“Is This Art?”: Tales from 3 New York City Educators

As museum educators, we’re always trying to get visitors to slow down, but sometimes we have a more immediate task, convincing them that they are in fact looking at a work of art. Recently three New York City educators got together and talked about the most common “Is this art?” situations we’ve encountered.

Rachel Crumpler on Jackson Pollock: “My four-year-old could do that.”

Observing Jackson Pollock's 'Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)', Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; http://blog.chron.com/babysteps/
Observing Jackson Pollock’s ‘Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; http://blog.chron.com/babysteps/

Before you stop reading, let me acknowledge – yes, I have chosen a cliché. My intention is to use Pollock as a stand-in, a canonical example, of any number of more process-based works. For instance: Kazou Shiraga’s slippery barefoot paintings, Zarina’s meticulous Pin Drawings, Franz Kline’s definitive brushstrokes, or even John Chamberlain’s crunched-up cars. These works often challenge viewers’ preconceptions about what kind of art they will (or should) see hanging on the walls of the museum.

The responses vary, ranging from “My four-year-old could do that” to “It looks like scribble-scrabble, finger painting, a car wreck, a big mess.” Or the hardest response for an educator to field: the uncomfortable polite silence punctuated with a quick roll of the eye or a smirk shared between friends. Once uttered, perhaps coaxed forth, responses invariably question the artist’s skill and the overall value of the artwork. (Confession: I still have to take a deep breath and remind myself not to get annoyed when a visitor sneers and likens an artist to a four-year-old, insulting some of my favorite children as well as some of my favorite artists.) In fact, these comments are often coming from visitors who feel affronted by the unexpected and are responding defensively.

Many of the initial comments a Pollock (or any process-based work) elicits refer to how the painting was made – and also often indicate a hesitation to accept the work as art. Though stated defensively, these comments are not entirely off base. I think it’s important to first acknowledge and accept the hesitation. That’s something I love about museums. There is always some artwork that makes me uncomfortable, that challenges my own definition of what art can be. In his time, Jackson Pollock was pushing the envelope; with his artwork, he was asking questions about how art should look and how art can be made.

Conversations in museums, thankfully, are not meant to appraise the quality of the artworks viewed, but rather to unpack the inherent ideas. After recognizing the broader questions of value and defining art, leaving them open for discussion, I would want to ground the conversation in the artwork at hand. For Pollock, I would want to return to the implicit observations made in the initial comments and how they relate to the creative process. What about the painting makes it look like scribbling, finger painting, a mess? Where, specifically, in the painting do you see that?

The ensuing conversation will vary, depending on who is taking part and what the original comments were; any number of approaches could move the discussion forward.

I might show some of Pollock’s earlier and more representational work from his years with the Art Students League. Looking at the two works side by side silently states that the abstraction is a choice, not a matter of ability. I might ask the group how the two would be different to make. Or I might share that Pollock lived with his wife Lee Krasner in a farmhouse on Long Island. He would spread his canvases out on the floor of his large studio, and using brushes, sticks and sometimes a turkey baster loaded with house paint, he would begin to squirt, pour and drip onto the floor. I might ask the group to see if they can identify the painting’s starting and ending points. Alternately, I might ask the group to envision a four-year-olds drawing and compare it to the Pollock – how do the two differ, and what do they share in common?

The differences found in the all-over painting style may point to Pollock’s control of the paint and academic knowledge of composition. The similarities, however, might allow for greater understanding of Pollock’s process and more nuanced interpretations of his work. In fact, the response “my four-year-old could do that” may be more insightful than the participant (or educator) realizes.

Four-year-olds, still learning language and ways to interact with other humans, often express themselves physically. Anger is communicated through clenched fists and stomping feet; sadness, through a down-turned glance or the curl of the spine. And sometimes, it just feels good to run. For a four-year-old, movement is a primary means of engaging with the world. Likewise, Pollock chose to engage with the canvas through movement. Rather than communicating through recognizable images, he dripped, dribbled, spilled and splattered the paint in a dizzying dance across his studio floor. The painting we see can be read as the aftermath, a record of the artist’s intuitive physical expression.

