There is a strange and frustrating feeling of detachment when your art is taken out of your possession. This was something I learned last semester, when the emcees at Camp Kesem’s Mr. Rice event pointed out Mr. Brown’s auction poster — a large, laminated print of a photo I took, processed, and edited — and praised it. “This is art!” they said. “Support student artists and bid for this poster!” The unfortunate irony was that, throughout the many weeks Camp Kesem used student photography for this event, they never gave credit to the photographers involved. The only reason the word “art” even entered the conversation that night was because Mr. Brown took the opportunity to speak up and stand up for student artists. But, while he was genuine, the others were not intentional with their words, and they were completely missing the point.
There is a strange and frustrating feeling of detachment when your art is taken out of your possession.
I faced a very different but equally demoralizing situation when I was hired as a photographer for a professional on-campus office. They asked me to shoot events for Families Weekend, and then spent the next two weeks working to undercut and underpay in a way that showed a shocking disregard and lack of respect for student work. In an effort to get these photos taken and delivered as quickly as possible, they were disorganized, disrespectful, made impossible demands and treated me and my work like expendable commodities.
These two experiences were the embodiment of how social, academic and professional respect for student art and artists on campus (and the few departments that support us) is on the verge of extinction. If anything, appreciation for the arts has become another verbal trend, where we talk a lot but don’t do anything. In this specific case, it’s a trend that encourages a superficial appreciation of art without consideration for what that means in practice.
Humanities majors on campus face a constant threat of ridicule. We are loudly and often told that what we do is useless, irrelevant, unimportant or too easy. The irony of this is, these things are often said by the very same people who buy Starry Night mugs and Warhol posters, who visit all the trendiest modern art museums on their spring break trips just to post about it on social media. In the end, these behaviors are simply direct effects of the fact that we’ve learned to think of art as something to be collected and displayed not by merit of its own value, but rather solely for the benefit of the consumer’s public image. It is a commodification and an appropriation of art, as these things are detached from their meanings and origins, artist and art both stripped of their significance.
The most disappointing thing is that these are the attitudes we face from our own friends and peers. I realized very quickly that Rice’s social and academic cultures are not always cultures of respect. I spent months of my freshman year pretending I was undecided about my major, because within a few weeks here I learned to feel ashamed about wanting to study English, and later art as well. These judgments and attitudes are so deeply entrenched in our general culture, we have become desensitized to them. That needs to change.
So, here’s a fact about artists: You are not doing us a favor by commissioning our work. You are not giving us the gift of “exposure.” If you’re going to argue against the worth of liberal arts, don’t do it based on your choice to ignore the fact that there are millions of people doing meaningful, impactful, and even lucrative work with humanities degrees. As difficult as it may be to believe at an institution like Rice University, what we do and what we create is not for our resumes. We do it because it is our passion and our contribution to the spaces we exist in, and there is no reason that contribution should be inherently worth less than anyone else’s. We do not have to give you our time or our art, for any reason, ever. Camp Kesem — an otherwise admirable student group — and the on-campus office I worked with are only a few examples of this oblivious discrimination.
I’m not asking you to care about art if that’s not your thing. This is not about praise. This is not about being paid. It is not only about art majors, but about anyone who chooses to make art or care about it, in any and all of its capacities. If you’re going to say you care, prove it. Go to events, speak with substance and spread the word. But even if you’re not, know that you are still bound to think about and take responsibility for the effects of your language and your actions. Either way, respect your friends and the people around you by crediting their work and not devaluing it. Because if we are not capable of standing by each other to support or at the very least respect the genuine and constructive efforts of our peers, what can we really say for ourselves as a collective community? This is, at its simplest, a plea for that respect. I suppose the real irony is that we have to ask for it at a place like Rice, where we are constantly patting ourselves on the back for being diverse, accepting and forward-thinking.
I urge you to take a step back, and think again.