“Culture has enormous capacity to make and to resolve conflict,” said Doris Sommer, the Ira Jewell Williams Jr. Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and professor of African and African-American studies, who spoke to a crowd of nearly 50 about how the arts, serving as “cultural agents,” promote education, innovation, and citizenship.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

The tools of art

6 min read

How ‘cultural agents’ build bridges across disciplines, fields, and communities

Bob Alexander, a lifelong Bostonian, has lived on the same street in Allston all his life. Now that the Harvard Allston Education Portal has come to his neighborhood, he said, he and his wife, Paula, attend every event there they can.

“We’re Bostonians from birth, and we love this place,” Bob Alexander said. “We come to all the talks.”

The Alexanders were at the Ed Portal last month to hear Doris Sommer, the Ira Jewell Williams Jr. Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and professor of African and African American Studies, speak to a crowd of nearly 50 about how the arts, serving as “cultural agents,” promote education, innovation, and citizenship. The lecture was the most recent presentation of the Ed Portal’s faculty speaker series.

Introducing Sommer, Robert Lue, faculty director for the Ed Portal, professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology, and faculty director of HarvardX, said that her scholarship and breadth of work reflected her belief in building bridges across disciplines, fields, and communities.

“She believes in translating scholarship into action,” Lue said. “Her leadership at the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard brings together the arts, the humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences in an effort to understand how tying these fields together can bring the world together and make the world a better place — making art a powerful engine not just for scholarship, but for social change as well.”

Inspired by creative solutions that evolved in locations such as Colombia and Argentina, Sommer showed how the arts could transform the ways in which a developing society perceived itself and the values inherent in its culture and community. Those same creative solutions, she said, could also provide new ways for that culture to evolve and thrive, even in the most challenging circumstances.

Sommer began her lecture by discussing her observation, about a dozen years ago, that the best and brightest students in the humanities were leaving the field “in order to do something “useful.”

“Culture has enormous capacity to make and to resolve conflict,” Sommer said. “So did students assume that what we were doing in the humanities was useless?”

In the last few generations, Sommer said, a wave of pessimism — a focus on what didn’t work rather than what might — grew within her field, and scholars become reluctant to challenge it out of fear of “being wrong.” In contrast, artists view their work as taking risks.

“Our project, in Cultural Agents, is to add some of that spirit of optimism and risk-taking to academic work,” she said.

It’s that optimistic outlook and willingness to take chances that enabled artists to conquer obstacles that others might find insurmountable, Sommer said. One example she gave was that of Bogota, Colombia, in the 1990s, when the city was in such chaos that “children without bodyguards didn’t go to school.” Antanas Mockus, a philosopher and mathematician, was elected mayor of Bogota, and adopted a collaborative approach with his staff and citizens, considering all ideas to help restore order to the city.

To everyone’s surprise, that first step came in the form of improvised theatrical performances, right in the “busiest center of the most violent city.” Mockus fired traffic police and hired 20 pantomime artists to direct traffic. The mimes, bearing banners that read “Incorrecto!,” couldn’t give out tickets or arrest people — they could only make fun of those who were driving dangerously. People were startled at first, and then quickly joined in.

“People began looking up,” Sommer said. “They enjoyed the spectacle. Mockus managed to make a public. People in performance theory know that a public doesn’t come to an activity; the public is created through an activity.”

Sommer also handed out books born of resourcefulness. In Buenos Aires, during a terrible market crash, artists began making books out of scraps — cardboard gathered from trash, painted with bright, organic colors — with photocopied pages of texts donated by prominent authors. Inspired by this effort, Sommer developed Pre-Texts, a program that integrates literacy, the arts, and civic values. The curriculum has been implemented in classrooms throughout the globe, in Boston, at Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, as well as at the Ed Portal’s GPA after-school program.

“You treat a book as raw material, rather than as a sacred object,” she said. “I learned that if you get people to do something creative with literature, to make something new and personal, you promote mastery and ownership of the material. Creative artists are authors and co-authors of the literature. They own it. And lessons of literary theory followed from reflecting on creative manipulations”

Through the Cultural Agents Initiative, Sommer said, she learned that the cultural agents she had been studying “were models and inspirations. I could be a cultural agent, too. I could teach anyone to read very difficult material simply by treating that group as artists.”

As the Alexanders readied to leave, Paula, who volunteers with Friends of the Library at the Boston Public Library’s Honan-Allston Branch and has worked at the Harvard Business School for more than 30 years, said she felt inspired. “We’re trying to get more members and people to be more involved, so she gave me some good ideas of how to approach that,” she said.

“The Education Portal is for everyone,” Bob Alexander said, looking around at the full house. “You know, Harvard’s our neighbor. This is our life — and things like this make it better.”

Initiated in 2009, the lectures offer an opportunity for the Harvard and Greater Boston communities to come together to discuss diverse topics, and for the public to broaden its understanding of research taking place at the University. Faculty members present a variety of topics, bringing the theory and discourse being taught in Harvard classrooms to the community.

To celebrate the spring semester and five years of mentoring at the Ed Portal,  there will be a student showcase and open house from 2 to 3:30 p.m. on May 5. The Ed Portal is located at 175 North Harvard St., Allston. There will be children’s activities and refreshments.