Keyword: Violence

What role does violence play in human society? What role can the arts play in the search for an answer?

By Corinne Steinbrenner; Photo by Graham Edmondson (’13)

Jack leads his band of war-painted hunters in a rhythmic dance. As more boys join the circle, their stomping and chanting become louder, more fervent. “Kill the beast. Cut his throat. Spill his blood. Kill the beast. Cut his throat. Spill his blood.”

We’re midway through act two of the School of Theatre’s adaptation of William Golding’s 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, the tale of a group of British schoolboys who devolve into a tribe of savages after being marooned on a lonely island. The mood in the small black-box theatre is tense; even audience members who read Lord of the Flies in high school and know how the scene plays out are holding their breath.

By the time the boys disperse, they have, indeed, killed—not the unknown beast that haunts their dreams, but Simon, one of their own.

“The play really dropped in for us, as a group, when we got to the staging of Simon’s death,” says Jake McLean (’12), who acted the part of Jack, the ringleader. “We all stepped out of that first day thinking, ‘Wow. That’s scary.’ We felt what it would be like to participate in such an act.”

After being cast as Jack, McLean began talking with his professors about techniques for cooling down, “shaking it off,” at the end of a rehearsal or performance. “If you’re doing a comedy and it brings you joy, you want to carry that into your life,” he says. “I don’t want to carry around murderous, angry, twelve-year-old.”

Playing Jack, who transforms from head choirboy to head hunter, was “quite a journey,” says McLean, “and I began to realize that a lot of his transformation comes out of fear—fear of disapproval and fear of the unknown. One thing that we discussed a lot with Jack is that whenever there’s a problem, he doesn’t think logically how to solve it. He just goes, ‘Okay, we’re going to go out and kill something now.’ That’s how he copes with things, with violence.”

Lord of the Flies’ exploration of violence is the reason it was chosen as part of the School of Theatre’s 2011–2012 lineup. This academic year is the inaugural year of the College of Fine Arts’ “keyword initiative,” which encourages CFA’s three schools to center their annual programming on a specific word. This year’s keyword: violence.

Catalyst for Conversation

Dean Benjamín Juárez hopes that CFA’s annual keyword efforts will strengthen ties among CFA’s three schools and spark conversations across campus. “We are trying to build a two-way dialogue with schools and colleges throughout BU, inviting our community to feel, think, and act around themes that are relevant to all of us,” he says, explaining that CFA is including experts from throughout BU in roundtables and lectures associated with CFA performances and exhibitions.

It’s an idea that has succeeded on other U.S. campuses. Since 2006, the University of Southern California has sponsored a university-wide arts initiative called Visions and Voices that explores the university’s core values (“search for truth,” “respect for diversity,” etc.) through performances, film screenings, lectures, and workshops. In 2007, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill launched Carolina Creative Campus, a program that uses the arts to catalyze campus discussion around a specific topic. In its first year, UNC chose the theme “Criminal/Justice: The Death Penalty.”

Reed Colver, who helped organize the UNC program, says that first theme turned out to be far more relevant to UNC than anyone expected. Partway through the academic year—just before a planned performance of Dead Man Walking, a play about a convicted murderer awaiting execution—UNC’s student body president was murdered. Because of the sensitivity of its subject, Creative Campus organizers considered cancelling the play, but they ultimately decided, says Colver, “We need to continue to provide the space that we’ve been providing for dialogue about these issues.” The structured discussions held in conjunction with the performances, she says, “gave students, faculty, and staff a chance to talk through and process, within a fairly safe environment, what was happening in our day-to-day lives.” Creative Campus became a perfect example of art’s power to build community and to help explore and explain the human condition.

Choosing Violence

The idea of using violence as CFA’s first keyword came during a visit to the gym last winter. “I was on the elliptical machine at the Y,” says School of Theatre Director Jim Petosa, “and the news reports about the shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords came on the air. It was such a stunning moment.”