Jen Oleniczak on Kiki Smith: “That’s disgusting, how is it art?”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Describing something as beautiful is as benign as saying your day is ‘fine’ – neither offer information and both are frustrating without more information. The same can be said for calling something disgusting – and much like asking why a day is just ‘fine’ asking why a person thinks something is disgusting often ends up with the retort of “because it just is.”

A more recent work by Kiki Smith entitled "Lilith," 1994, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Smath.
A more recent work by Kiki Smith entitled “Lilith,” 1994, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Smath.

Aesthetics are subjective, and much art can be overlooked because it is not outwardly ‘beautiful.’ Having the experience of teaching with classic and modern art, I’ve heard the “pfft, that’s disgusting” in front of works not traditionally ‘beautiful’. While it’s fairly easy to call a floral Rococo work ‘beautiful’ and ‘art’ – what about a gritty Kiki Smith?

My goal as an educator is not only to have visitors appreciate craft in a work that isn’t traditionally ‘beautiful,’ but also to understand the art AND beauty is often in the idea, as well as the work. Kiki Smith’s Tale encompasses that very balance. Smith is known for her representations of the body, usually altered in gasp-inducing ways. Tale is a sculpture of a woman crawling on the ground with a long trail of feces (fake) following behind her – admittedly, a bit cringe worthy, even for the savviest of art viewers. and easily something a visitor could dismiss as disgusting. But when examined closer, the work, like all of Smith’s body works, is brilliantly complex.

When in doubt, I bring out the inquiry guns for students and adults alike. Just the title of the work, Tale, provokes the question: why do you think Smith used Tale and not Tail? What could the title imply? A quote from Smith herself opens the conversation further:

The Tale piece was about kind of shame and humiliation about something – like that you’re dragging this sort of internal personal garbage around with you all the time. And also the shame and humiliation of not being able to hide it, that it’s so apparent in one’s own being. (as cited in NPR “Artist Kiki Smith: A Profile”)

Just those brief questions and an artist quote allow the work to gain a life – and let people stop and think about the ideas behind a work of art. Everyone has personal ‘garbage’ and that new connection between art and life is exposed with Smith’s quote. The work becomes an experience and the idea behind it becomes intriguing, thought-provoking and even beautiful.

Shannon Murphy on Isamu Noguchi’s Akaris: “I got the same thing from Ikea.”

Yes, Ikea sells beautiful paper lanterns, and it’s jarring to see a similar object in a museum. Isamu Noguchi’s version of the paper lantern, the Akari, has been knocked off since he began designing them in the early 1950s. I frequently meet visitors who get snarky upon seeing one during a tour. They are understandably suspicious of my “tour,” especially if it ends at the gift shop where they can purchase an Akari. Yet, this is the very reason why I love the Akaris. You can take a sculpture home. If you don’t actually want one, the concept alone is worth investigating more — high art specifically made to be affordable.

Isamu Noguchi seated with three Akari, c. 1950s. Image Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum
Isamu Noguchi seated with three Akari, c. 1950s. Image Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum

I understand how some of the mystique can be lost when it’s possible to take home the work of art, especially when it comes with an on/off switch. As an educator, I invite visitors first to consider how the Akari is different from the Ikea lamp. If the soft glow of the handmade paper doesn’t capture them, I invite them to look inside and inspect the hand-crafted bamboo armature. Then, I like to share the story of the object to place it in a historical context. Akaris were conceived in 1951 when Noguchi was visiting a small town in Japan called Gifu. The mayor of the town asked Noguchi to re-design the traditional paper lantern. Noguchi went to work and designed hundreds of Akaris in various abstract shapes. The story continues for decades as Noguchi struggled to exhibit Akaris as fine art, while still selling them at a reasonable price. The struggle is often said to have cost him a Grand Prize at the 1986 Venice Biennale where he insisted on exhibiting the Akaris along with his stone and metal sculptures. Much to Noguchi’s dismay, the Akaris were stuck in a realm of applied art.

