Flags, 1968 Jasper Johns The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Flags, 1968
Jasper Johns
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jasper Johns, a famous American artist who is often called an originator of the Neo-Dada movement, created this piece, Flags, in 1968. It was made using lithography and on home-made paper. Johns is famous for using flags in many of his pieces, and these flags have been interpreted to have a variety of meanings. In fact, some have wondered whether the point of the flags is that they are open to continual reinterpretation. Unlike many Dada artists, such as Duchamp, who use found objects as their art, Johns creates everyday objects out of fine-art materials. However, like many Dadaists, Johns seems to have an anti-war sentiment to his art. This piece in particular, created in the midst of the Vietnam war, seems to question what it means to be American. If you stare at the white dot in the center of the green and orange flag, and then glance down at the ghostly flag beneath it,  you can see a slight red/white/blue tinge in the bottom flag. But these colors are only fleeting, and this ghostly flag is disappearing off the page. Johns seems to suggest that American identity is disappearing, or perhaps changing (for the worse). I think this is a powerful, and beautiful, statement about the construction of national identity and how this identity is changed when your disagree with major decisions made by your own government–such as participating in a violent and costly war.


The Face of the World

JR, 28 Millimeters, Women Are Heroes Action dans la Favela Morro da Providência, Escalier, Rio de Janeiro, Brésil, 2008
JR, 28 Millimeters, Women Are Heroes
Action dans la Favela Morro da Providência, Escalier, Rio de Janeiro, Brésil, 2008

JR, a street artist who spoke at TED 2011, has always been a non-traditional artist. In his TED talk he describes some of his original work, claiming that he posted it in the streets “confronting it directly with the public.” This idea, that an artist would bypass traditional museum culture and take his work directly to the streets seems quite revolutionary, especially considering that JR was based in Paris–the city of the museums. But even more than that, JR wants to change the world with art.  One of his most influential projects, entitled “Women are Heroes”, is known across the world. JR decided to take the faces of some of the most overlooked people in the world, women, and paste them onto the side of buildings, or in the case of Kibera, Kenya, onto the roofs of people’s houses. (What is particularly powerful about this, is that if you search for Kibera, Kenya on google maps and look at the satellite picture, the women of Kibera stare up at you.) JR is a fascinating artist, and one who will probably continue to challenge traditional boundaries and make good art. When asked why he was doing what he was doing, if he was the media, or an NGO, JR replied “Art. Just art.” But JR’s art isn’t just art. JR understands that art can change how we see the world, and he is using it to help us to see our world.

A Truly World Music

The Chicago based band, Funkadesi, demonstrates the power of music in bringing cultures together. Each of their members, hailing from across the globe and from a variety of different cultural and musical traditions, bring their own unique voice to the group. Together they create music that is not only great to listen to and fun to dance to, but also a true multi-cultural experience. Funkadesi strongly believes in the power of music to create a common ground for people of many diverse backgrounds and cultures, and facilitate workshops that can help people experience this for themselves.

Jacob Riis’s Vision

Jacob Riis: "Street Arabs" circa 1890 http://www.museumsyndicate.com/item.php?item=42964
Jacob Riis: “Street Arabs” circa 1890

The idea that art and social change are linked is not a new one. Jacob Riis, a late-19th century/early-20th century photographer, is only one example of someone who has  been using their artwork to call attention to social problems throughout history. Riis used his photography to help the impoverished in New York City. While he was not perfect–and is critiqued for his racist and offensive views–Riis worked hard to create social reform in New York City by using the relatively recent invention of flash photography to document slums, tenement houses, dark streets and other hardships of the poor . Riis’s photography can be seen in The Museum of the City of New York‘s online collection.

Reading is Good For You

The Abbey Bookshop, Paris, France. Photo by: Zoe Rand
The Abbey Bookshop.  Paris, France.
Photo by: Zoe Rand

A recent study published in the journal of Science found that after reading literary fiction people performed better on tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. They also tested people who had read popular fiction, or nonfiction, and those people performed worse than those who read literary fiction. For us book nerds out there this seems like good news. Science has proved something that we have known all along–that reading immerses you so completely in the world and characters it creates, worlds that  are complex and sometimes even perplexing, that it can help you to understand the world that you live in. What’s interesting about this study is that it gives a quantifiable effect of reading literature and that this effect was produced after only minutes of reading literature.

