art history is not art


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antithesis: the myth of perfection

I submitted a final draft of my thesis to the department today for my masters. A few years back, I didn’t get far at all with my undergraduate thesis for a dual-major; I was declared mentally unfit to graduate on time because both bickering departments could not agree on anything in a time of budget and hiring cuts, and therefore my draft work was declared late because I did not receive a response before the fall semester’s end. I was forced to take off and shunned by most of my college circles. Two humanities departments reeling in the reconstruction efforts after Larry Summer’s infamous speech leads to a lot of rash changes; unfortunately researchers do not make the best strategists or cultivate interpersonal skills. After three years of pursuing my custom degree, I started senior year to find the department sighing that my course of study was a waste, I should have majored in something else, and the awards committee would hate my topic. We’d just have to make the best of it, they nervously laughed, and so I did; not as they intended though.

I’m writing this because I want to tell a story and earlier on, I was ashamed to tell it. From an early age, it was instilled in me that things were unfair and the best way to survive and avoid problems was to be perfect. And if you were in trouble, you weren’t perfect enough. Even this past week, I was reminded not to bring this up and to just move on, to look strong. Well, now that I’ve finished another degree that has healed my self-esteem and provided better perspective, I’m able to share it. I’m not stuck in the past by acknowledging an unfortunate turn of events; I can narrate them, reclaim some of my voice. I couldn’t do this before.

If you are wondering why I was suddenly less communicative back then, now you know. Thanks for being wrapped up in your own egotistical things instead of seeking me out—I’m glad we cut the phony friendship sooner than later. News at 11: girl from tiny town surprisingly goes to Harvard, tries to climb privilege ladder to avoid trampling, gets knocked off ladder with tampered health records, gets quietly told to take a semester off, strangely returns after belatedly completing undergrad for an additional graduate degree. Indoctrinated with the rubric that those who succeeded were strong and perfect, I was ashamed that I found myself in such a situation, even though it was out of my control. I beat myself up for graduating a semester late, instead of realizing that I had dealt with some unfair shit and it was wonderful I even had the drive to complete undergrad afterwards. I don’t mean to imply that my entire undergrad was a waste; I met many wonderful people there. But a certain mix of students and adults high on privilege, immaturity, and power made parts of it awful.

When I started undergrad, I was just a person with interests, not someone out to climb and crush down others, and I wasn’t very appealing because everything there was a competition and I was sick of those. I was my own person instead of a bartering chip. I wanted to be a pacifist when everyone else used their intellect as a weapon; I realized this wouldn’t work if you weren’t part of a group that was marketable, exploitable, or legacy. And if you get too good at mimicking a game of backstabbing and privilege, well, there’s always a pampered jealous student in charge to reject you from a group. There’s the joke that Harvard throws you into the deep end and the professors check up on you four years later at graduation; it’s true. Besides the classes, the faculty have minimal involvement, so there’s a bunch of insecure, lonely, bratty former high-school all-stars in charge of venerated groups. I was already feeling low because of some charming Lord-of-the-Flies social developments; adding the thesis angle to it was the nail in the coffin.

I graduated feeling like a second-rate citizen; knowing I was smart didn’t really matter when this was an organization based less on merit and more on the whims of money and politics. Who cares if I had previously designed costumes, when the health department tampered my records to say I was mentally ill, couldn’t dress myself, and wouldn’t let me see these records? Who cares that part of the thesis problem was the fact that nobody else combined these two disciplines before, when, while meeting with the two departments in the hopes of negotiating, they said that numerous students embarked on this study path so I was just being lazy, but they couldn’t share any previous research titles with me as proof? Who cares that I had four years of successfully organizing events at museums, if, when I returned that last semester to get my study card signed, the guy turned his back to me, took off his shoes, and spoke to the wall when I addressed him? Who cares that I liked playing the piano, if every time I walked into a practice room and did slow exercises to stretch my tiny hands, some music prodigy pointedly walked into the room next to me, loudly played my excerpt faster than I ever could, and then would walk back out? If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

I walked down a hallway on a work shift that semester; a professor spoke to my about my thesis, I thanked her, and went back to carrying my papers to file for my job. Next day, drama erupted: apparently I had initiated contact with the professor in the hallway, promised to speak to someone important about my thesis, had faked going to the office by waiting in the stairwell, and then turned around to avoid the meeting. Daily events like that started piling up and clogging my focus; it’s taken me a while to be kind to myself.

