Essays

The Power of Non-Experts

by Desi Gonzalez on January 3, 2013

Yves Klein directing a model (Image courtesy pacific-standard.blogspot.com)

Yves Klein directing a model (Image courtesy pacific-standard.blogspot.com)

At Billboard’s Woman of the Year award last month, pop princess Katy Perry declared, “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.” Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon responded with quips like “Ha! HA HA HA!” and “Let me just point out that if you believe in the strength of women, Ms. Perry … you’re soaking in feminism.” Over at Slate, Amanda Hess, along with fellow writer Nona Willis Aronowitz, discussed the phenomenon of “the feminist police” — critics like Williams who scorn women like Perry. Sarcasm and condescension has never worked, Hess and Aronowitz contend; attacking deniers just widens the chasm between self-declared feminists and the rest of the female population.

I see the same story repeated in the galleries of contemporary art. I’ve had countless people express strong feelings against modern and contemporary art, as if “art” were a dirty word. (As a more high-profile example, filmmaker Werner Herzog’s declaration of despising art comes to mind.) But equally as problematic is the art world’s mocking response to the naysayers: The unease of many people is met with “That’s because you just don’t get it.” Art insiders are guilty of alienating the public, just as feminists who “condescendingly dismiss [women] as morons” alienate a lot of women. I like witticisms just as much as the next guy, but not when snark comes at the expense of inclusion.

Installation view of Yves Klein at Hirshhorn (Image via Hirshhorn)

Installation view of Yves Klein at Hirshhorn (Image via Hirshhorn)

Turns out that if we spend less time dismissing non-experts and more time listening, we can learn something. A few years ago, I spent several months in the circular halls of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. As a part of the Interpretive Guide program, I initiated critical conversations with visitors on the exhibition Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers. I’ve never thought so deeply about the oddball French artist than I did that summer — and all from talking to the public.

Most approached the exhibition with apprehension. A listless pool of blue pigment, a video of naked woman rolling around in azure paint; the works are peculiar, even for those of us with art history degrees. But after contemplating for a bit, visitors were able to make astounding connections using their vast repertoire of personal experience. Klein’s signature electric blue reminded one visitor — who had just spent the last few months backpacking through Southeast Asia — of the precious indigo dye of India. She explained that indigo has mystical connotations in Hinduism, which makes an interesting parallel to Klein’s claim that his hypnotic monochromes represented an infinite void.

Or take the perspectives of MoMA Unadulterated, a “hacked” audio tour that interviews kids on their responses to works in the Museum of Modern Art collection. (Full disclosure: I currently work at MoMA, but MoMA Unadulterated is an independent project unaffiliated with the museum.) Their commentary is adorable, but also really astute. One kid compares De Wain Valentine’s minimalist “Triple Red Disk Metal Flake – Black Edge” to flying saucers. I’ve passed by the sculpture innumerable times without stopping to think about it, but now I can’t help of thinking about its unusual form and materials as otherworldly. At Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers’s “Belgian Lion,” consisting of an image of a lion on a frying pan, one kid wondered whether he made the pan. Another youngster gets to the heart of the concept of the “readymade” with her retort: “Why would you make a pan if you can just buy it for cheaper? … Other people are buying the piece of cardboard, they’re buying the paint, they’re buying the paintbrushes … Why not?”

(Image via kathrynyoung.wordpress.com)

(Image via kathrynyoung.wordpress.com)

There’s something to be said about grassroots perspectives on an issue, whether it’s art or feminism. Nona Willis Aronowitz drove around America with the intent to talk to women about what feminism means to them. But as it turned out, the word “feminism” hardly came up: “The main thing I learned from writing [my book] Girldrive is that the question, ‘Are you a feminist?’ is boring. We asked that question and got some generic-sounding, bullshit answer. Once we moved on and asked about women’s actual lives, we learned the real stuff.” A person can have valuable opinions about a woman’s relationship to society even if said person isn’t aware of the larger movement of feminism.

It’s the same with art. You can have a powerful and intimate response to art, without knowing that Marcel Duchamp pioneered the idea of the readymade. All too often it seems like those entrenched in the art world, myself included, are too numbed by big names and buzzwords and the weight of art history to have a fresh perspective. I dream of a world of grassroots art interpretations, that values the perceptions of a novice as much as a Ph.D.

Grassroots only works, however, with the backing of a general public. Here’s how Katy Perry can, surprisingly enough, teach us a little lesson about the art world. Perry might not know much about feminism, but let’s stop attacking how people identify with a cause — feminism, contemporary art, or otherwise — and start recognizing that these non-experts might actually have something to say.

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  • Ian Aleksander Adams

    hyperallergic tell em

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Beth-Wilson/27906982 Beth Wilson

    • http://twitter.com/desigonz Desi Gonzalez

      spot. on.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=696490324 Claire Spencer

    I wholeheartedly agree! On the flipside, we as individuals have an opportunity to find pleasure in unexpected places if we are willing to BE a non-expert and explore something new. The best is when novices can find an expert who can act as a guide rather than a know-it-all to contextualize what we see so that non-experts become MORE curious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alan.longino Alan Longino

    This is one of the best pieces Hyperallergic has posted in a few weeks. Working at an art museum in the South (Mississippi, specifically) and in a building designed by Frank Gehry, we have plenty of visitors who are just immediately distanced and suspicious about what they see. However, I love that. I love talking to them and letting them know their opinions are weighted as equal to any others, because they do all – for the most part – have fascinating insights.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Alan, Would you write something for us about your experience. We’d love to work with you on it.

      • http://www.facebook.com/alan.longino Alan Longino

        I’m JUST now seeing this, and yes, I would be delighted to. Just let me know how to get in contact with y’all.

