This article was originally published in The Grape, Oberlin's best and only alternative newspaper.
This was my first year as tribute in the Hunger Games. I kid, I kid. It was my first time at Art Rental. But I did find Art Rental this year a bit cutthroat, fluctuating between semi-sober students squabbling in the Allen courtyard to a dystopian chaos akin to a Lord of the Flies sentimentality. The order, or lack of order, that arose in the absence of authority, and the questions this provoked, prove to be a rather fascinating case study of how Art Rental, a process meant to leave us with fantastic works of art, in fact leaves us rather fanatical and flustered.
I don’t want this article to be a play by play of events, but in order to get to the meat (sorry not sorry vegans) of the story; I feel a brief recap is necessary. As a prefatory comment, this is how I personally interpreted the events - and as such the following is incredibly biased and totally awesome and absolutely correct.
Late Friday morning before Art Rental, a student arrived in the courtyard, and being the first individual there, posted a set of rules and a signup list. As in years past, this list functioned on roll calls – where you would periodically check in throughout the day/night to hold your place in line. The only amendment made to this process was the addition of proxies: people you could send in lieu of yourself if you were otherwise occupied. Other than this, the hundred plus people who signed their names to this list agreed to the rules. Albeit it being problematic that one imposing individual dictate how Art Rental would run for everyone who arrived afterwards, I felt a general consensus surrounding the fairness of these rules, and an appreciation for the semblance of organization this process provided.
The list worked until precisely 5:40 pm, when the list was torn down. Or, as I’d like to interpret it, was eaten. Lists of such magnitude could, in fact, sustain a human life form for a good part of the semester. So I hope somewhere, someone (or something) is satiated. In the hollow spot where the list hung was the eloquently worded note, “Fuck the list.” You tell em, list gobbler.
What occurred next was the Hunger Games/Lord of the Flies ambiance I recalled earlier. I watched as the gathered students devolved into anger, resentment, and a deeply competitive nature towards their fellow students, the space literally divided by where our allegiances lay. There were those who had signed up on the initial list who tried to reconstruct the order from cellphone photos (why people had pictures is another question entirely) and memory, arguing vehemently for the spot they held pre list-gate. There were the individuals who arrived in the twenty minutes since the chaos broke loose, and apparently baffled as to where they fit into the scheme of things, started a completely separate list. Finally, there was a group of people who had been physically present from the time the list was torn down to this exact moment, individuals who asserted that because they arrived post-list and had remained present since, were more deserving of a higher place in line.
From this point onward, the chaotic almost-hour between 9:00 and 9:50, there was a polarizing shift in the atmosphere. Speakers from each party tried in vain to assert their opinions, a cacophony of voices echoed around the columned space of the Allen courtyard. In a corner, someone emitted a deep, guttural and lasting note, like a human bagpipe or didgeridoo. The drum circle that had been playing got very Jumanji very quickly. Someone yelled, “Lists are part of the bureaucracy!” to which Career Services responded, “we have candy and gluten free cookies.” A bewildered first year turned to me and asked, “is this what it’s usually like?”
Thankfully, there were individuals in the crowd from OCDC who graciously assumed the role of organizing discussion, a facet that was imperative to having any sort of successful and open dialogue about the current situation. As they stood under a doorway to open stack about the various lists, someone yelled, “Fuck the lists!” to which a responder cried, “LISTS ARE ALL SO STUPID ALL LISTS ARE STUPID.”
Although they individuals from OCDC did a fantastic job leading the conversation, the tone between the student speakers and energy within this space was indicative of the lack of communication and understanding among students about what this event even means. That someone resorted to a physical act to obfuscate the ruling that had been in place previously is a clear indicator of the ways in which, instead of having a discussion about the “fairness” of this student run process, someone vehemently disagreed and apparently changed the rules to benefit their own interest.
One speaker who arrived after the list was torn down asserted that being physically present in proximity of the museum for an extended period of time was not only more legitimate than the signup process, but showed a “moral commitment” to the art which implicated a lack of commitment among the list-signers. Quoting the Allen website, this speaker distinguished how Art Rental is supposed to be a physical process, and that if you returned only for roll calls you were less deserving of the art.
There are many aspects to this claim I find fascinating, and though this group of speakers was treated rather hostilely among the group dynamic, I think it’s worth looking at this perspective as a means to understand the validity of various concerns raised by both non list believers and list enthusiasts.
As an overarching point, the Allen website is clearly not the rule maker in this situation. We as students are responsible for best ordering ourselves, and whether or not the method in place was fair is debatable, but I do believe it was effective. On a logistic note, implying that physicality is an indicator of deservedness for art than none of us can actually lay claim to seems rather ridiculous. On a logistical note, one speaker pointed out that the Allen space itself wasn’t suited to hold a physical line, and as such, a signup allowed an order that the spattering of sleeping bags and jam circles did not clearly evoke. In addition, necessitating that an individual be physically present all night both excludes those who are physically unable or preoccupied with legitimate business, i.e. work of any sort – and also creates a hierarchy of commitment that I feel calls into question the entire Art Rental process.
Does staying overnight outdoors make you more deserving of a Picasso that isn’t yours to begin with, that is temporal and lent to us with the utmost care and trust? Does it prove something you are willing to stay outdoors only to tote back a priceless piece of art to hang above your twin bed? I’m not sure – food for thought.
Moreover, this question of morality, and deservedness, seems antithetical to the idea of Art Rental. Isn’t the point that anyone can hang an awesome piece, aren’t we all equally deserving of a medium meant to be shared among the students in a unique opportunity that so many are not privileged enough to have? Isn’t the fact that we are arguing about who gets to be first into this museum to have a premiere pick of art that we could most likely never afford somewhat ironic in light of everything? This is a program that allows everyone to have pieces that, in the “real world” are far beyond our reach. It allows us to hang pieces by our favorite artists – and yet, doesn’t even knowing these artists suggest that we have been educated and privileged in such a way that we desire the famous works, as what, as a signifier of status?
In many ways, the ideas and events at Art Rental this year seemed incredibly Obie-eqsue, and also quite antithetical to what we stand for. The real dialogue that occurred in the midst of the chaos was in many ways, quite astounding, and a testament to the ways in which we as students have the capability and maturity to self govern. That said, there were very specific voices being heard – which questions the ways in which, although this is supposed to be an opportunity for everyone, does leave out a vast majority of the campus population.
Though list-gate was incredibly heated, and at times, hilarious – it did raise these points. If a system is adopted without protest, is it justified to rip it down in disagreement? Is there a physical prerequisite for having this opportunity? What “commitment” is necessary for this amazing program that should and is open to anyone on campus? And where is the joy in this program if it becomes an hour-long blame game – don’t we lose sight of what this whole rental is about? Perhaps we need to reevaluate why and how we do this. Shouldn’t we just have a lottery, go play music and hang out all night, and take solace in the fact we will all get amazing art, regardless of the renown of the artist you choose?