art fitness: my first lesson

Let’s say for a second you’re like me, meaning you appreciate that there are art museums in your city and even like the idea of visiting them more frequently, but once you are there, you look at the pieces and think, “I dunno, I just don’t get it.” So, you sort of quickly make your way through, feeling obligated to do so because, well, you’re at a museum after all and that’s what you’re supposed to do – look at the art. You leave a bit deflated, unknowingly concluding that museums are not nearly as enjoyable as that last Avengers movie you went to. In fact, you’ve been to plenty of movies since you’ve last stepped foot into an art museum. What if there was a better way? What if the next time you visited, you went armed with a way to experience art that would immediately make you feel a) more personally engaged with what you saw, and b) less like a dunce? Well, last week I got a fun, quick lesson in this better way at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA Denver) through what they call Art Fitness Training.

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MCA Denver’s Art Director Adam Lerner (he’s the one wearing sunglasses and a bunny suit in this photo on MCA’s website), who showed up wearing a t-shirt and shorts looking like he was ready to head off on a hike up one of Colorado’s fourteeners at any moment, led the session. But don’t let the appearance fool you, Adam was great and really knows his stuff. The session consists of three parts that play off the “fitness” idea: warmup, workout and cool down. During the warmup, Adam instructed us what not to do – that would be rush to judgements about the work, go into what you don’t like or what you love about it, try to sound all art critic-y, none of that. The instruction was to leave that all behind. We then walked into one of the first floor galleries. Thus began the workout. We gathered around a piece by the artist Senga Nengudi and Adam asked the first question.

“What do you see?”

Right off the bat I saw a dark stretchy/jumbled object hung against a stark white wall. Contrast. But, what is that supposed to mean? Oops!, first mistake. Adam told us to focus not on what we thought we saw or what we thought the meaning was or what we thought the artist was trying to say, etc. No, simply, what do you see? The obvious. We than began to describe the physical facts about what we were looking at; color, material, texture, position, etc. – all the plainly obvious attributes or characteristics about the work that we could describe in words. Adam then pushed us to explain further why we noted the things we did. After some more discussion, he asked the second question.

“How would it be different if…?”

“Huh?” Here, Adam coached us to imagine what difference it would make if the obvious facts we had just spent the last ten minutes or so discussing were not as the artist had created them. What if the artist had used a different material? Or, the position or orientation was different? Might that change how we experienced the piece? What if the colors were different? Would that make any difference? We began to describe how changing aspects of the work would or would not change our perception of it. This led to a surprisingly rich discussion about the piece and the thoughts and feelings it evoked among us at a level much deeper than any I’ve ever had in a museum. We then left the gallery and walked upstairs to a gallery on the second floor with works by the artist Rashid Johnson. There we went through the two questions again. In front of an entirely different work by a different artist we had a similarly rich discussion using the same two questions. “Wow.,” I thought.

Finally, we began the cool down. Adam asked us what thoughts and feelings we had about the viewing and discussion. Did we now see the art any differently than we had initially? I certainly did. I mean, gaining an appreciation of art couldn’t be that simple, could it? Well, I think the answer is yes and no. I know that for me, the Art Fitness Training made the whole experience more personal. And that was an important first step. I might not have been seeing with any great clarity but I certainly was doing a whole lot more than looking. For me, the hour we spent for the whole session was a revelation. “Wow!”

I’m quite certain I’ll visit MCA Denver again. Long before that next Avengers movie comes out.

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