Not so long ago, naked parties were scheduled events that any hopeful Wesleyan nudist, no matter how in-the-know, could attend. Art House, the program house that occupied 69 High Street from 1996-2003, was infamous for its semesterly parties at which clothing was not only optional, but flat-out discouraged. Yet while its raucous reputation was the rumored reason for the house’s elimination, it was not the image to which its founding members aspired.
Once a senior house, 69 High turned into a program house when several members of the Class of 1999 submitted an application to the Office of Residential Life. Their mission was to create a space where students could access, experience, and engage with art.
“The place is set to encourage a focus on art and the enjoyment one gets from it,” Colin Van Dyke ’99 said in a 1996 Argus article. “We don’t want to appear as some group of ‘holier-than-thou’ artists. We want a wide spectrum of arts, in field, and also in complexity.”
The founders drew inspiration from the “Why Cheap Art?” manifesto written by a Vermont puppetry group called Bread and Puppet.
“People have been thinking too long that art is a privilege of the museums & the rich,” the manifesto reads. “Art is not a business! It does not belong to banks & fancy investors. Art is food. You can’t eat it but it feeds you. Art has to be cheap & available to everybody. It needs to be everywhere because it is the inside of the world.”
Though there were no puppeteers among the founding members, their artistic interests encompassed more than what we conventionally think of as art. The house’s original purpose was to expand the common definition of art.
“When people think of arts, they picture painting, sculpture, all the studio arts,” Grace Wang ’99 said in the 1996 Argus article. “But at the Art House, we plan to have more variety, like gardening, photography, finger-painting, or maybe cooking. Someone has suggested having artistic films shown. We want to incorporate every form of art into it.”
Though it may not have been the founders’ original intention, the definition of art eventually grew to include
an appreciation for nude bodies, displayed regularly at the house’s naked parties. A 2002 Argus article addressing the New York Times’ depiction of WestCo as a “naked dorm” quoted former Art House Manager Michael Bodel ’03 explaining the merits of nudity in a social setting.
“The main goal of the naked parties is to challenge people and allow them to be comfortable with being naked,” Bodel said and added that around 125 students had attended the last such party.
Another writer chronicled a weekend of Wesleyan parties in 2002, one of which took place at Art House. The article made a subtle reference to nudity as one characteristic of the house’s overall jubilant atmosphere:
“Saturday night. 12:00 a.m. Art House. There are masks and gauzy materials. Many colors. (Of clothing, not people). Girls have skirts. Boys have skirts. People are barefoot and topless. There is a bongo drum, a saxophone, a tambourine, and a bowl of brown rice. In the kitchen, next to the brown rice, a little yellow stereo is playing rap music. A boy with a painted face is mixing a piña colada for a girl in a rugby sweatshirt. Everyone is happy.”
The writer asked one of her friends (“Blond Nick”) what he thought of the party.
“Art house is asexual,” he said. “‘A’ for asexual.”
Indeed, it seems there was something of a movement at the time toward embracing nudity as a genderless form of self-expression. Liz Shulman ’99, who witnessed a Public Safety officer informing three topless female students that they had to put their shirts on, argued in a 1999 Wespeak that the University should not dictate which parts of the body students can or cannot display.
“I don’t believe that the conduct in question could be considered at all ‘detrimental’ to the University,” Shulman wrote. “Not everyone on this campus is ashamed of parts of his/her body. Not everyone feels that certain parts ought to remain hidden from public view. Decency is subjective. As far as I know, the University has not taken an official stand on what parts of the human body are decent and what parts are profane.”
Perhaps thanks to its laissez-faire attitude toward all forms of self-expression, Art House was certainly not lacking in popularity, yet its status was threatened in 2003. Earlier in the year, the Office of Residential Life had introduced a new policy stating that houses on provisional status for two out of three semesters would be cut. The houses up for elimination were evaluated on a points system; Art House received zero points in the community standards section.
A minor uproar emerged in response to this blow to one of the most popular program houses at the time. Then-House Manager Ben Popper ’05 suggested that Art House was cut because of the potential damage its reputation could do to the University.
“It’s all part of a push to clean up Wesleyan’s image, and they don’t like what we represent in the community,” Popper said in a 2003 Argus article. “The system is illogical because Art House is succeeding as a program house, and it’s silly to eliminate a successful program house from the community. If ResLife punishes anyone for the house it should be those living in the house.”
Despite its members appealing the process, Art House was still cut, which removed 69 High from campus housing and left students to their own devices when it came to artistic expression and public displays of nudity. Following just on the heels of the 2003 chalking ban, the elimination of Art House drove students of the early 2000s to spark the movement now known as “Keep Wes Weird.”
Only time will tell what the future holds: with ResLife’s recent call for program house proposals, perhaps 230 Washington Street will find itself home to Art House revivalists come September 2013.