The Myth of the Medium, or: How to Teach Abstract Expressionism to an 8 Year Old

In the summer of 2011 I was having a lovely museum day in Washington, D.C. with a friend, a museum educator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. We’d had a delightful morning being nit-pickingly critical of the displays and educational choices employed at the Museum of American History, the American Indian Museum and the National Archives and finally it was my turn to show her how things were done in art museums. After half of a day of snarkily debating word choices and font size in otherwise wonderful text panels, snickering at slightly confusing exhibit flow patterns, and frustratedly commenting that the of the multitude of hands-on activities were slightly too small for adults, we walked into the National Gallery of Art and had nothing to say. We had nothing to say because there was nothing there to comment on.

Simone knew what was up. If you want an audience, just make Mary shoot lasers out of her eyeballs. [Source: The Uffizi Gallery]

Simone knew what was up. If you want an audience, just make Mary shoot lasers out of her eyeballs. [Source: The Uffizi Gallery]

For those of you who have not been to the National Gallery, visitors walk through megalithic marble arches, through the imposing doors, and straight into the first twelve galleries filled to the brim with Italian altarpieces and panel paintings. Twelve. Galleries. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Italian Madonna and Child iconography – the way the figures evolved to fit the social and ideological climate of their context using the same basic formula is absolutely fascinating! To someone who hasn’t intimately studied the ideological climate of 13th century Italo-Byzantine Rome, however, they look remarkably like a bunch of creepy babies held by unfortunate looking women with plates on their heads.

You might think that my proposed solution is to start with something “more interesting,” which is not what I’m suggesting at all. First and foremost, each and every one of those works is phenomenally exciting in its own right and even more so in a chronological context of development.

the many faces of the madonna 2Yes, the sheer volume of them might be daunting and may be better served in smaller doses and regular rotation, but there is something to be said for wanting to display the treasures that the collection contains. What baffles me is that there was no infrastructure beyond a small introductory paragraph in Gallery 1 to tell you why you were looking at hundreds of ugly women and babies or what makes one different from the next. The visitor ends up feeling bored and, worse, stupid – as if the museum is an exclusive club for those who read the textbook before coming. A simple banner comparing the major historical and artistic developments over the period covered would suffice to give the viewer some context and, better yet, something to actively look for. I firmly believe that it isn’t about what we use to attract the viewer’s attention to the information – pretty fonts and bright colours, digital signage, interactive components are all superfluous if the content isn’t captivating and, frankly, inspiring.

And here is where we encounter the oh-so-familiar phrase, the bane of the museum educator’s existence, the words every modern art scholar fights every day to discard with the rubbish: “But my kid could make that!” White-box art – the conceptual pieces, the avant-garde, expressionism, impressionism, every ‘ism’ qualified by a manifesto – is patently and sometimes by definition difficult to grasp. It is our failings as museum educators to facilitate a basic understanding, in the same way that people don’t “get” Italian panel paintings, that breeds this type of thought. We aren’t providing a context that viewers can and want to relate to.

kids drawing

No they couldn't. Moving on. [Source: The Guggenheim Museum]

No they couldn’t. Moving on. [Source: The Guggenheim Museum]

In order to make art and art theory digestible, we have to latch onto the core of each concept and work to present it in its most basic form. In the case of most daunting and deliberately obfuscatory of the lot, Mark Rothko, that might be something like ‘art is an attempt to reconcile our physical and spiritual selves, and by viewing these colours and shapes that symbolically reflect us, the art becomes part of our selves’ (among many, many other larger more complex ideas). This then becomes: “How do you feel when you stand in front of a Rothko painting?” By creating a chapel atmosphere, replicating the lighting and mood by which Rothko created his works without distractions or educational aids inside the exhibit, we can bring the viewer into a physical and emotional state in which to appreciate what Rothko intended. Then include a text panel outside the exhibit explaining the basics of Rothko’s arguments and his reasons for using colour and squares as his primary medium, then ask them questions. Give the viewer a task; a simple, informative task that will force them to interact with the objects as they were intended to be grappled with. All this would require is a few questions – What does the color red mean to you? Is the red Rothko uses the same as what you think of when you think of ‘red’? Does it change the longer you look at it? How big are Rothko’s paintings? How does their size make you feel? Just one or two will do and they know how to think when they see the works of art.

"Of course the museum is open to everyone! Just read these and come back when you're finished!"

“Of course the museum is open to everyone! Just read these and come back when you’re finished!”

But isn’t that a shameful simplification of a lifetime of prolific and complex ideas? Yes, but we can’t give people an in-depth working knowledge of every art movement in the history of the world. Our job is to give them the information they need to see works through the right lens and inspire them to seek that history out when they go home. Our job is to teach them how to learn.

Fun fact: most people that I have observed have forgotten how to learn. We are taught from a young age that ‘learning’ takes place in the classroom; it is the numbers and facts and figures that one memorises, spits out, and maybe recalls at a pub quiz or office Christmas party. This is such a shame because, as you my dear random-art-blog-reader certainly already know, we can learn from just about anything, anywhere. And it’s fun! We promise! Museums are just one of the limitless places we can feed our brains and better our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Our job as museum educators, at its core, is to instil a passion for learning in general. You can present a viewer with every known fact on the planet about an object, but if it isn’t presented in a way that facilitates the skill and pleasure of the pursuit of knowledge – some reason why this is worth learning – they are going to walk away with little more than they came with. Not everyone is an art person, and that is okay. We have the ability, however, to teach people how to learn outside of a classroom and find something, anything, that strikes their fancy and inspires them to learn more. We know that we can teach the obvious – art techniques, history, and philosophy – but we also have the materials to tell the stories of mathematical geniuses turned artists and architects, the chemistry of pigments and the disintegration of different materials over time, how dissection was used to perfect depictions of the human anatomy, the dispersal of public funding and evolution of national economies, pop culture references, inside jokes from history, and so, so much more. Matisse once said “I wouldn’t mind turning into a vermilion goldfish,” and I think I know what he means [Matisse (1984), Pierre Schneider]. To be a burst of colour and beauty in this world would be a gift, but to live an existence of constant observation and learning would be ideal (in spite of and due to the three second memory).

Museums are our windows to the world outside the fishbowl of our individual presents. And they should be celebrated. They should be cathedrals of imagination, monuments to the past that lasted, guidebooks to the history of thought, and mentors to show people how their thoughts, feelings, and lives fit in. Art museums have the unique pleasure of telling the story of history through the thoughts and feelings and lives of individuals – individuals that visitors can relate to in the form of objects that are manifestations of abstract ideas, history-defining movements, and the will of a people. Artists have the capacity to paint minds with the sparks of passion that led to some of the most important moments of history, but, like so many things, transferring that passion is simply a matter of translation into a language the viewer understands.

So how do you teach Abstract Expressionism to an 8 year old? You give them a reason to want to learn.

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