When you work at the Walker on staff or as a volunteer you will, at least once during your tenure, be asked the following question: Why is this art? Depending on the person she or he may feel panicked or revved by this honest and valid inquiry.
A number of us gathered on Open Field in its final week to discuss our take on what is art and what, well, it maybe isn’t. The group: 4 tour guides, 1 college professor, 1 curator/artist, 2 Walker staff. The beer: Boulevard sampler pack. Length of discussion: 1 hour and 45 minutes.
I introduced the topic and mentioned why we were gathering. In short, a number of tour guides from the Walker and other Twin Cities museums asked for an opportunity to come together and talk openly about ways of approaching contemporary art with visitors who have varying degrees of exposure to it. Below are some conversation strands and open-ended questions that surfaced during our gathering.
- The guides remarked that visitors often question the quality of a work in the gallery by saying that it is ugly, disgusting, not beautiful, confusing and disingenuous, and “I could make that.” What are some of the works that visitors connect to these descriptions?
Ugly and disgusting:
Confusing and disingenuous:
“I could make that:”
Guides feel that such pointed responses are actually positive – they demonstrate that people are having a reaction and therefore may be ready to talk about what they are or aren’t seeing. A statement such as “This work of art is not beautiful” is a terrific lead-in to a discussion about how one defines art in the first place. What expectations does one have for art? Does it need to be beautiful? Can one be open to art that isn’t physically beautiful or whose execution appears quick and cobbled rather than labored and technically pristine? These questions are deceptively challenging but most people, young and old, are willing to explore them. All of a sudden we’re asking how the framework for critiquing contemporary art may be different than what we’re used to, still evolving, personal, and imperfect. (Then again, what system of critique is perfect?)
- What’s the viewer’s responsibility in completing a work of art? Does she or he have any? (A resounding YES for our group.) We went round and round with this one citing Marcel Duchamp’s The Creative Act and how one’s body relates to a work of art in space is behind the “activation” of Minimalist sculpture, among other explanations for why we’re (the viewer) important to the “life” of an object or idea. Most expressed that they see meaning derived from a work as varying from person to person and that this flexibility makes contemporary art relatable for most (with a little guidance). This is a strategy used by tour guides all the time to increase people’s comfort level with art that you can’t instantly categorize or that’s “easy” to look at.
- Relating to the above strand was a discussion about whether a work of art can exist in a vacuum (or the dank corners of one’s basement). Most feel that art isn’t art until it’s released into the world.
- The group acknowledged that oftentimes visitors feel that they’re not allowed to have an opinion if they don’t have years of experience with art, and wouldn’t it be great if more people felt empowered to disagree with the experts (i.e., curators and the artists themselves) or at least question why X made it into an exhibition rather than Y. Giving people space to not like what they see is crucial. This space doesn’t exist if a person has no context for what they’re viewing. Context may come through a discussion with a guide or the way a show is installed. It’s not necessarily going to be provided by a work of art. We were unresolved in terms of whether a work of art is responsible for offering context even if minimal.
- Recognizing that we don’t have the luxury of time/historical perspective when it comes to critiquing work being made now can help people understand the challenges and excitement behind curating contemporary collections and exhibitions, maybe even fostering a bit of empathy for those doing it.
- It’s important to address head-on that the art being made today, art that is considered ground-breaking and lauded by critics and institutions alike, may elevate process over product or thinking over making. This is a tough one for a lot of people, as the general public still views Art as hand-crafted objects whereas institutions accept Art as ideas to grapple and argue with that may or may not look like much at all.
I’d invite those who were at the discussion to add to what I’ve said, challenge my interpretation of our chat, or pose additional questions. One last thought, a quote from Mark Allen of Machine Project in LA, “Art creates a space of possibility.” What a nice idea …