The extensive news coverage of Giffords’s attempted assassination prompted Petosa to choose violence as a theme for his School’s coming year of theatrical programming. When he shared the idea with Juárez, the dean was so enthusiastic that he proposed extending the theme across CFA. “And then it became this notion of a keyword, which is different from a theme,” says Petosa. “A keyword actually suggests a Google way of thinking—cloud-based thinking—which is a much more generous way of examining the potency of a given word.”

Petosa and colleagues chose a range of plays for the School of Theatre’s exploration of violence—from Monster (an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) to Shakespeare’s bloody revenge story Titus Andronicus. Fittingly, considering the event that inspired this examination of violence, the School is staging two plays that deal with political assassinations: Execution of Justice, the story of Dan White, who assassinated San Francisco’s openly gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk, and Assassins, a Stephen Sondheim musical that explores U.S. history through the eyes of people who either assassinated or attempted to assassinate U.S. presidents.

For its keyword programming, the School of Visual Arts invited controversial painter Enrique Chagoya to give November’s Contemporary Perspectives Lecture (see sidebar). While on campus, Chagoya made a series of small prints for the School inspired by Francisco Goya’s famous series, The Disasters of War. Visual arts professors leading junior and senior seminars are also incorporating the theme of violence into their course discussions this year.

Because opera so often deals with the extremes of human behavior, Opera Institute Director Sharon Daniels had no trouble selecting violence-themed operas to include in her 2011–2012 season, including Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, the story of 13 nuns sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution. BU Symphony Orchestra Conductor David Hoose also found he had plenty of material to choose from. “Unfortunately, violence is so omnipresent in our culture and our world,” he says, “that it’s something composers have responded to through a lot of music history.”

Hoose says that applying a keyword or other unifying concept to a season of programming is a wonderful idea that more arts organizations should consider. It’s particularly tricky, however, in a teaching environment. “The music that the orchestra plays or the chorus sings, that’s their curriculum,” he says, so while a keyword must be provocative enough to ignite conversation, it must also be broad enough to allow faculty to choose music, plays, and exhibits that will meet the educational needs of their students.

With these parameters in mind, CFA students and faculty members are already deep in discussion with professors and administrators from across BU, working to choose a fitting keyword for next year’s explorations.

Upcoming Events

BU Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus at Boston’s Symphony Hall
David Hoose conducts the Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus in Rachmaninoff’s The Bells and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 in G minor, “1905.”

When: April 2 (watch it online at CFA’s Virtual Concert Hall)
Where: Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston
Tickets: $25 general admission
Box Office: 617-266-1200 or
While it’s ostensibly a celebration of the 1905 Russian Revolution, many believe Shostakovich’s symphony is actually a denunciation of the Soviets’ brutal crackdown in Hungary in 1956. “For me, it doesn’t matter which it refers to,” says conductor David Hoose. He first led the piece in 1989, after the protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and for his young performers, “it was about then, about that moment in their lives.”

Dialogues of the Carmelites
A poignant look at the French Revolution through the eyes of a young aristocrat who enters a Carmelite convent in Compiegne to deal with her pathological fear of life, only to witness the revolution unfold around her. Based on the true story of the 13 sisters of Compiegne, whose defiance of the revolution’s dictates led to their martyrdom at the guillotine.

When: April 12–22
Where: Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston
Tickets: $20 general public; $15 BU alumni, WGBH members, Huntington subscribers, students, and senior citizens
Box Office: 617-933-8600 or
Stage director Sharon Daniels still vividly recalls attending Dialogues for the first time: “I don’t remember ever in my whole history of going to opera being so moved by something that I just jumped out of my seat,” she says of the opera’s grim but thrilling conclusion.

The legendary Stephen Sondheim explores the hearts and minds of America’s most famous assassins, including John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, in a stunning satire of the anarchic political violence that tragically persists at the core of our culture.

When: May 4–10
Where: Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston
Tickets: $12 general public; $10 BU alumni, WGBH members, Huntington subscribers, students, and senior citizens
Box Office: 617-933-8600 or
This piece of musical theatre—a quintessentially American art form—explores a whole range of emotions and motivations, says director Jim Petosa, from “political zealotry to downright crazy obsession.”