  • John Redmann

    The innocence of an uneducated or ‘uninitiated’ point of view is fine, as long as it’s kept in context. Art is supposed to be a stimulating experience, where a viewer can take in a piece and ask questions (why these materials, what is the narrative, is there a narrative, is there symbolism, why this scale, point of origin, politically influenced etc.). But casually uninformed or careless thoughts about a piece don’t really do anybody any favors.

    I understand, most people don’t want to learn about art and that it seems silly sometimes or inconsequential. But I feel the same way about Spanish bond derivatives.

    Art is as serious as any profession and just like you wouldn’t want a financial know-nothing going to work on your bank or retirement account, perhaps trusting someone with years of experience and insight is good when it comes to art.

    Hindsight is almost always 20/20, so I’m sure by the time a work is in a museum a large percentage of viewers will ‘get it’, or offer intriguing new insights but would the same be had in fringe art spaces?

    • http://twitter.com/desigonz Desi Gonzalez

      I don’t think non-experts can replace experts, but they certainly provide an alternate perspective that is missing from the conversation. I also think it’s the role of those in charge to ask people to take their “casually uninformed or careless thoughts” and rethink them. There’s a reason you reacted to a work of art in such a way; the “why” is usually pretty fascinating.

      It goes back to Katy Perry. WHY does Perry feel compelled to disavow feminism, when it seems like she aligns with its values in many ways? If feminists take the time to listen to Perry, they’ll learn the ways that feminism, as a movement, has alienated a lot of women. Same with art. If a person hates a work on view, think about why it might be. Ask lots of questions. Questions are where we start learning.

      • John Redmann

        If I had to guess, I would think Perry doesn’t want to label herself as a feminist for a few reasons: she could lose more fans that she could gain, feminism has a stigma about it, and the feminist ideal seems geared towards an older generation than that which her music appeals to. But why bring it up at all unless she wanted to draw attention to it? I don’t think anybody every confused her with a feminist when she’s singing about fireworks. Or if she was one, good for her.

        Bringing it back to art though.

        Art takes time, understanding, and the same amount of thoughtful observation that any other career should. An alternate perspective is only really useful in emerging arenas where meaning is still open for interpretation right? I doubt the director of MoMA would sit down with some 15 year olds from Milwaukee to hear their theories about Pollock and decide to rewrite his analysis of the work. By the time something is in a museum it’s too late, it’s been reviewed by an army of critics, buyers, sellers, appraisers, historians etc. the value of casual commentary is nil by comparison.

        Shock art proves that, pieces like Piss Christ or The Holy Virgin Mary have brought hoardes of armchair critics forward but to no real avail. Their voices were heard but disregarded and forgotten, they still get fired up occasionally but the impotence of their opinions is obviously apparent. The art community isn’t interested in a dialogue, why should they be? Creating mind boggling value from pigment spread across a plane demands an aura of infallibility.

        I do enjoy visiting galleries and not knowing what I’m looking at projecting my own meaning onto something. I think everyone should do it, but going for the low hanging fruit all the time isn’t any fun, and getting an educated perspective can be enlightening. Bring a non artsy friend to a small out of the way gallery opening and interesting things could emerge (they could offer a view that would be heard or make a relationship with an artist and influence future work) but not at a museum show.

        I dunno I could be totally wrong, but at this point I’m just going on and on. =P

  • Lyra Lux

    iMOCA (Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art) has a blog, run by their community outreach coordinator (a Public Ally) that talks to both non-experts and experts about their exhibits. http://indymoca.tumblr.com/

  • Rachel Mason

    Some of the most interesting conversations about contemporary art I have participated in, were within a maximum security prison between men who’s connection to art exhibitions was through art magazines – of which they were voracious readers. I was their teacher, but they taught me that the ramifications of museum and gallery shows spread far and wide into places we might not expect. Listening is not only important but necessary. Thanks for this piece.

  • http://twitter.com/ADDObis addo-bis

    The power of art is that it can stimulate both experts and non-experts alike. When an artist can do both, he/she becomes a force of nature rather than just a finite phenomenon. Thank you for this article. I will be linking to my blog.

  • fiveninneteen916

    “Yeah,when you’re flying a flag, my confidence sags.” – Rolling Stones. Identity politics are petty and booring and custom made for mediocre intellects.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shawn.chapman.9026 Shawn Chapman

    While looking at Thomas Benton’s “Susanna and the Elders” at the DeYoung Museum San Francisco a fellow patron called out,”Hey Steve! Check out the bush on this one!” Indeed Steve, indeed, check out the bush on this one.

  • http://twitter.com/popcultpirate Elisa Kreisinger

    katy perry, feminism & art. best mash up article ever. keep them coming on this blog, please.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mattisat Matt Olson

    thanks for this desi. there’s a huge amount of space around this issue to be explored. the studio i’m part of did a residency this summer at a museum that involved the public in deep and meaningful ways. we were all completely energized by most of the interactions we had with people and the ways in which they changed our ideas… and that is what art has always been about to me: change – and how successfully i can change my mind again?

    • http://twitter.com/desigonz Desi Gonzalez

      Sounds awesome–it’s always interesting to see how artists are affected by their audiences

  • xoxxxo

    I started making art at forty (I’m an outsider…part of that grassroots you mentioned) and I recall once installing a heavy pc. of work in an art building lobby. I’m on this high ladder, holding one of the heavy parts (well over 100 lb.) when this jerk down below blurts out; “explain to me what this is pc. about…I’m an educated viewer!”. That statement, under the circumstances, pretty much sums up a large portion of the art world, for me.

    http://www.markdotzler.com

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