Misunderstood Modern Art | The American Word

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Misunderstood Modern Art

Ashley Tejeda | 10/20/16 10:00am
| Updated 10/21/16 4:39pm

Ashley Tejeda / American Word Magazine

On Oct. 5, in a small room on the third floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), 15 people gathered for the Conversation Pieces gallery talk. It wasn’t the crowd some would expect; there were no contemporary art buyers or people wearing monocles and carrying gold canes. Instead, there were students, coworkers, regulars and one museum docent, all eager to learn. The Smithsonian’s Conversation Piece is a free public event given monthly for all art enthusiasts, lovers and wandering museum visitors. As the name suggests, they come to do one thing: have a conversation over a piece of contemporary art.

Contemporary art can be challenging to understand, which is why there are negative misconceptions about the genre. Phrases that many people hear while visiting art museums are, “I don’t understand,” “A baby can make this,” and “these are just [insert shape].” Compared to the presidential bust exhibit or the floor to ceiling landscape paintings, some might think the contemporary art floor is all but neglected. Yet, SAAM’s contemporary art exhibits have the same if not more hustle and bustle that other exhibits witness. SAAM’s senior curator of contemporary interpretation and creator of the Conversation Piece talks, Joanna Marsh, may be the reason that more visitors are feeling at home on the contemporary art floor.

“I think contemporary art gets a bad wrap because so many people who write and talk about art use very rarified language – kind of art speak – and that alienates people,” said Marsh. She revamped Conversation Pieces this year, inspired by an older version called Modern Art Conversations, and next month will be her seventh gallery talk. Her main wish is to close the gap between installations and visitors. To accomplish this, her talks aren’t traditional art history lessons. Marsh avoids the typical institutional tone that visitors expect by letting people make their own interpretations. As the creator and facilitator of these talks, Joanna Marsh said, “At its core, [Conversation Piece] is about having a dialogue and allowing visitors to make meaning for themselves.” Visitors were doing exactly this last Wednesday.

This month’s Conversation Piece was centered around “Amendment #8” by Mark Bradford, a canvas with multiple layers of sandpapered posters of a variety of colors. Underneath the layers, you can barely make out the word underneath. It was a riskier piece than the previous Conversation Pieces because it was obviously more abstract.

The discussion began at six, and as visitors filled the semicircle of blue foldable chairs, the room began to feel more like an intimate gathering of club members than a coming together of strangers. The group began by observing the art and the room it was in. One visitor stated that the entire room seemed to be about words. To the group’s right was “State Names” by Jaune Smith, and to their left was “By Any Means Necessary (after Malcolm X)” by Tim Rollins. Each painting had incorporated some version of words into it, including our Conversation Piece, which had the words of the Eighth Amendment etched onto it.

Words definitely seemed to be the theme of the night, as slowly but steadily each person began to use their own to explain what the artwork meant to them. Marsh helped move the conversation along by both answering and asking questions. The group talked about the intentions of the artist and the emotions the piece evoked in the viewers. Answers varied from memories of graffiti, to the possibility of a cryptic message encoded into the colors. As time ticked by, the conversation moved from societal problems to racial issues and even discussions about the founding fathers. Suddenly, it was five ‘til seven, and the security guard came to tell us that the museum would be closing soon. As the visitors stood to help put away the blue chairs, they lingered a bit longer to talk to each other about unfinished answers and unspoken questions. “I think I’ll come back next month,” said one person as the visitors shuffled to the elevator doors.

Contemporary art, like any other, is a medium for storytelling. However, some museum visitors think contemporary art is telling a story that isn’t for them; this is the most common myth about contemporary and modern art. The very definition of contemporary art is that it’s the art of today. What visitors often forget is that the artwork on the third floor of the SAAM is made by artists who are still alive, unlike some of the more historical pieces on the lower levels. Many contemporary artists of the 21st century are trying to convey the struggles and issues that we’re all facing and experiencing. It’s not about understanding what the art is trying to tell you; art is also about what you personally feel, and those emotions vary from person to person. Since everyone at the talk was able to connect an experience or a story with the piece, they all walked away understanding contemporary art more than they did when they came in.

For those who want to learn more about art, SAAM also holds crash courses in art history. When Joanna Marsh hosted her first art history course, more than 70 people attended. It’s obvious that many people want to learn more about art, and these talks and courses may even set a precedent for similar gallery talks in other art museums. If you’re wondering how to accomplish such a feat, Joanna Marsh said, “The best way to engage visitors around contemporary art is to show them its relevance to their life and to their experiences… that’s the challenge.”