on!’”

Lazar emphasized the effectiveness of performance and comedy as a medium for delivering this message and others. She credits comedy as an effective genre of performance due to its unique ability to connect and build rapport with audiences.

“Nobody wants to just go hear some sad, depressing presentation about how terrible things are, but those things can be much more palatable if they’re enjoyable to experience,” Lazar said. “If it’s comedy that houses that kernel or more of truth, then that allows you to be incisive and crack into an important issue.”

Lazar also highlighted the Hop’s Arts Integration Initiative as a method of promoting arts and activism on campus. The initiative is backed by a grant program that has allocated around $100,000 over the past few years to projects which combine the arts and other disciplines, often  relating to social impact. She cited activism as a critical aspect for a promising proposal. 

“We always have an eye out for social activism because what’s the point of art, other than to just bask in beauty, if not to change the world, right?” 

Despite such programming making strides in integrating arts and activism into campus culture, there are still gaps that other community members attempt to fill with their own work. McCabe is an artist of many media, but cited music as her primary means of expression. She sees her art’s relationship with activism as an inevitable result of the world she inhabits, rather than an intentional commentary. 

“I feel like, especially because I don’t identify as an activist, the reality of what’s happening is more that I’m really f***ing angry at so many things. And that shows up in my work. I have a line about animal rights in half of my work because it’s just something that’s on my mind,” McCabe said.

Reflecting on her time as a Dartmouth student, McCabe lamented the lack of gender diversity in sectors of the music community. 

“There’s such an unspoken boys club around music,” she said. “At Dartmouth, specifically, that drove me insane because I didn’t see a single woman play in a band my entire time in undergrad, and nobody else noticed. There are just a lot of unspoken issues and underrepresented communities.”

McCabe said she seeks to challenge these norms through her music by creating something that subverts ingrained societal hierarchies and creates space for underexpressed ideas and perspectives. 

“I really have no interest in art that reproduces the status quo,” she said. “This is something that drives me crazy. A lot of the art and activism crossover for me is trying not to reproduce any power structures that I haven't thought hard about. I try to remember that I need to hear how my work fits other people's ears — to hear how they feel unrepresented in my things, and I feel unrepresented in theirs.”

This being said, McCabe also contemplates the nuances of the authenticity of a piece that is driven by a visible agenda. She questions if music with a clear ideological goal can effectively reach an audience, or if knowing this intention contaminates the experience of listening and reception. 

“Sometimes music and activism can feel contrived because it feels like artists are mapping their activism onto their art, and it’s too direct; you can see the agenda that they’re trying to push,” she said. 

Rather, McCabe said she prefers to use her music as a catalyst for conversation that otherwise might not happen, something more interactive than a standalone sentiment. 

“I want people who love me, or like me or recognize me to have a conversation with me through my music that we haven’t had the courage to say otherwise, or haven't had the avenue to talk about. Because it’s really hard to sit down and have a conversation about hard things.”

McCabe attributed a relative lack of activism, as it would traditionally be defined, among the Dartmouth student population to the school’s all-consuming intensity.

“I think that students, especially at an intense institution like Dartmouth, don't often have emotional availability to take on big questions [and] don’t have the bandwidth to take on more processing. I think activism is kind of limited here by the fact that everyone is already barely staying afloat, let alone [looking] at the ugly things within themselves and [contemplating] them and how they're situated within them. Everyone's just got like 5% to give.”

Lin, when considering this trend, echoed McCabe’s observation of a lack of traditional activist behaviors among the student body but argued that many Dartmouth students enact social change in other ways.  

“I don’t think activism happens so explicitly at Dartmouth, but there are less explicit forms, like making space for yourself in a space that historically has not allowed you,” Lin said. “In terms of women who are DJs, women who play jazz, for example, I think that is a form of activism. Or at Dartmouth, a predominantly-white institution, being non-white, creating space for yourself and drawing attention to histories that aren’t talked about — that is activism.”