Sometimes, the artist’s words resonate with visitors. Noguchi said “Call it sculpture when it moves you so.” The Akaris were, “the one thing I’ve done out of pure love . . . nothing to do with commerce.” Saying the word “love,” while looking at a glowing light and knowing there was a history of struggle wins visitors over every time. Money! And then with a wry smile, I remind my group that the Akaris are sold downstairs in the shop. I tell them that it won’t last forever, the paper will one day begin to turn and the bamboo will give. Its authentic beauty does last for many years though, and it could be the last thing you see before you go to bed every night. Try that with Starry Night.

Which objects do you find people asking “Is this art?”  How have you handled it?  We’d love for everyone to share their stories here.

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rachel-crumplerRACHEL CRUMPLER works as a museum educator for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Noguchi Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art. She also teaches art classes for Foster Pride, a non-profit organization that provides free classes to children in the New York City foster care system. She holds a MA from Stony Brook University in Art Theory, History and Criticism. Rachel’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, or the Whitney Museum of American Art.

OleniczakJEN OLENICZAK: Founder of The Engaging Educator, a NYC-based organization that specializes in theatre, improv, and movement workshops and professional developments for educators. With a dual background in art history and theatre, Jen is also a museum educator, trained actor, and improviser. She’s worked as an educator with the Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, The Frick Collection, Noguchi Museum, and New York Transit Museum. Jen keeps herself busy performing with National Comedy Theatre and searching for new delicious food spots. Jen’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, or The Frick Collection.

shannon_bwSHANNON MURPHY: Currently teaches at the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. She is constantly experimenting with new strategies to engage visitors and students with art. Shannon holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and is working on her MA at the City College of New York. In her free time she enjoys yoga, papermaking, and playing soccer with friends. Shannon’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the Noguchi Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, or the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.


19 thoughts on ““Is This Art?”: Tales from 3 New York City Educators”

  1. Really enjoyed this post. I hear these kinds of comments from time to time in the classroom, and they can often rear their heads as conversation killers. It’s great to hear how educators develop meaningful inquiries around them. More posts like this!

    1. Thanks Michelle! What kind of works do you hear it with in the classroom?

      They can completely kill the conversation – especially when educators say ‘It just is’ – or worse – ‘It’s hanging in the museum, of course it’s art’.

  2. Hi there. I was really happy to see this topic being tackled here, and was inspired to respond in more depth on my own site. Rachel Crumpler says “After recognizing the broader questions of value and defining art, leaving them open for discussion, I would want to ground the conversation in the artwork at hand.” I think the conversations that happen around these broader questions about art are incredibly tricky, and that’s what I was inspired to consider in more depth.

    Here’s a link to the post: http://dianaclarke.com/blog/2013/06/in-defense-of-art-and-why-is-this-art-is-not-a-useful-question/

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Diana!

      I’m sure the others will chime in soon – just wanted to throw my opinion into the mix.

      While I do agree with you that the question is not just ‘is this art’, I’ve heard educators (and administrators) dismiss the question with ‘well it’s in a museum, of course it’s art.’ I would shut off after an answer like that as well, honestly. It’s our job as educators, as you so rightly put, to hear the other questions attached and address those.

      I have a hard time with point #3 in your blog. Artists don’t always know what they are doing. Many times they are experimenting – and many artists that know what they are doing don’t end up in museums for various reasons. Happily opening this up for discussion, but I think this point is tough for a good portion of the general public in museums (and possibly a lot of the staff, me included)



      1. Hi Jen,

        Thanks for your reply. I want to clarify what I mean when I say we must assume artists know what they’re doing, because I mean so in the way that a scientist knows what he’s doing. We tend to understand that scientists experiment, but ultimately that they are not doing so blindly (although they may not know what the outcome will be, they have knowledge of what it is they’re doing). And even if a scientist’s experiment does not make sense to the general public (because it can be a very specialized field after all), we assume a scientist “knows what he’s doing”. This assuming does not tend to be the case with artists. So as a defender of art, and as an educator, I think it makes sense to assume an artist intended for you to see what you see (such as drips on a canvas), and that is all that I mean when I say “they know what they’re doing,” although I think you are right to point out that artists may not always know what the outcomes will be when they are making.

