Written by Rachel Vogel
I am working towards being at the point in my life when someone is willing to pay me to spend all of my time thinking about, talking about, or looking at art, but in the meantime, I have entered into the honorable profession of high school teaching. This past weekend, however, I had the opportunity to bring these two worlds, my passion for art and teaching my tenth grade English students, together.
Working at a charter school that values “transformative relationships,” teachers are encouraged to share their interests outside of the classroom. Last weekend, I offered an afternoon of my favorite things—a trip to the Menil Collection and two scoops of ice cream at the Chocolate Bar.
I picked up four of my eighth period students, whose parents had graciously driven them to school on a rainy Saturday, and switched my radio over from NPR to Hot 95.7. On the drive over, I gave them some background information about the Menil and the students discussed their college aspirations. After demonstrating my excellent parallel parking skills under pressure (C+, remarks a man taking a post-rain-shower stroll), we excitedly enter.
Immediately, I recognize how visible our group is. The man behind the front desk calls us over. “It’s free…” he speaks slowly, enunciating each word deliberately, “…unless you touch. Then you pay.” I think he is joking, but the ambiguity of his words makes my neck get warm. The kids don’t notice though; they are already moving towards a colorful de Kooning in the foyer. The four students stare fixedly towards the canvas, brows furrowed, and very seriously share their first impressions. “I think he was very passionate,” offers Jamie. “It’s very intense,” Yahaira adds, “but the pastels show it’s not an angry-intense.” I beam.
We move into the Surrealist galleries, and in the darker corridors, the students falter a bit. I realize we’ve broached new territory, and I try to remember the first time I ever walked through a museum. The unspoken protocols of gallery ambulating, or even one’s personals preferences, (how long to stand in front of a painting, how close to stand, what to do) are still questions looming large in their minds. I hadn’t thought about this going into to, but quickly fall into the role of tour guide, blushing when a fellow patron comes close enough to hear my whispered commentary. Not equipped with a lesson plan, I spew a mixture of sketchy recollections from my art history courses, my own impressions and feelings, and a solid dose of straight bullshit.
If there is a place for improvisation though, it’s probably amongst the likes of Magritte and Ernst. I tried to quickly translate concepts like “simulacrum” into tenth-grader speak, before giving up and having them share what they thought instead. They heard enough of me in the classroom, plus, they were just about getting their sea-legs and were able to parse through the dense collection and pick out what struck them. We stand in front of a Tanguy, which immediately becomes an aesthetic Eye Spy. “I see a lion.” “Is that a person?” “It’s like maybe what’s in his dreams” “Or right after the Big Bang.” “Is that a mermaid?” Jamie points, and the guard advances. “Take three steps back! Not so close!” The kids stare wide eyed at me until I give them an awkward guilty face and we nervously giggle.
“It’s very intense,” Yahaira adds, “but the pastels show it’s not an angry-intense.”
Dear museum guards, I’m really sorry. You have an extremely high stakes job with very little recognition, and I know a bunch of fifteen year olds is a terrifying proposition. I was completely empathetic to her reaction, but was immediately struck by how this museum-going experience was so atypical for me. I’m bad and love talking at museums, in appropriately hushed tones of course, but this time the usually invisible or unfelt supports of the institution felt much more physically present. I felt present. After the spray-painted Picasso last summer, I had noticed a palpable shift in the corrective reinforcements of museum security, but had rarely been their recipient. “They’re following us!” whispered Brenda. “It’s because these are worth millions,” says Bryan, “I want one” he rasps in his best Gollum impression.
They are enchanted by the Surrealist objects room, as am I, every time I visit. The white cube transforms into something a bit more familiar. Surrounded by the artifacts and ephemera, we are afforded an intimate glimpse into the artist’s lives. Yahaira and Jamie stand over a Wunderkammer of sorts, pointing out oddities in the collection of mementos. Brenda stands fixated by the African masks. Bryan coos at a cage of two stuffed parrots.
As we walk into the beginning of the Wols retrospective, we enter a room with baby blue walls adorned with his photographic work. We move quickly to the “Self-Portraits,” sets of six photographs, each with an endearing balding man making funny expressions at the camera. “Selfies!” they exclaim, and we each strike a pose and imitate one of the prints.
Wols turns out to have had the perfect palette to strike their imaginations. His still figurative brand of abstract expressionism opens up a Rorschach test range of responses. Yahaira and Bryan pull me over to look at a painting. “It’s unfinished, but it shows the whole life cycle. There we have life, birth, and there at the top, it’s beginning to decay.”
In the “Nice” exhibit, Brenda points out a blurry portrait entitled “iPhone.” “Miss, (I hate being called Miss, but this has become my name) do you think that one is about how we spend so much looking at our phones that we don’t really see other people clearly?” I quickly bring over the other kids and invite Brenda to proudly repeat her commentary. We just ended our unit on Fahrenheit 451 and the potential dangers of technology, and they begin to rehash the familiar debate.
"Miss...do you think that one is about how we spend so much looking at our phones that we don’t really see other people clearly?"
We just pop into the contemporary galleries for a second, my eye on my watch. I’m trying to find some Rothkos because we won’t have time to go to the Chapel. There are none to be found, but a canvas with a dictionary entry for “meaning” serves as the perfect touchstone for our trip. We talk about modern and contemporary artists’ relationship with meaning, and the role of the viewer to make their own meaning. “I want to make some more meaning,” Bryan breathes, half joking, half earnest. They all commit to returning.
As we move into our second installation of Narrative Process, I kept retuning to some of the things Geoff Hippenstiel discussed last month in our inaugural discussion. His insights about teaching Art Appreciation to a group of students for whom for this most part, this was their first exposure to “Fine Art” had the potential to be rife with knotty questions about accessibility, cultural privilege, and elitism. But beyond that side of the art world, there is what I like to think of as the radical democratic potential of art, a concept that I think the Menil perfectly embodies. As I walked with my students through the airy hallways of the collection, I thought back to those essential questions Hippsnstiel had guided us towards—the simple ones, the obvious ones, yet the ones that we don’t quite ever take the time to tease out—What is the purpose of art? Do we need it?
Last weekend didn’t bring me any closer to answering those questions than the tentative responses we offered that evening. But I think, as Hippenstiel alluded, it begins with the asking. Over ice cream, the students were still buzzing about their favorite pieces. I had sort of inadvertently thrust them into a situation that could have been overwhelming—abstract expressionism in retrospect might not be the best place to start to look at art. But these amazing kids dove right in, not at all afraid to ask their own questions or take probing stabs at mine.