“I want students to see that art is not isolated from life. Art is a tool for understanding yourself and your world.”
Erin Thompson, JD, PhD, is in her fourth year of teaching the Macaulay Honors College seminar Arts in New York City. This class, the first of four required seminars, challenges Macaulay students to examine performances and exhibitions from the multiple perspectives of scholarship, creativity, and production.
“I look for arts experiences with a social purpose,” said Thompson. She said that students often come in thinking, “Why do I have to do take this art course? I want to save the world!”
“But then they see why art matters,” said Thompson. “As they learn to analyze art, they’re also learning to analyze the visual culture we live in. A painting or an opera works on your emotions the same way as a political ad.”
By the end of the term, Thompson said, students are asking a different question: “Why weren’t we ever exposed to the arts?”
“So we talk about their schools. We talk about the barriers that institutions like museums unwittingly impose. And then I challenge students to do something.”
One student video-recorded an impassioned plea to open the Museum of Sex to people under 18 so they could connect with its records of LGBTQ experiences. Another conducted hidden-camera interviews asking whether New York City museum cafeterias offered kosher food.
As an example of how justice infuses all art, Thompson offers students’ reaction to the 1926 opera Turandot by Giacomo Puccini. “This opera is Italian, but it’s set in China. Why aren’t the performers Chinese? Should they be?”
Thompson said that simply bringing up such questions is enough to spark lively debates. “These are Macaulay students. They are so enthusiastic and engaged that I just sit back and let them run with it.”