I wish there had been closure to that semester. There was not. I did not get to share my part of the story, or see my bizarre health records, or receive a public defense in front of the admissions committee. The events that semester made me afraid; I was too scared to tell anyone what happened, thinking they’d either ignore me or twist my words, like the university did. Back when I was first voted to take off, I wrote an essay to the committee voting on my admission. The dean started back at me from her mahogany desk and said it wouldn’t matter, that the decisions are made in advance. The academic adviser assigned to my dorm house, who had creepily hit on me earlier, kept deliberately forgetting to CC me on important emails regarding the fate of my final semester, evidence which was used against me to prove I was uncommunicative. When I returned, I needed to take a readmittance interview; the lady who gave it turned bright red, apologized that she had to ask such questions, but it was marked on my records that I had severe depression that hampered my basic functions. I asked to see the records, and she said I couldn’t see them. They were created by a higher-up I never met who previously either ignored all my emails or was out on a fabulous vacation over the span of 6 months. When I emailed him again afterwards, this time he was on a cruise.

The college has a high percentage of students declared depressed and mentally unwell, as well as a high percentage asked to leave a semester for undisclosed reasons. I moved on, learned to live quietly alone, made some little steps and then some larger ones. It was perversely fascinating to see who didn’t stay in touch, who did, and who made grand preliminary efforts but always had something come up. Some undeserving people from this time floundered; others are doing very well.

It’s nice when good things happen to good people, but it doesn’t mean you tried the hardest and were rewarded fairly. Life moves on. The sooner you stop believing that, the better, because if you don’t succeed, you’ll beat yourself up for unfair reasons. Stop buying into that model of merit; it was designed by people that had it easy, to make everyone feel worse instead of looking around at outside factors that need improvement. If you think you do good work and can point to something specific you take pride in, wonderful. If you think you do good work because you just have a shiny piece of paper saying so, you’re doing it wrong. I was ashamed of myself for a long time afterwards, blaming myself that if I had just tried harder after the initial waves of rudeness and department intrigue, if I just didn’t let the horrible social situation bother me—I would have been fine. Well, I wouldn’t have been. Reacting in an upset manner to horrid people is not something I should fault myself for. Part of the critique that semester was that I should have gotten help when things were bad, but I was too scared to. Well surprise, you shouldn’t have made things bad in the first place. 

The events of my last undergrad year affected me so hard because intellect was my bootstrap out of my isolated neighborhood. I didn’t want to be trapped in an environment with terminally-ill relatives living at home and overdosing on painkillers, or acquaintances mocking I should be hit in more car accidents to get some sense knocked into me. I was tired of being the girl that was made fun of during science/math honor programs, that had students steal my homework and say they were angry because I got higher grades yet didn’t have wealthy donor parents, that was told I should live at home and not bother with college. I spent a lot of lonely time playing classical piano; I was denied from Juilliard pre-college not because I played poorly, but as the judges told my parents, my teacher was a Nobody and if I studied with This Person Whose Teacher 200 Years Ago Studied Under Beethoven, I’d be guaranteed a spot in the future. Few years later found me hating the piano, wary of criticism thanks to a guy who said I needed to be yelled at more because I wasn’t Asian but was pretty (in his own words), and definitely jittery around anyone invading personal space. By saying I sucked and this was all my fault for not practicing enough, this meant I got to get books, pencils, and erasers thrown at me, my fingers taped for better form and more pain, unneeded comments about chords being sexy and hot scribbled in my music scores, and lots of unneeded physical contact to improve my posture. The teacher said I was his worst student; I found out later he was secretly recording my lessons for other people to emulate my lyricism. Never bothered reapping to Juilliard. (But, you see, I was told when I complained that if I only practiced harder, played better, I could have avoided being in this situation in the first place.)

I wasn’t allowed to have a lot of things growing up: jeans, earrings, TV, computers, radio, magazines. I wanted a computer so badly, I got onto a game show and won one. I did well on my homework to avoid arguments and loaded up on after-school activities so I would spend less time with the dying relatives. I still have internal moments where I panic that I’m a lead balloon in conversations because I have no clue about most topics in small-talk; I get an envious look on my face when people break out into song or reminisce over Saturday-morning cartoons. I’m a blank slate to that, it’s probably made me look like a stuck-up silent type inadvertently; but weird intellectual things—I could get somewhere with that. And now, because I was trapped in the middle of an interdepartmental power struggle, I was removed and it hurt because I had no agency in the world I was in.

