About two dozen art enthusiasts gathered at American Art's Lincoln Gallery on Tuesday evening to take part in a conversation titled, "Is This Art?" Spearheaded by public programs coordinator Laurel Fehrenbach, the new initiative was a result of a visitor survey where many of the respondents said they had trouble with modern and contemporary art. The goal of this evening: spend about 45 minutes in front of one work of art, have open discussions, and perhaps get a little closer to answering that seemingly unanswerable question, "Is this art?" The evening began with a call for a volunteer from the group to pick a card that would reveal the artwork that would be the sole focus of conversation. Mark Tansey's monochromatic work from 1996, Interception, was the pick of the draw, so we picked up our portable chairs, clipboards, and sat before the painting trying to decipher its meaning.
The first five minutes were devoted to careful looking, and then Laurel opened up the discussion for "questions, thoughts, and first impressions." The painting, with its dark colors, enigmatic title, and suggestion of a narrative, brought out varied responses: "I never knew there were that many people in it." "I see Los Angeles." "Apocalyptic." "It looks like a drive-in movie theater." And in the spirit of the evening, all answers were correct.
Those first comments may have circled the idea of what art is, but the more we spoke, the more the question came up. What skills does it take to make a painting like this? Is it a moral story? For the last fifteen minutes we changed seats to get a different perspective, and began to discuss ideas such as "does art have to be pleasurable" and "why was the painting selected to be part of the museum's collection?" It's amazing what a little time in front of a painting can do.
And so, about an hour later, we came back to the original question to which Laurel replied, "I don't think we are going to answer that today, what makes something art and not art." If you're curious or think you know the answer, "Is This Art" will be repeated at the end of the month, and twice in August. On July 24, the open discussion format will be replaced with guided looking, a more structured format to help the viewer dig a little deeper into the work of art.