Friday, January 30, 2015

Art Educator Befuddlement - Help me please!

I just spent a few days in fabulous NYC, during the blizzard-that-wasn't.  We had tickets to see the Matisse Cutouts show at MoMA, and it was, of course, fabulous, and deserves (and will get) a post of it's own.  But this isn't that post.  And the magical Matisse pictured above is not one of the cutouts.
Once we finished touring the special exhibit, we visited the rest of the museum.  I've been to MoMA many times, but it's still fun to walk through the 20th century pages of an art history textbook.  Above and below are a few of the many iconic paintings in MoMA:
 These paintings are so iconic that I don't have to name the artists, because anyone who has taken a basic art history survey course knows every one of these, and others in MoMA, such as Picasso's Three Musicians and Monet's huge Waterlilies.
  First time visitors to MoMA are usually amazed at how small these two paintings below are.  I mean, Starry Night is somewhat small, but The Persistence of Memory is downright itsy-bitsy!!  What a surprise!
But none of the paintings above are the reason for this blog post.  It's other stuff that has me befuddled.  I mean, I'm all for originality.  I never had any trouble teaching kids about Pollock, for example.  I could show them his earlier stuff, so they knew he could draw really well, and then, when they ask "why is he so famous for just flinging paint all over the place?" or "why aren't our paintings that we did that way in a museum too?" I could answer by putting it in historical context.  He was doing something new, that hadn't been done before, and it was special.  
 
But there's some stuff I am scratching my head over, and I need your help.
Look at these pieces below:
There's this one pictured above, Twin by Robert Ryman.  It is all white.  Or how about the piece below? If you are able, read the description by clicking on the image to enlarge it. 
 And then there's this one below, by Bruce Nauman.  Wha???
 I missed getting the name of the 'artist' for these pieces below.
Or maybe I just didn't care.
Cosmic Slop "The Berlin Conference" by Rashid Johnson, pictured below, is a large black textural piece in soap and black wax.  I can't quite fathom the connection between the canvas and the title.
 Below, the piece titled North Chester Ave, by Mary Weatherford, really annoyed me.  It doesn't  evoke anything to me whatsoever, and then there's the obtrusive cords.  It's supposed to depict the color, light, and atmosphere of a landscape.  Um, really?  Doesn't do it for me.
 How about the Barnett Newman painting 'The Wild', below, as viewed by my befuddled husband?  He's thinking "please can I go sit down now?  Or take a walk outside in the miserable icy cold wind and slippery sidewalks?"
What's with these hideous lumps of molten looking poo by Lynda Benglis?
 Or this, below, by Eva Hesse, made out of paint and string over papier-mache with elastic cord?
 And the ultimate hideousness, at least to me, was this noisy and violent video installation, below, situated in the room next to Matisse's glorious Dance of Life.  The wailing screeching repeating sound track was persistent and beyond annnoying, especially since you could hear it while viewing the artwork in the adjacent room.  I just don't understand.  
 I feel like the joke is on me.  I need someone to explain to me WHY this stuff rates being in a top-notch art museum along with paintings by Klimt, and Picasso, and Cezanne, and Gauguin, why I should want to pay good money to see this garbage.  I'm not an old fuddy-duddy.  I enjoy some contemporary art, which is why a visit to Mass MoCA is one of my favorite museum excursions.  But I need to draw a line.  I don't  understand the value of these pieces I have posted.  I want someone to tell me how you explain this stuff to kids.

In elementary art programs, we are teaching the Elements of Art and Principles of Design.  We are teaching composition and color theory and creative problem solving and personal expression.  We are teaching global, cultural, and historical awareness.  We are, honestly, also trying to make attractive art, stuff we can hang in student art shows and that make the parents, administration,and community proud.  But how do I make the leap from these basics, to a video of someone chopping off a bloated finger?  Or a 1/2" wide canvas hanging on the wall?  Or a pile of hastily painted canvases laying in a pile like discarded leftovers, for me to pick up off the museum floor and examine?  Or any of the other pieces that I have included below 'OOF'?  What is YOUR opinion on these pieces, and how do YOU approach discussing them with students?  Please weigh in!!
Thank goodness there was the whimsical Lunar Asparagus by Max Ernst to cheer me up, in the midst of these other pieces, or others like this colorful beauty by Andre Derain, which I will use to complete this post.  I'm looking forward to your opinions.

25 comments:

  1. I have trouble explaining contemporary art to my students also.I tell them that during the time that artists created what we love and admire today such as Matisse, Van Gogh, and Pollock, their work was not necessarily viewed as art at that time. In the last century, so many artists created things that had never been done before. Everyone was pushing the envelope to make something new. We are finally at a point where artists feel like they have to go to extremes to make their art. After all, the intention of art is generate an emotion of some sort and today's contemporary art definitely does that. It may not be a good emotion but it is an emotion and you remembered it. I just can't imagine anyone that would be willing to pay for it to hang over their fireplace. Just my opinions.

