New Course Studies Controversial Works of Art

Gannit Ankori
Gannit Ankori

A spring-semester course titled “Provocative Art: Outside the Comfort Zone” is examining contentious works of art and providing students with tools to discuss such material in a civil and productive manner.

The course was prompted by controversy that arose around the first draft of a play by Michael Weller ’65, originally slated to premiere at Brandeis last year. Weller began working on the play, “Buyer Beware,” during an on-campus residency in fall 2016, just as Brandeis opened its recently acquired archives of the late comedian Lenny Bruce.

In the early version of the play, a Brandeis student attempts to perform a Bruce routine on campus, drawing the ire of students who find the humor offensive. Real life mirrored art when some Brandeis students raised concerns about the content of “Buyer Beware” as well as its portrayal of several characters. The play’s production was postponed while faculty developed the “Provocative Art” course. Ultimately, Weller decided the play should premiere elsewhere.

The course is being led by Mark Brimhall-Vargas, chief diversity officer and vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, and Gannit Ankori, head of the Division of Creative Arts. A range of Brandeis faculty and staff will participate in discussions about works of visual art, theater, film, music and literature that provoke controversies, discomfort and other strong responses.

According to the syllabus, questions being explored include: “How do we engage in civil and open conversations about contentious and offensive issues? How can art help facilitate such conversations? How do we distinguish between ‘free’ speech that is legitimate and ‘hate’ speech that incites violence?”

During the semester, students will consider works by Lenny Bruce; discuss race and gender relations with visiting artist James Montford; participate in a spoken-word workshop with Jamele Adams, dean of students; and visit Boston’s ICA with artist Wangechi Mutu.

Weller, author of the plays “Moonchildren” and “Loose Ends,” and screenwriter of the films “Ragtime” and “Hair,” accepted the Brandeis Creative Arts Award on Jan. 23. Speakers at the presentation ceremony celebrated Weller’s award-winning career and acknowledged the bumpy recent chapter in his relationship with his alma mater.

At the event, President Ron Liebowitz said, “There is no ‘silver lining’ when people get hurt and misunderstandings abound. However, many members of our community realized that this truly difficult predicament must be seized and transformed into a significant educational opportunity.”