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.
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?”
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.