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  2. Thanks for the post. We all have to manage our time and be selective by picking and choosing who we have time to teach. You saw some and probably more you like better...Cindy Sherman, Linda Benglis, Robert Rauschenburg, Helen Frankenthaller, Jean Michel Basquiet, Joseph Buoys, Chuck Close, April Fleck, Joseph Cornell, Andres Serrano, Claes Oldenburg and more. I am glad you had a thoughtful visit and not much snow.

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    1. Thanks. It was a crazy trip to NY! After our day at MoMA, we had one whole day where, due to the weather anticipation, NOTHING was open, no museums, not even the library or a movie theater. And it was icy cold out! Thank goodness by evening things had calmed enough that we didn't miss the Broadway show we'd bought tickets for.

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  3. Phyl does not like Cindy Sherman... Well Ian not sure who actually like Sherman especially her later works yuck! It is sometimes about who you know... To a degree I think. I don't agree with putting up a white canvas because it is so cliche. It devalues the work around it imo

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    1. Erica, I'm impressed that you remember that I don't like Cindy Sherman!!

      Good points about who you know, and devaluing the other work. I like the way you think.

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  4. Sorry for all the typos. Typing on a cell phone is impossible for me! But yeah it looks like a lazy kid in art school. "The work comes into existence the moment he articulates an idea with words" I don't use this lightly but WTH??? Are we talking about god here or the random white wall with the artist statement attached. Sounds like an egomaniac to me.

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    1. I understood exactly what you were saying, typos and all!!

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  5. Fantastic! Thank you so much for posting and your insight. This is the kind of thing that really gets my 2015 art students excited. Sure I like "Ash Can" painters, but I wasn't born in the year 2000 for sure. Art rooms have to have computers, Ipads, and cellphones if we want to teach the way they learn. I alwats push Naum June Paik early and even he looks a little dated these days. Can't wait to put on my site and show at school on Monday. You are still a great art teacher. (To anyone that doesn't think all of the above its art....remember what Louie Armstrong said when someone asked him what Jazz was, "Lady if you don't know by now you never will"

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  6. Fantastic! Thank you so much for posting and your insight. This is the kind of thing that really gets my 2015 art students excited. Sure I like "Ash Can" painters, but I wasn't born in the year 2000 for sure. Art rooms have to have computers, Ipads, and cellphones if we want to teach the way they learn. I alwats push Naum June Paik early and even he looks a little dated these days. Can't wait to put on my site and show at school on Monday. You are still a great art teacher. (To anyone that doesn't think all of the above its art....remember what Louie Armstrong said when someone asked him what Jazz was, "Lady if you don't know by now you never will"

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  7. Phil-It looks like you stumbled onto come "conceptual art", which are not about skill or craftsmanship but about conveying an idea...which is often not expressed clearly enough so it feels like you have to be an mindreader to make any sense out of "Untitled 472". I tell my kiddos two things that may apply here. First, I tell them that I can't teach them how to like art any more than I can teach them how to like and onion; however I can teach them how to look at, talk about and judge the quality of art. Second, I tell them that if a work of art invokes emotion, then the artist has done his/her job, even if it really ticks you off, creeps you out or makes you want to vomit!! I tread lightly around this area, careful to avoid stepping in the giant poo. ;)

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    1. Yes, definitely conceptual art. But I nevertheless will hold my ground, in my belief that 'the joke is on us.'

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    2. First of all, I really enjoy your blog. Lots of good ideas!

      I agree with ARTzManiac too. When I talk about contemporary or conceptual art with my students, I try to just show it to them first and hear their reactions before I play "devil's advocate" in a way to get some discourse going. A lot of art that is weird or obscure or gross is that way for a reason, and we as viewers are certainly allowed to dismiss it or be engaged by it - mentally or emotionally or whatever. So if students are looking at artwork and thinking about it, talking about it, disgusted by it, outraged by it, excited about it, etc. then I feel like I've done my job. It's not really up to me to tell them why they should or should not like something, but we can certainly hold a conversation about it.

      Nice post!

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  8. I agree with what ARTzManiac says- and that is how I explain what appears to be unexplainable in art. That said, I had a giggle-fit during a MoMA visit over what appeared to be string wrapped around nails hammered into the wall.

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    1. Gee, did I miss that one? Or was it the Eva Hesse piece?