        The question this leaves me with, however, is HOW we as museum educators can tackle talking about the really messy and intricate systems of the world that leads to drip paintings making it into MoMA. Because ultimately, we can say a piece of art is art if it’s in a museum and be correct (regardless of its perceived value) — but I wonder how we can talk about why things are the way things are…with the general public. How can we boil it down to something that makes sense, without avoiding the complexity of the art system?

        I hope I am being a bit clearer, because it is my respect for the genuinely curious that makes me think about how to equally genuinely respond to some tough questions and realities.


    2. Diana, thanks for such a thoughtful response to this blog post! I couldn’t agree more that the question “Is this Art?” needs to be unpacked.

      You know, there’s part of me that agrees with you about the canon. So what if they don’t get it. If they haven’t been fed the same story of art history (packed with holes, racism and elitists) maybe they’re luckier for it. Still, it’s my job as an art museum educator to introduce visitors to information to guide their interpretation of a work of art. We strive to make the information connect to them, and here’s where the decision making begins. What information should we share?

      1. I completely agree, Diana. Conversations about what makes art ART are incredibly tricky – and incredibly interesting. Everyone has such different opinions (usually firmly held) about what the defining lines should be. When trying to set out a definition of art, people might consider how a piece is made, its purpose, the authenticating role of the museum, or who created the work.

        However, the more philosophical questions involved in defining art don’t always help us to make meaning of the artwork in front of us. I love this point in your blog, and you put it so eloquently — “Even if we answer them, we are back where we started, bewildered before a beautiful mess of dripped paint.”

  3. Among the enduring issues in museum education, this one is a classic.

    In our gallery guide (docent) training, we spend time on learning how to find the guest’s real question – not just the one that was asked – and it makes all the difference in these awkward moments. Here’s what I mean:

    Often, when someone offers these comments, I spend some time asking follow up questions – I want to get to the root of their comment, which probably has nothing to do with the work they’re viewing. They may not know what they’re supposed to say, or think – so they start with what they know. “My kid could do that” is a place of comfort – it means they are not so separate from the museum, because their kid could do that, too – and in stating that question or comment, they take their first step towards understanding art. While it may not always feel that way, I’ve seen it hundreds of times, and it’s usually true. As a bonus, it gets the guide to explain what’s going on, which is probably what they wanted – but by not “asking” they are safe from looking ignorant.

    Another favorite of mine – “how much did that cost?” Outside of the incognito art collectors that visit museums, the average guest that asks this question usually doesn’t need to know the price. They do, however, understand money, and are using the question as a way to assess value – and begin to try to understand the art.

    In every eye-rolling case, there’s a good chance the guest is new to museums, and does not know yet how to think about what they’re viewing. If we can see these questions as the beginning of a real inquiry, they become much easier to manage. Our responses (verbal and physical) will have an affect on the guest’s future interest in art – or at the very least, in our museum. Therefore, I see these moments as huge opportunities to do something good.

    1. Yes! That is so true. Fielding initial comments and questions about an artwork often requires artful follow-up questions and small acts of translation: What is the real question being asked?

      We learn by building on what we already know. So for a newcomer to a museum – or to a challenging work of art, it makes sense that the initial response would be to make a connection one’s own life. (Parents might think of their child’s artwork.) I agree, it’s incredibly important to recognize the opportunity and to respond to these questions and comments in a manner that makes the visitor confident making further personal connections.

      It’s interesting to consider how our physical (as well as verbal) responses might affect the conversation as well as the visitors’ experience in a museum. I’m now thinking about my own posture, and how I might best create a sense of openness and curiosity without saying a word.

