Why Is It So Easy to Be Considered Artsy at Amherst?

I am constantly confused that I am considered artsy at Amherst. Coming from the traditional suburb of Boca Raton, Florida, I never thought I would be perceived as artsy. I didn’t fulfill the classic high school theater kid trope, and I wasn’t aware of eclectic underground music and art scenes. But upon coming to Amherst, I somehow became artsy, and not from some newfound interest in alt-bands. So, why is it so easy to be considered artsy at Amherst?

I guess this identity crisis arose because my internal conception of self did not align with how people perceived me. The only place I can really trace this misperception to is to clothing. When I get out of bed in the morning, I, like every single person who decides to leave their room and go into “society” (also known as the Amherst campus), am making a decision on how I want to be perceived. What I choose to wear will influence what people think of me. This is a natural phenomenon — we are all familiar with the cliche “dress to impress,” and we all, consciously or not, form opinions of people based on how they choose to present themselves. As we are all complicit in forming these judgements, we are also all recipients of these judgements. But whether these snap judgements are superficial or not is unimportant, because ultimately these perceptions stick. And since clothing is a form of expression, it seems somewhat valid that we would base our opinions of people on how they choose to express themselves. But the problem arises because we are looking at people through our own lens, and our perceptions of those around us frequently do not align with what they feel inside or are even attempting to project.

At Amherst, it seems like this is amplified, and it feels just too easy to be considered “artsy.” You can show up to class in sweatpants and an Amherst LEADS sweatshirt, or jeans and a generic top and fly under the radar. But if you wear some sort of colorful, patterned clothing, sprinkle in some piercings or rings, you’re “artsy.” No doubt, since a large part of being artsy is outward expression, occasionally these judgements are accurate. But in the cases where someone is just slightly off the normal path, it seems unauthentic to deem them artsy and is essentially undermining the value of the artsy community. It shouldn’t be so easy to be artsy. Artsiness should imply a dedication to a certain artform, or a multidimensionality that in some way deviates from the norm — basing these judgments on clothing does not do this complexity justice.

This phenomenon is definitely not specific to Amherst, but it becomes amplified due to our small, sometimes insular community. As a tour guide, I always talk about how I love the size of Amherst. I mention how the size allowed me to quickly recognize people and feel more comfortable on campus, especially during my first few weeks at Amherst. Now, having been here for over a year, I recognize that it’s easy to run the same circles and follow the same schedule from week to week, saying hi to that person who you see in Valentine Dining Hall every Wednesday who was in your class two semesters ago but whose name you don’t remember. While this size brings comfort, it also allows for those natural snap judgements we make about people to become solidified. I imagine a larger school would allow for more anonymity, which is something I frankly would not want. But it’s important to recognize how the size of Amherst creates an environment where our perceptions about people, sometimes based on something as simple as an outfit choice, easily pigeon-holes our peers into specific tropes. Athlete or the non-athlete, normie or artsy, it’s all the same: after the initial presentation, we become caricatures of ourselves, and these reputations stick, contributing to the infamous divide we all seem to encounter here.

Though I think the size definitely contributes to the concept of being deemed superficially artsy, there’s also something to be said about the demographics of Amherst. Historically, Amherst has been for preppy men, so perhaps anyone who deviates from that cognitive schema is predisposed to sticking out even more. Within the Five College Consortium, each college fulfills their trope, as well: all you need to do is to look at the five college meme page on Facebook and find that Amherst usually fulfills the role of the nerdy, traditional guy, while Hampshire College, for example, occupies the artsy role of the five colleges. Outside of the consortium and within the NESCACs, Wesleyan comes to mind as a hotbed of artsy angst that makes Amherst seem quite “normal” in comparison.

All of this is not to say that I am unhappy with being labelled artsy here — I’ve pretty much leaned into it. This year, I am living in Marsh House, the arts theme house and artsy enclave at Amherst. To get in to Marsh, students have to apply and interview, showing some aspect of art that they have created (actual studio art, dance, music, drama, writing, etc.). This sort of application process speaks to what artsiness should mean: dedication to an art form, rather than just a non-normie clothing style. Every semester, each member of the house is supposed to create a Marsh project, with the goal of either bringing the Marsh community into the rest of the college, or bringing the Amherst community into Marsh — in essence spreading or promoting some sort of artsiness. What’s interesting about Marsh is that even though it’s the arts house, most people living in it are not majoring in artistic majors like art, film or theater and dance. There are certainly people in Marsh who are double majoring in one of those artsy majors, but a single arts major is more rare. To be artsy, then, doesn’t really have to mean contributing your time at Amherst to an arts track.

It’s also important to note that there is only one theme house on campus dedicated to arts at Amherst, which is indicative of the general sense of artsiness on campus. Are these twenty-two students, plus the upperclassmen who previously lived in Marsh, supposed to represent the entire artsy scene here? Wesleyan, for example, has separate program housing for art, dance, film and music, whereas Marsh seems to encompass all of these art forms into one. In high school, we were always warned that if you’re a big fish in your small pond of a high school, you can easily become overwhelmed upon becoming a small fish in the big pond of college. In terms of artsiness at Amherst, it’s almost the opposite: those who may only be slightly perceived as artsy, for whatever reason, before coming to Amherst manage to become the big fish of the arts scene here at Amherst. On the one hand, this is nice, because it appeals to the artsy person’s sense of individuality and uniqueness, but it can become problematic when that perceived artsiness on campus is superficial in nature.

When people tell me that I am artsy, I usually just laugh, because what does that even mean, and where is that assumption coming from? To be fair, I do really love studio art, but when people call me artsy, it is usually without even knowing that, which leads me to believe that they are basing their judgement off of my sometimes wacky outfit choices. If wearing a bunch of rings and contrasting patterned clothing somehow makes you artsy, that seems superficial. To me, it seems fraudulent to look at someone’s outfit and automatically assume that they know anything about Indie music (of which I am completely ignorant, by the way), yet I also perpetrate this line of thinking by judging someone’s level of artsiness on their clothing choice. There are probably people in those generic LEADS sweatshirts who are really artistically talented, and there might also be people who present as artsy and really have no commitment to an art form. We should base these judgements of artsiness on an actual commitment to an art form, gleaned from conversations with or observations of those around us which in some way indicate that the person has artistic interests.

It’s almost a paradox: though it’s so easy to be considered artsy at Amherst by just wearing slightly less normie clothing, the arts scene can pale in comparison to other schools. Though this superficial artsiness might get conflated with the disappointment in the arts scene at Amherst, I guess it’s up to us to change that. If we create an environment where artsiness is welcomed, transcending of various groupings on campus, and subject to change rather than solidifying upon first meeting someone, then maybe artsiness at Amherst would become more authentic in nature.