A few years later, I began another thesis. I don’t quite remember how I began the degree; I started it soon after I belatedly finished undergrad. I felt I needed to do something to keep busy, and that I shouldn’t try something exactly in the same vein because I wanted to take care of myself. Part of me says that if I was going for academic torture, I could have picked a nastier and longer degree. Part of me says that if I was trying for something different after undergrad, I should have been backpacking across Europe somehow or going on fabulous disguised adventures, not writing a damn paper. It’s written though; while we’re not in a fairy tale where spells get broken, there’s closure. I was angry a lot over the course of writing this current thesis; after I admitted to myself that undergrad wasn’t my fault, I felt upset and jealous of those that had it easier, that seemed to do more with less effort and more luck.

Writing a thesis is a hellishly fascinating process: there’s always a sense you’re doing too much or not enough. You can set your own schedule—workaholic at 1 am or taking a full week off. If you take time off, well, you were instead writing articles thousands of people read, or you were finding an apartment. Isn’t that more important in the grand scheme of life outside an academic bubble? Yes? Well, what was the importance of writing this silly document nobody is going to read, with undergrad trigger issues to boot, in the first place again?

I proved to myself I could do it. I was no longer on the competitive track I was running for 20+ years; evaluating myself on my own terms, instead of (mostly successfully) calibrating my work for approval, was new. I don’t need to write a resume laundry list here to prove it to an audience, to say it in front of a committee like I did for my undergrad readmittance. I did good things: some grew my resume, others personal. I learned how to deal with jealousy and to be kinder towards myself. I really tried hard not to act like the people I hated, even though it temporarily made me feel better to pick up the intellectual weapons and put someone down. I’m still working on some things.

In a sense, I was lucky compared to others. I got far enough in a system to see how it was flawed. I learned early on not to blindly trust authority. I was in a position where I could actually read and learn. While I had an isolated and lonely upbringing, I was pretty good at standing up for myself—others were not. There are people who are in similar situations that are still afraid to write about this, who hit brick walls in Year Two instead of Year Four and never made it to the end, who gave up and accepted their role as a handmaiden to the legacy kids, who didn’t get into the Ivy League college in the first place to boost society’s perception of their intellect. I know people that are doing well by the rules of the college game, and if things had gone slightly differently, I’d be exploiting all those connections and ignorantly stepping on people still too, saying I’m smart because a professor said so, and talented at the arts because I got into this organization.

This is a whole lot about setting the undergrad record straight, and not a whole lot about my graduate thesis. Well, here’s some tips on what worked for me, that may or may not work for you. Keep what you value in your daily life during the process. Don’t cut out an important part of your life to make room for the thesis, you will end up miserable and feeling like a colossal waste of time. If you’re not a morning person, don’t roll out of bed and start writing. If you are a morning person, roll out of bed and start writing as you eat breakfast. If the writing isn’t happening and you keep thinking about something else, stop writing and do that other thing, and do it well. You don’t need to write your thesis every day, but you do need to write constantly to keep your mind agile. And when you get close to the end, remember to take care of yourself. You don’t want to emerge from a cocoon to think you’ve neglected everyone important, feel sick of your topic, and turned out to be a shadow of your former self before you began writing.

You should work hard and always keep one eye on what you really love; but if one path fails, try a different approach. And know that failure doesn’t always mean it’s your fault, but a combination of factors. You should realize you are also privileged to be in a position where you can think in terms of hobbies and dreams, and not to cast a withering eye on someone that is new, but enthusiastic. You should stop assuming that appearance hints at someone’s intelligence; I get tired hearing how it’s a testament to character how someone can look fragile and engage in a serious debate. If you dislike something, you should absolutely articulate your dislike of someone’s thoughts, but not slam their character. You should stop guiltily recalibrating your story to garner sympathy and fit in; it’s a disservice to people that have actually walked that path. It will catch up with you eventually, I promise.

Throw the idea out the window that if you were only a hard-working strong person, you could make everything better. Be happy when things go well, not smug. Sometimes you dislike what you secretly fear you’ll become; try not to map those projections on people you feel threatened by.

I can’t change things that were unfair, but I like myself as a person and that matters to me. It’s cloudy outside yet the birds are singing; I wrote a thesis elegantly dissecting the problems with traditional art historical educational techniques, and I feel at peace.


Filed under a perfect imperfect ending