      Thanks, Niki, for the thoughtful and thought-provoking response.

  4. The question “what is art” is a never ending one, and can be tricky to even scratch the surface on a 45 minute tour, when I was in grad school we would spend hours and hours discussing this and never seemed to be able to fully answer it.
    I like the way the three of you have thoughtfully constructed ways to open up the dialogue and engage the museum guests when this question comes up. I find that most of the time people just need more information to open their minds. I have recently encountered a hesitation with the docents to include a female nude on their tours. However, after giving them more information (i.e. the artist was female, working in the early 1900’s, from an actual female model, which gives this artwork an authenticity that goes beyond the idealistic female body type) the docents seemed more receptive to teaching it.

    1. Andrea, I love that you figured out which information your docents needed to get comfortable with the object! That the artist was female and working from a live model must have been inspiring to hear. It’s so true that the right information will take you far. Many museums are beginning to share institutional stories through blogs and I’ve found that this kind of insider information has been helpful with certain objects. For instance MoMA has a fabulous blog called Inside/Out. I once showed images of Richard Serra’s Delineator being installed (http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/08/27/richard-serras-delineator-comes-to-moma) during a tour and found that this information really captured the audience.

  5. I believe that when visitors ask “Is This Art?” they are actually asking “Is This Good Art?”

    A non-expert visitor to an art museum assumes that a painting in a museum is considered to be “art” by the museum or it wouldn’t be there. The subtext of the question is “This doesn’t look good to me — am I missing something?” Many works hanging in art museums are not particularly good paintings. Just because an artist is famous or great doesn’t mean that every work he/she produced is great or even good. Many are mediocre. Just as some works by great authors are not good.

    Many paintings hang on the walls of museums because a wealthy donor gave them along with better works but with the caveat that all of the donated paintings need to be on the walls of the museum (sometimes for a limited time, sometimes once a year, etc.). Many paintings are on the walls of even better known museums because they the only works the museum has that are attributed to Velasquez or Rembrandt or their workshops or other well-known artists. This is understandable but many of these works are second rate.

    One of my favorite books is Art: A Field Guide (Knopf 2001) by Robert Cumming, former chairman of Christie’s International Art Studies. In his Introduction he says:

    “My first job in the art world was at the Tate Gallery, as a new member of a small team whose task was to stand in front of the works on display and explain them to the public. I soon learned that four questions were asked over and over again:”

    “1) What should I look for? What are the key features in a Picasso, Rembrandt, Raphael, Turner?”
    “2) What is going on? What is the story? Who is Hercules? What is the Nativity? Who is that girl with a broken wheel? Who is the man abducting the woman who looks like a tree? Does that big red square mean anything?”
    “3) What is its value? ….”
    “4) Is it any good or, in front of a pile of bricks or an unmade bed, am I being taken for a ride?”

    “The present-day art world is a huge industry of museums, teaching institutions, commercial operations and official bodies, all with reputations and postures to maintain. They are often desperate to convince us of the credibility of their official messages. I understand the pressures that impel these institutions to maintain a party line, but in the face of all that vested self-interest there is a need for a no-nonsense alternative voice.”

    1. Hi Lenore! Thanks for your comment-oh the donor pieces. =D There is much to be said about the plethora of art that hangs for donation sake.

      I do agree with you one the visitors question ‘is this good art?’ I actually really like that question, a lot, and frequently encourage critical thinking within the visitor. A favorite question of mine is “do you think so? Why or why not?”

      Also my notorious response of ‘You don’t have to like it, or think it’s art, you just need to know why you feel the way you do.’


  6. The most difficult works for people to understand – and for me to educate and teach them about them – are usually conceptual and minimal works of art or pieces which ‘concept’ or meaning is imbedded. For example, KURT SCHWITTERS works or even a MALEVICH or MONDRIAN work seems a challenge sometimes…but as educators, one fact is important – know your audience; read their facial expressions and try to explain to them why that artwork is special. Thank you for sharing your knowledge! Very useful info!

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