Tag Archives: Marcel Duchamp

Minimalist Art Provoking Maximum Discussion

An article by Carol Vogel in yesterday’s New York Times brings me to focus here on item number one in The List. The article was a review of Glenn Ligon’s upcoming retrospective at the Whitney museum in NYC. Glenn Ligon is a modern painter and conceptual artist whose work focuses on his view and exploration of American history. There is much here to use as fodder for a dinnertime discussion with your kids.

First a bit of art history to set the stage with. His work seems to fall well into the broad category of Conceptual Art. This movement followed Abstract Expressionism (think Rothko and Pollock) and Pop Art (think Warhol). Ligon’s work seems heavily influenced by a Neo-Dadaist artist: Jasper Johns (think American flags and numbers), …and if all this is making your head spin either skip on through or, see the bottom of this post for examples of work by these artists. Conceptual Art is a cool ah, concept to talk with your kids about. It very simply put, is art that focuses on ideas rather than aesthetics. The Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp was amongst those setting the stage for conceptual art by leading us to question what art is exactly and to stretch our expectations of what art should be.

The work of art is always based on the two poles of the onlooker and the maker. Marcel Duchamp

Years later, Conceptual art began to look at the context and perception of words, objects and ideas. In Ligon’s work he often uses words or phrases from other people and reproduces them in ways that urge the viewer to look longer and harder at what has been said. Taking these words into a new frame or focus pushes us to contemplate their ideas as those outside our own experience bringing us possibly, to a new understanding.  As Ligon himself said:

You have to be a bit outside of something to see it

The New York Times article about his work is well titled: The Inside Story on Outsiderness. Look with your children at his art; doing so may move them towards that first item on our List: to widen their perspective and encourage cross-experience understanding. Glenn Ligon’s art is about important and challenging concepts developed in large part by his experience as an African-American gay man  and yet, is presented in ways that are approachable. Challenging but not crushing of a child’s interest. My friend described them as “minimalist art provoking maximum discussion”.

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Representative works discussed above:

Glenn Ligon "All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence" (inspired by words from The book "Black Like Me")
Jackson Pollock
Mark Rothko
Jasper Johns
Andy Warhol
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Is THAT art?

Perhaps now you have asked the kiddos at your dinner table “what IS art” and gathered them up to head off to a museum together to look at some art. When there you will surely find yourselves standing in front of something wondering “is THAT really art”? Often these thoughts challenge people when in front of “modern art”. I find they come to me just as often when with my mother in front of some byzantine or renaissance works with a lot of gilt…those thoughts I have learned, are better kept to myself! However, as parents convinced of the value of teaching our children about art, this question is one worth embracing and examining with our kids.

So what defines art? You will develop your own working definition. We worked over ours and have come up with a reasonable if slippery concept.

  • Art is created by an artist because it moves them emotionally or triggers them to think (ie: they use it to make a statement) or – art moves or intellectually stimulates the observer.

Whew. Let me try to explain by beginning with a discussion of Marcel Duchamp’s famous piece Fountain. Duchamp was a french artist who anonymously submitted a standard urinal albeit turned 90 degrees on it’s head and signed “R. Mutt 1917” to an art exhibition. The exhibition was held by the Society of Independent Artists (of which Duchamp was a board member) that had stated any work of art would be admitted to the show (very unlike exhibitions were usually run). Well, they did not know exactly what to do with Duchamp’s toilet. Was it art? History would later emphatically say yes. In fact 87 years later in 2004 a group of 500 art experts named it the most influential work of modern art of all time. You may ask “why on earth”? The answer lies in the concept that art is art if the artist says it is. Art is therefore in the eye of the artist. Duchamp was shifting the focus from the process of making art to the thoughts that it evokes. An editorial in defense of the urinal stated:

Whether [Duchamp] made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.

A new thought. That is what it became all about as modern art evolved. Art was shifted to be in the eye of the artist – to be about the thoughts they wanted to evoke. Hmmmm, interesting isn’t it?

But, then we, here around our dinner table asked about the viewer…isn’t art sometimes all about the viewer’s perspective? Of course! During one of our dinner-table art discussions it was pointed out that a machine, a car or plane for example, could move its viewer enough to be called art. I pointed out that the perception of everyday items was up for discussion in the movie American Beauty (of note: NOT a kids movie). In it there is a scene that perpetually sticks in my mind when one of the main characters films an ordinary plastic grocery bag caught in a swirling updraft of air. The humble bag becomes beautiful. Here, art is in the eye of the beholder.

Try these concepts of art out with your kids. Ask, for example, is a building art? Can graffiti be art? Is a well-muscled body art? Are tattoos?And when you are asked “is THAT art” the answer is likely yes it is! Or better put – “why might it be considered art”?

What IS art? Asking to stimulate creative thought in our children.

An article titled The Creativity Crisis published in Newsweek last year brings much to the discussion of why we should teach our children about art.

American creativity scores are falling…It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

The article explains the obvious importance of raising our children to be creative thinkers; the nation’s challenges will be better solved by leaders capable of creative thought. Approaches generated by creative minds and by those willing to listen to and build upon diverse ideas brought forth by others. Raising a generation of creative thinkers who enjoy and appreciate diversity seems an insurance policy for the success of our country.

Why has creativity dropped so significantly in the U.S.?

One likely culprit is the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames rather than engaging in creative activities. Another is the lack of creativity development in our schools. In effect, it’s left to the luck of the draw who becomes creative: there’s no concerted effort to nurture the creativity of all children….American teachers warn there’s no room in the day for a creativity class. Kids are fortunate if they get an art class once or twice a week.

Focusing on art classes as the place where creativity is taught is certainly a bias.  It would be best to integrate creative thought into all points of learning. As parents, we can do much at home to stimulate and encourage creative thought. When asked a question by your child, pause before answering. Ask one back. Encourage your child to think of as many possible answers as possible. Use dinner time to ask questions of your own. Accepting this as a bias, art understanding and thought is a great place to start when teaching our children creativity and acceptance of diversity. It gives us a good place to begin as parents. I suggest you open a dinner conversation with this question:

What IS art?

I asked my family this about a year ago. We have returned to the discussion throughout during many meals with family and friends. The answers are varied and in themselves form a great discussion; they became more developed as the conversation went on:

  • something you see
  • with color and shape
  • has history
  • ages well and people appreciate it over time
  • evokes feeling
  • created
  • engages your senses
  • makes a statement; the artist is trying to say something
  • something beautiful

We felt that art can include many mediums. When I asked which I was given the following list: paint, sculpture (both stabiles and mobiles), music, film, architecture, TV, nature (both as art and as inspiration), food, clothing (my 9 y/o boy added armor), the human body and literature. The list may be endless.

This discussion brought me to ask next whether they considered specific works of art to be indeed, art. I challenged them with Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. Indeed, that in turn brings me to the next blog post idea:

Is THAT art?