Smile Politely

State of the Art

The arts are important for us to remain a civilized culture. They teach us empathy and compassion, and they reveal the creative possibilities of humanity. They improve math skills and work productivity; they feed our souls; they make us human and humane. In futuristic horror tales, the arts are typically missing, eliminated, and we are turned into no more than slave-like robots by an ignorant culture run by those missing the spark of creativity.

I begin this review with these statements because I am: A) an old curmudgeon and, therefore, a wee bit cranky at all times; and B) afraid for our future. In academia, one hears the lilting refrains of a morbid song about every twenty years or so. The song goes as follows: “We need to tighten our belts and make tough choices, and thus, ‘non-essential programming,’ (i.e. anything not directly affiliated with a career skill) needs cut because it is not the function of education.“ In this song, education equals workplace training, plain and simple, and having a soul has nothing to do with the workplace. This school of thought (which almost sounds like a contradiction in terms) is clear-cut and promotes a chilling vision of our future: a land based on a philosophy that is both dimwitted and soulless, and I fear with both politicos and academes spouting the same garbage, the arts may be at risk in a very real way. The arts help us to question and to strive to be more, and I think we should always drive to be more and not settle for less.

Thus ends my saintly sermon, and now here goes my sinner’s confession: until recently, I had never been to the Krannert Art Museum. I didn’t even know where it was on campus, even though I have lived here far too long for that to be the case. Thankfully, I have just changed that as my cub-reporter ass was asked to cover the Ray Johnson gallery showing. Walking into the museum, I was struck by how much I loved the arts and how important they are to who I am and who my friends are. This building houses some impressive works, and the Ray Johnson exhibit fits right in. Johnson’s work is an experiment in postal art, with many pieces being mailed to other artists and requests for postage and return provided until his original piece is marked by a postal journey through the hands of others.  Johnson stated, back in 1965, “I study cancellations, the manner in which the stamp is placed, the way the address is done…It’s a marvelous art form, the letter—full of wonder and surprise.” His works are a lovely collection of collages, sketches, cartoons, and repeated imagery that bring a sense of nostalgia and history to his work. Vintage family photos blend with childhood images of a Valentine’s Cupid, and references to Liza Minnelli and the glitterati of Studio 54 gives the work a pop art legitimacy. In some areas, the art looks like an elementary school display of children’s coloring book pages; in others, the art is more nuanced and sophisticated. The combined effect is charming and will reawaken that first moment you fell in love with art.

In addition to Johnson work, you can also see several images of his peer group. He corresponded with both Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstien, and some of their work is displayed with writings exchanged between them and Johnson. Of the complete exhibit, my favorite room was an area entitled “BOB BOX,” which contained thirteen boxes of items sent from Johnson to peer Robert (Bob) Warner.The boxes were mailed in 1988 with a promise of instructions on how to display each box’s contents to follow. While some instructions were not sent, the display of both the boxes and the items is arresting: a poster of Olympic Gold Medalist’s Mark Spitz’s kitschy and glistening torso divided into artistic plains with identical stacked wooden frames, the body divided into close planes of light and dark; a wad of colorful 70s and 80s neck ties strewn in a heap on a table top; a pink Papier-Mache’ bunny mask, with broken toys and doll parts; and a neatly displayed array of colorful and worn leather purses, like from mother’s closet. The combined effect is comforting, colorful, and energizing as the enthusiastic crowd at the opening indicated with their effusive hubbub.

I highly recommend checking this exhibit out; and, while you’re there, also check into the installation of Christopher Baker’s piece “HELLO WORLD, or: How I Learned to Stop Listening and Love the Noise,” a work of multiple online journals displayed in an endless cacophony of noise and image.

Between the Baker piece and the Johnson exhibit, there is plenty to see at KAM. And these two suggestions only begin to scratch the surface of what the museum has to offer. Don’t wait as long as I did to visit this marvelous place, for the first time or the hundredth. See and experience art before it disappears. We could all be robot-slaves tomorrow.

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Photos courtesy of Sean O’Connor

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