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  9. Artists like Benglis, Hesse, and Nauman were redefining what sculpture could be. Most people think of sculpture as something figurative and carved out of stone and vertical. When Frank Stella did the black striped paintings in the late 1960's critics said that "painting was dead" because if artists were painting nothing but black stripes then there must not be anything more to paint. The art world turned toward sculpture in the 1970's. Who can forget Christo and Jean Claude's first pieces of environmental art. Sculpture in the late 60's and 70's redefined and expanded sculpture. The untraditional materials that Benglis, Hesse, Nauman, Serra, LaVa, other used were not the traditional media. They were using materials like neon, molten lead, string, felt, glass, earth, etc. They were more concerned about the process than the outcome and are sometimes referred to as Process Artists. Think about what PIcasso did when he put rope around a painting in 1912 and did some of the first collage. Think about the Fur-lined Tea Cup or Nevleson's assemblages with found objects. Warhol painted the " found object" the soup can. I could go on, but this art had an impact on future artist. Look at Julian Schnabel who painted on top of broken shards of glass in his paintings or Jeff Koons who encased vacuum cleaners in plastic boxes and light them with neon. Artists like Hesse and the rest were also using space in a new way. their art was horizontal and on the floor or coming out from the wall of hanging from the ceiling. In the case of Serra he used molten lead and when it hardened would pull the form away from the wall and do it over and over again. A lot of these artists were inspired by people like Jackson Pollock. Think about Serra throwing that lead into the corner the way that Pollock slung paint onto canvas. When you look at pieces like Hesse's Rope Piece. The webbing reminds you of a Pollock. I could go on, but there is a reason that that type of art is there. There is a reason that those artists are represented.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I see some of your point, but the Hesse piece did not remind me of Pollock. And when I look at Nevelson's pieces I see wonderful examples of composition and design, with balance, texture, rhythm, movement... In other words, it's easy for me as an art educator to make sense out of Nevelson's work as expression of the elements and principles. I can't do that with some of these pieces.

      As for the fur teacup, whic I did not include in this post, it makes me laugh and engages me in a way much differently than the blah painting with the pice of neon strung across it.

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  10. Phyl, I love this post. I have spent the last 2 mornings looking up the artists that you mentioned above. They were all unfamiliar to me, so it was a lovely learning experience. I tend to like minimal art, so Ryman work probably appealed to me the most. I also rather like contemplating the negative space and shadows surrounding the Hesse piece. I am a little surprised that you didn't like the Weatherford because of the vibrant color (although I share your feeling about the cord). I could see using her work in the classroom as part of a discussion on color - perhaps comparing the the Derain (which I LOVE). Also, I would imagine that most of my students would be interested in finding out that neon can be used to create art. Since I work with very young students, I don't use artists that are controversial with regard to violence or sexual content, so I would not be interested in Sherman or Hesse. The video with the fingers -- ugh - not my taste at all!! I haven't visited the Newman site yet. I'll do that now. Anyway, thanks for a post that generated so many interesting comments.

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    1. Actually,Christie, I found the color in the Weatherford to be rather muddy, and the composition to be dull. Also, I really didn't 'get' the neon at all. It's placement in the image seemed random, and the whole thing looked like an unfinished failed experiment to me. For a non-representational abstraction using vibrant color, give me a Kandinsky over this piece any day.

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  11. That is always one of the hardest to try to explain to students let alone try to teach. I don't understand most of those pieces myself. I did laugh when I saw the white canvas, because who hasn't had a student walk up to you with a piece of white paper and try to tell you that it is a polar bear in a snow storm. I usually don't accept that from my students, so why would a museum accept it from an artist. I am from a small school in rural South Dakota and a few years ago we took a trip to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Of course we happen to schedule our trip when they have a special exhibit with art like you just showed in your pictures and not their usual art pieces which are really beautiful. Most of those pieces also confused me and my students and it felt really discouraging to come home and try to convince them to create complete pieces of art after seeing that. Thanks for reminding me why I have to push my students to create art that pushed the boundries but is still appealing to the masses.

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    1. Glad to know that I am not alone! Thanks for your comment!

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  12. Hi Phyl, thank you for this post, I enjoyed reading your thoughts and echo your confusion! I don't have anything to say to defend these artists except that it might help to see their other pieces. Seeing their entire collection as a whole can speak more powerfully to us and we might better understand their vision as an artist, especially to viewers who are not familiar with their work and ideas (including myself!)

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  14. "The emperor is wearing no clothes!" the little boy said...
    I am with you - this stuff is designed just to get someone's attention and evoke a negative response, thus it equals Expressionist art? I don't like it at all, either. I am all for Expressionism, but it still needs to be designed well!
    Mrs. Anna Nichols

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    1. Well said, Anna! I don't know how you happened upon this post this week, but I'm glad that someone is still reading it. After a lot of discussion and argument, I re-read my post and haven't changed my opinion!

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