Art to make you think

One thing I liked about getting a job at a college was the idea of working in an environment dedicated to learning. After a few months here, I have discovered that I don’t come into contact with students or faculty very much. We may pass in the corridor, but most of my time is spent in my office, interacting with the computer and with other members of the administrative staff.

I still like the idea that my work contributes, however indirectly, to the learning process. And I especially like it when I come in more direct contact with the learning process, even if it’s only hearing a music class as I walk by.

One thing I have mixed feelings about, however, is the artwork on the walls in various buildings. What is that picture supposed to mean, I ask myself as I walk by each day. (There are several of these, though I tend to notice the one closest to my office the most often.) I assume it is supposed to mean something. But there is no explanation provided.

Today I walked through the ArtSpace Gallery, and one display in particular caught my attention. It was an array of nine identical white boxes, each marked with a label that says “This brain meets the STANDARD.” I didn’t even realize until I returned and looked at all the works more closely that I had missed the main item in that particular work. But just the part I had seen was enough to get me thinking.

How do we as a society treat people with non-standard “brains”? (I assume that brain is used to represent a way of thinking and acting, not just a part of one’s anatomy.) As the mother of a son with special needs (mild autism), I am grateful for the support he gets at school, not just from faculty and staff but from fellow students as well. But society still struggles with how to be inclusive in a way that celebrates diverse abilities without discouraging the pursuit of excellence.

As an introvert, I may feel non-standard when I am surrounded by extroverts. (I’m unlikely to be surrounded by introverts because we tend not to congregate in groups very much.) When I walk past a work of art I don’t understand, am I reacting to a tendency to call just about anything “art,” or am I uncomfortable with art created by a brain very different from mine?

It’s easiest to either demand conformity, or let everyone “do his own thing.” How do we set standards but allow for flexibility, and encourage excellence but recognize that it comes in many shapes and sizes?

When I returned to the ArtSpace and looked more closely, I discovered another white box displayed below and in front of the array of “standard brains.” This one is pushing its way out of the box, and is embellished with a variety of materials and colors that are no doubt absent from the “brains” in the closed boxes. The label on this box says “Brains Work Differently,” and the entire work has the title “The Non-Conformist detail.” Unlike other works in the exhibit with explanatory notes, this one simply says, “Need I say more?”

If you had told me that a set of cardboard boxes, some crocheting, and a bunch of odds and ends (that look like they came out of my arts and crafts drawer, where I squirrel away anything that just might be useful someday) could constitute a work of art, I’d have been skeptical. (I would still maintain that a lot of people might combine such materials in ways that would not merit the term “art.”) But now I’m considering stopping by at the closing reception for artist Lourdes Guerrero next week.

Color me impressed.

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