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Also New at CFA

In addition to his keyword initiative, Dean Benjamín Juárez is introducing new elements to the CFA curriculum that are aimed at graduating more well-rounded artists. Among them is a new course, CFA 510: Arts Leaders Forum, featuring weekly guest lectures on the challenges of leading arts organizations. This spring’s list of lecturers includes Adrian Ellis, executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center; Jill Medvedow, director of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art; and David Lammy, a member of the British Parliament and former UK minister of culture.

Also new this year is CFA’s Freshman Experience, which introduces students to the artistic offerings within the College and throughout greater Boston. Each semester, every CFA freshman attends one arts-related event in Boston accompanied by a faculty member and a small group of classmates. Students are required to choose experiences that fall outside their area of expertise: when School of Visual Arts Associate Professor Batu Siharulidze, for example, led a tour of the foundry that produced many of Boston’s landmark bronze sculptures, his group was composed almost entirely of theatre students. “They showed us the molds and the different processes,” says theatre arts major Jessica Diamond (’15). Sculpture wasn’t something she paid much attention to before, Diamond says, “But now, after seeing all the work that goes into it, it appeals to me a lot more.”

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Attacked with a Crowbar

By Susan Seligson

Enrique Chagoya is known in the art world for his satiric paintings, prints, and illustrated manuscripts reflecting a world in dizzying political and cultural flux. His work has always had an unapologetically irreverent edge, but his worldwide reputation was ignited one fall day in 2010, when a Montana woman took a crowbar to The Misadventures of Romantic Cannibals, a multi-panel lithograph with a suggestive image of Jesus, on exhibit in Loveland, Colorado. Chagoya visited the School of Visual Arts in November to give the annual Contemporary Perspectives Lecture, during which he showed a video about the attack and its unexpected aftermath. The following is an excerpt from an interview Chagoya gave on campus before his lecture:

Q: You’ve been invited to BU as part of a keyword initiative focusing on violence. Would you say this is the dominant theme of your work?
A: Violence is just one of the themes that applies to my work, but I would say the dominant theme is conflict. Violence is only one expression of conflict. I think conflict will always be part of human history because we are a very diverse, rich, and complex network of societies. The resolution of conflict is the way everything evolves. However, the resolution of conflict does not have to be violent. In fact, violence exacerbates differences, polarizing opposite views, and it only delays the resolution of conflicts.

Q: What were your feelings at the time of the Loveland incident?
The incident was a result of context. I showed the same work at the Denver Art Museum in the same traveling exhibition some months before and nobody complained. It was also exhibited twice in solo exhibitions in the Bay Area and in Washington, D.C., and in none of those places anybody complained. It was a surprise to me to see how local politics and a local situation became global (it was time for elections and the work was shown in a conservative town).
I made The Misadventures of Romantic Cannibals in 2003 after the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church had hit the news, and eight years later I almost forgot I did that book. The vast majority of my work does not even include any religious content, so it was weird to have so much attention addressed to one old work.

Q: Did the Loveland Museum incident affect your art?
A: The incident made me realize how context may affect what can be shown anywhere….I still include in my art whatever goes through my head without any self-censorship. However, I realize I may not be able to show it in places that are not open or cannot provide protection to free expression.

View full Q&A on BU Today.

Contemporary Perspectives Lecture: Enrique Chagoya

Watch this video on YouTube

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2 Comments on Keyword: Violence

  • Un articulo realmente interesante. La agrego a favoritos, no es facil encontrar rincones interesantes ultimamente.

  • beautiful post. thats exactly what a mom should be doing. my 3 are in their 20’s now, and I am their shadow. I HAVE to talk to them everyday either by phone or txt. I just HAVE to know that they are ok, and I HAVE to tell them I love them and am so proud of them. Because, you are right, we only have this moment. We don’t know what the next moment brings.

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