On Wednesday, I took my high school literature class on a field trip to a local art museum for a special exhibit. It ended up being one of the best educational tours I’ve ever arranged–and I’ve arranged quite a few. It was thought provoking, engaging, confusing, humorous, and uplifting. Most of all, it reminded me, in this era where the President’s budget proposal contained $0 for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) or the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), of the power of art to teach us and to connect us, to make our nation more compassionate, united, and, well, blissful.
The host for the exhibit was The Nasher Museum of Art on the campus of Duke University in Durham. While the museum has a range of periods, and is known particularly for its pre-Columbian American art, classical antiquities, and medieval collections, it focuses on modern and contemporary art, particularly emerging African American artists (a wise choice for an elite, mostly-white institution in the most ethnically-diverse city in North Carolina). They have sponsored many special exhibits that introduced me to wonderful black artists like Barkley Hendricks, Wangechi Mutu, and NC-native Beverly McIver, whose work I would see years later in other major museums.
This week’s visit was no exception. The exhibit we were viewing was “Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush.” Abney is a 35-year-old African American artist who was born in Chicago and earned an MFA from the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City. Her “masters thesis” painting, Class of 2007, was included in the influential traveling exhibit of the Rubell Foundation, “30 Americans,” which showcases “works by many of the most important African American artists of the last three decades.” (This fantastic piece of art is currently on loan to the Nasher exhibit.) While her work has appeared in many of our country’s greatest museums, “Royal Flush” is her first solo exhibit, featuring about 30 pieces from the past 10 years.
Just exposing important new artists to our community is a service enough. But the Nasher went one step further. The tour we took, designed specifically for high school students, was called “Critical Conversations with Contemporary Art,” and was described as:
Using the contemporary paintings of Nina Chanel Abney, students will learn to look critically and to participate in provocative conversations about a diverse array of topics – from politics and protest to social media and celebrity. This tour will provide space for discussion and diverse opinions in a safe and conducive environment.
And top of it all, the Nasher allows scheduled school tours to come for free (including homeschool classes like ours). So I’m really appreciative of the Nasher for its role in educating our young people about the fact that art is more than just strolling through a building looking at various images.
Our docent tour guide, who was FABULOUS (although I’m always impressed at the quality of docents they have there), started at the mural at the entrance of the room, which Abney created onsite, but which will be painted over when the next exhibit (a testament to the fact that not all art is meant to permanent). This introduced the students to Abney’s style, which tends to be colorful, complicated with overlapping images, involves recurring images through the use of stencils, and exceedingly contemporary. She explained that Abney is trying to capture today’s “vibe,” where we are assaulted with digital images and information from all our electronic devices, and draws heavily on the style of cartoons, graphic novels, and infographics, which try to convey a story visually to a population whose attention span has diminished to maybe a couple of seconds.
We started our interactive analysis with the afore-mentioned Class of 2007. The docent drew out our interpretations of the piece from our group. Asking questions like, “What is going on?”, “Why do you say that?,” and “What else do you notice?,” she helped us to articulate our ideas of the artwork. And while she said the artist is opposed to trying to “explain” her art, she did give us a couple of bits of information about the context and content of the work, and then asked if that changed our interpretations. But knowing those things not only changed our interpretations, it transformed them. Suddenly, we were looking at the piece through totally new eyes. Suddenly, what we thought was going on was changed to a very different interpretation.
This process continued throughout the tour. We would have our ideas and interpretations, but some small item about the artist’s intent or inspiration could turn everything on its head and have us viewing it in a totally different way.
Many of the works are dealing with some of our toughest current issues–things like racism, sexism, gender identification, money and power in politics, violence, and the heightened awareness of mostly-white police killing young black men. But I loved Abney’s art, because I, at least, found it to be raising questions, rather than making a particular political statement. Her works contain conflicting elements, so it doesn’t provide easy answers. But through the lens of our tour, it made us reconsider our initial impressions and had us trying to figure out what was going on from the artist’s eyes–a young, black, female artist.
So it was just a great experience, especially for my teens. They are growing up in a world where even the party in power can’t agree on issues, let along find any common ground with the opposing party. In the news, they are seeing lots of examples of conflict, blame, judgement, and “I’m right/you are wrong.” This art and this tour instead invited them to come up with their ideas, opinions, and interpretations, but then consider an alternative viewpoint. It was a wonderful way to raise controversial topics that actually fostered discussion instead of blame, shame, arguments, and partisan positioning. It is exactly what is needed in our society to get over our different points of view to start healing some of these issues that diminish our happiness and our union.
So I’m very grateful to The Nasher Museum of Art for making this artistic learning opportunity available to my students and me. If you live in the Triangle NC area, I recommend that you view the exhibit before it closes on July 16, 2017. (But if you don’t have a tour, approach the exhibit in the same way: look at each piece and come up with you own conclusions about what it is saying BEFORE reading the text next to the art that is supposed to explain it to you.) Or if you live in Chicago or LA, keep your eyes open because the exhibit will be coming your way (sponsored by the Chicago Cultural Center and then the Institute of Contemporary Art and the California African American Museum). If you aren’t around one of those cities, then you see images from the Nasher exhibit here and Abney’s general body of work here.
But most of all, I think this demonstrates that art is not just a frill. Good art can help us to raise, to discuss, and perhaps to move towards resolving the hardest issues of our country. It helps to develop understanding, empathy, and compassion towards those whose experience and perspective are different than our own.
And I, at least, think that is not a minor or peripheral matter for our schools, our cultural institutions, or our society.