Tuesday, May 29, 2012

But Is It Art?

Over the weekend we took a family trip to Seattle, only about a 45 minute drive, but a place we forget is so close.  I lived in Seattle in my younger days, moving to what I think of as Rural Suburbia once I "settled down", a place where you can tell your kids to go play in the street and not be considered a bad parent.  I am as about as far from Cultural Urban Chic as you can get and still have running water.

During our jaunt to the Big City, our youngest asked that we go to the art museum.  Being the youngest, she doesn't often get a say in what we do, so I made it a point to drag my husband and reluctant teenage son along to soak up some art.  I'll admit, I felt a little out of place, a little Beverly Hillbilly-ish.  The first exhibit I saw when we walked up the stairs was this:  pieces of cardboard boxes, glued together and hanging on the wall.

I am not proud to say I burst out laughing, surprised by what they considered art.  It reminded me of the projects my kids used to create with used paper towel tubes and empty milk jugs.

This was the most head scratching display, but there were other pieces that left me wondering if I just didn't get it:  a painting done in textured white acrylic (I whispered to my daughter that it was a polar bear in a snow storm), a piece of brass with glass attached that looked like a shelf, and what resembled a large packing crate.  At this point a was feeling a little embarrassed, like they were going to find out I didn't know what any of this was supposed to be and ask me to leave (this was not helped by the antics of husband and teenage son).  But there were several things that I liked--cars hanging from the ceiling, paintings of the Pacific Northwest from the late 1800's, and a haunting troop of masked Africans that seemed frozen in time.  My daughter seemed to be enjoying herself, and they didn't have a lot of people there, so we wandered at our leisure (son and husband lagging behind), pausing at what interested us and skipping by what we didn't get. 

The Webster dictionary defines art as "the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also: works so produced."  But I just keep thinking about that cardboard creation.  Is something that looks like it took no more skill than a preschooler possesses, having just mastered scissors, be considered art?  In the children's book, Olivia by Ian Falconer, the title character goes to a museum and sees a painting that looks like someone flung paint at a canvas.  "I just don't get it," she says.  When I read this book to my older daughter, who was 5 at the time, she told me she  "got it"--it was leaves.  And sure enough, the picture was taken from a Jackson Pollock painting called Autumn Rhythm #30.

So, I'm thinking about art.  If cardboard and polar bears in snow storms are good enough, why not something from a few local artists in their early periods.   I like to call this exhibit "Pictures for Mommy:  A Mixed Medium Medley"

In this first work, our artist is using glitter crayons and water color paint to depict the princess at night.

This painter has a bold choice of colors at a young age (in tempera paint on butcher paper).

 And our last contributor has a solid concept of what an elephant can do.

Later we were talking about our trip to the art museum,  joking about the cardboard art.  My youngest patiently explained it wasn't just cardboard-- if we'd looked a little closer we'd have seen that there were fish and a bird and...

Oh, crud, I'd totally missed that.  My photo here doesn't show all the pieces, but the first one could be a bird and the next one does have a rabbit-like quality.  Apparently I could not see the forest for the trees, or the art work for the cardboard.

Out-classed by a grade schooler.  Again.


  1. Your daughter is leagues ahead of me. When I saw the piles of detergent boxes at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, I just thought of all the laundry I had to do when I got home. I wish I'd had her with me to interpret.

    1. It's like the Groucho Marx quote: "A child of five wuold understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five."
      Perhaps I could rent her out?

  2. Love this post - and the tempura painting on butcher paper from Olivia at age 2. You've got a talented and perceptive little lady on your hands.