“And if you can’t afford it/You can still do thangs to show you ain’t on no dumb s***/
Take her to a gallery, museum or some s***” – Phonte, “Step It Up” by Little Brother
It occurred to me when I was watching the Ebony II performance on Saturday night that I am a snob. As group after group of enthusiastic dancers endearingly stumbled their way through unoriginal choreography over high-energy pop songs, I began to hit a breaking point. One can only endure so many mildly to overtly sexually suggestive dances before it becomes repetitive and crass.
But who am I to hate on Ebony, one of Carleton’s most popular, fun, and rewarding institutions? After all, I like Ebony conceptually for its deeply democratic principle of allowing anyone to perform, and I appreciate that there is an event on campus in which almost everyone on campus has a friend to support. I am probably consumed by some artificial sense of culture that compels me to think nothing short of massively endowed museums or extremely underground music shows are worth my artistic sensibility. Nonetheless, if the performance is not to be disparaged, it at least should be examined as part of a frustrating trend.
That is, Carleton has such a boring cultural scene. It’s not that we don’t have culture. We’ve got all kinds of plays, and the Concert Hall is always booked. The Cave is the oldest college pub in the country. We have an institutionalized break in classes to bring in guest speakers. Yet rarely is there an event at Carleton that truly excites students or offers something new. We can have all the a cappella shows we want, but it’s not as though we’re innovating much. When the most interesting thing that students have to look forward to on a weekend is a Sayles dance, something is wrong.
Many Carleton performance groups have long traditions behind them, and they have learned to conduct themselves and their performances in a way that works for them. This is understandable, and I do not wish to discourage Carleton performance groups from doing what they do, particularly as I am a part of one of them. Unfortunately, this means that our performance calendar has become entrenched and institutionalized. The events that we look forward to are always the same: Spring Concert, the Knights show on the last day of classes, DVDFest, Ebony. This is not to say that these aren’t fun events, but it would be great if there were other things happening that sparked student interest.
Part of the problem is that our community is simply too insular. What the cultural climate here needs more than anything else are opportunities to bring in interesting outside performers. I understand that it’s winter, that it’s a slow season, that we’re in a recession, but there has been little outside talent brought in lately, and it’s a shame. President Oden has made a verbal commitment to putting the arts in liberal arts, and the attention newly being given to some of the arts departments is great. However, part of students receiving a good artistic education is allowing them to experience the best of artists in a given field, and, as good as Carleton performance groups may be, they provide a skewed lens. Bringing in an experienced dance troupe or an interesting music act is something that students can both enjoy watching and learn from.
One of the large barriers to bringing in acts, though, is money. The student organizations that oversee activity planning, such as SPB and The Cave, have relatively limited budgets, and CSA does not have the discretionary spending budget to finance large initiatives. The result is that in order to bring in performers, the people organizing the event must turn to a number of sources, such as with this weekend’s Rokia Traoré concert, which is being sponsored by no fewer than eight organizations and departments. This makes planning events almost more trouble than they are worth, and it discourages students from taking the initiative to organize the events they are interested in seeing.
On one hand, students should be more innovative in their own approach to campus activities. Many of the events that seem inexorably institutionalized to us were new, student-driven ideas started just a few years before we arrived. I want to urge student ambition. If you have a passion for a certain comedian, band, hip hop dance crew, or monologist, bring them here. I’m sure many of us would be interested, too.
Yet, on the other hand, the college should be more receptive to cultural events happening on campus, and it would be nice to see more money diverted towards this end so that students do not find themselves at a loss to bring reasonably priced acts to campus because of a lack of money. If we want to emphasize the arts in liberal arts, we should have a better system of encouraging them.
-Kyle Kramer is a Carletonian columnist
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