Pam Belluk, a journalist for the New York Times, seemed to have some questions on why these results were produced from reading literary fiction but not popular fiction. Belluk quotes Albert Wendland who claims that in literary fiction “each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.” Literary fiction asks the reader to work to understand the characters, and in this way helps us to understand the world around us. But what I find particularly interesting is that, unlike most of the high school English curriculums I’ve encountered, this doesn’t mean we should discount popular fiction entirely. Wendland suggests that “maybe popular fiction is a way of dealing more with one’s own self, maybe, with one’s own wants, desires, needs.” I think that this is a really interesting distinction–that literary fiction helps us understand the world, but that popular fiction helps us to understand ourselves–and one that I agree with. Perhaps someday science will find a way to quantify that as well. But in the meantime, I guess we’ll just have to keep on reading.

Who is an Artist?

“Art” is a term we throw around with an astounding amount of nonchalance, but also one we give a great deal of thought to. Almost anyone, even a there-year-old, would be able to point to something and say “this is art.” But probably not everyone would agree with said three-year-old. Maybe we will be debating the definition of art forever– and maybe this is an important debate to have. But what deserves equal attention is who we consider an “artist.” Historically there have been very specific definitions of who can be an artist–often privileging white men. While this has dramatically changed over the years, there is still a lot of barriers to being culturally recognized as an “artist.” An interesting perspective on this can be seen in the case of outsider art. Sarah Boxer offers a nice overview of the history of outsider art as well as acknowledges the growing acceptance, and in fact celebration, of outsider art in the “insider” art world. Outsider art, on first glance, seems like a step in the right direction to breaking down the barriers to who we call an artist. Boxer claims the “standard outsider biography thus includes not only a traumatic (typically motherless) childhood, a history of institutionalization (orphanage, asylum, prison), a stunted education, a subsistence job, and an intense drive to make art.” Outsider art opens up the realm of the art world to people who it would normally be closed off to. However, and Boxer acknowledges this complexity as well, in order to become an outsider artist, one must be “discovered” by an insider. Outsider art is becoming very popular, and is featured prominently in many of the world’s art museums. But with each artist that is featured in a museum, there are many artists who are not. Maybe their art isn’t as good as the art in the museum. But maybe there are still barriers to being acknowledged as an artist–cultural, racial, gender, sexuality, class, education, and ethnicity barriers that prevent amazing art and amazing artists from getting the recognition they deserve. I don’t know how to get rid of these barriers. But I do know that acknowledging them, and acknowledging the historical construction of these barriers as well as the present-day continuation of them is an important step in the right direction.

How Much Should We Pay for Art?

A recent New York Times article discusses two lawsuits that have recently been brought against the Metropolitan Museum of Art because of its contradictory and confusing admissions policy. According to their website, the Met “recommends” that adults pay $25 in order to gain entrance to the museum. Because it is a recommendation instead of a requirement, patrons are able to pay as much as they wish. However, according to Sarah Lyall (author of the New York Times article), this policy causes a lot of people to feel guilty because of how much they pay, and also causes a lot of confusion. These lawsuits seem to question whether or not we can ascribe art, and the access to art, a monetary value. While on some level I believe that all art should be accessible to everyone, regardless of how much they can pay for it, the cost of maintaining an art museum must also be taken into consideration. The famous French art museum, The Louvre, takes a different approach than the Met, offering free admission to young people who are members of the European Union, as well as to people who are receiving unemployment benefits, people holding an “education pass,” artists (who belong to the Maison des Artistes), as well as disabled visitors. All others are asked to pay a price somewhere between €12-16. While perhaps for many people $25 or €12 isn’t exactly a hefty price to pay, it still places a limit on who has access to some of the most well-respected pieces of art and (perhaps more importantly) pieces of our world’s cultural history. Maybe with the increasing power of the internet these barriers are becoming more irrelevant. I don’t need to pay €12 to see the Mona Lisa when google can show me thousands of images of it instantaneously, and for free. However, I’m not sure the experience of any kind of art is a solely visual experience. Art is a visceral, phenomenological experience, one that perhaps the internet can’t fully replicate. But also one that has increasingly become more and more expensive for institutions to maintain–especially because so many people can turn to google in order to see their favorite painting. I don’t know if I know the answer to whether or not we should put a price on art.  I think art is an extremely valuable part of our society, and that this value should be expressed in monetary worth (since that is how we most often express value in today’s society)–not to mention that the artist, as well as museum curators, administrators, security agents, and janitors should be given monetary compensation for their work. However, I also think there should be absolutely no barriers to the accessibility of art, because part of art’s power is its very accessibility. So I don’t know the answer, and maybe there isn’t an answer. But I do have a question. How much should we have to pay for art?