Won’t somebody think of the children?!

Something interesting is happening in Lawrence, MA. The venue hosting the MOCS installation coordinates many art classes for children of all ages. When I was in town I met with several of the classes to talk about the work, but since I left there has been some concern amongst teachers and parents about the impact of my project on young minds. Normally I don’t mind if people are confused by (or out-rightly hate) my work, but it seems unfair to leave young art lovers in the lurch.

The Essex Art Center staff has been fielding questions about the obeast work– with the predictable number of viewers experiencing general feelings of upset and confusion as to what is going on. It wasn’t clear to me why there would be such a kerfuffle since I left ample explanation about the work for the staff, who then made an informative binder available to all patrons– until I remembered that most people don’t read. Still, it seemed to me that this was well within the ability of the gallery staff to handle.  Then I (or rather MOCS) got a couple emails and facebook posts from Lawrence students (judging by their facebook images and the tween-ish tone of the email addresses– something like “lmaocandywashere@…”) who wanted to apparently join in on what they interpreted the project was trying to do: fat bashing. Obviously I find this unsettling. It would seem particularly awful to me (as an artist and a human) to leave young/tween/teen girls with the idea that an artist came to their town to confirm that fat is bad..

To go back to the beginning, before I actually set foot in the building, I did not understand that EAC was a youth-focused organization. (Addendum: the gallery director just corrected me on this point, explaining that EAC does not coordinate its show for a young audience, instead challenging them and adults with art that invites thought– which is great.) I had no idea that most of the people who would walk by that space would be aged 6-15. (This is a good lesson for me in audience anticipation- though I trust that the gallery considered all this before they invited me.) Frankly this project was not originally designed for kids. It’s not that it’s risque (though a bit graphic, granted), but rather that the sarcasm of the work gets lost on kids and they think it is confirming social prejudices about fat, not subverting them.

Youngsters experiencing this work should do so with adult guidance.  That said, I am not there in person to do the guidance, so it is up to the capable EAC staff and teachers. I trust that teachers and staff will inform themselves in order fully participate in a teaching dialog with kids (and adults as needed). I feel that I’ve given them tools to accomplish this (including access to my written thesis and critic reviews), but I refuse to become the narrator for my own project. As an artist, it is important to me to not dictate the “meaning” of my work. I don’t want to tell people what to think. I’ve already made my point in the best way I know how– through the art itself.

Given this (perhaps idealistic) stance, perhaps it would be useful to guide the thinking process by asking confused/concerned viewers some loaded questions (aka: go all Socratic on their asses). With that in mind, I sent the gallery a ‘MOCS 101’ list of questions to get conversations going. I’m posting them here in case they benefit any of your understandings or conversations about MOCS. I would love to hear some responses to the questions in the comments below, if you are so inclined!

  1.     Does knowing that the Obeasts are all played by the artist herself change how you look at the work? If so, how?
  2.     Why do artists do self portraits? Do self portraits always have to look like the artist? Why would Rachel Herrick (the MOCS artist) do self-portraits pretending that she is an animal rather than a human?
  3.     Does this look like a real museum? Did it fool you into thinking it was? How does it do that? What are the clues that it is all pretend?
  4.     What is satire? If we understand that satire is a technique of using humor to explore wrong-doing or social injustice, how might the Obeast project be a satire? What is the social wrong that it is satirizing?
  5.     What is dehumanization? If we understand that dehumanization is when we make people less human in our minds by ignoring their personalities or individuality, how does the obeast project display dehumanization? What group (or groups) of people is dehumanized in this project?  (hint: people are often dehumanized based on physical features)
  6.     Does art mirror society or shape it? How does the Obeast project mirror society? How might it be trying to shape society?

3 thoughts on “Won’t somebody think of the children?!

  1. Hey Rachel, as an art educator I have had these questions…I am comfortable that your installation is a learning opportunity for kids of all ages as long as the accompanying adults are willing to engage them in dialog.
    Would you consider a new species of tall, mammals with thin coats ( or pelts) and crooked teeth?

  2. You have great lessons to teach our children and all of us. I love your questions … smart tools to interpret art on all levels.

  3. One issue this raises for me is the socialization of this age group that is growing up with the internet, social media, etc. I imagine that the kids who are emailing about the project are not thinking through what they are writing. Through email they will not receive the face-to-face clues that we receive in regular conversation and that tell us what we just said was not actually okay. We all said stupid, mean or less-than-thoughtful things as teenagers, and normally someone who heard us corrected us. It’s part of how we learned to be civil. It’s also how we learn sarcasm, satire, etc. (How many of us have misread the tone of an email? Much harder to do face to face.)

    It also calls attention to exactly what MOCS exposes: the societal and media portrayals of obesity. These are kids who are most likely a little too young to think critically about the messages they receive everyday, so they assume this project is one more voice in the fat shaming brigade.

    I have to wonder how the conversation would change if you were present to talk to them. It’s hard to say without seeing the emails, but I don’t want to assume they are all being deliberately cruel. I think it’s more likely a lack of thought about what they are saying and how it could be received. Would your presence give them pause or help them think about the project more critically? Maybe. I don’t know.

    I also think the death of the author/artist perspective is a little dangerous. You do have things you want to say with your work, and it’s not devoid of authorship. It has a life beyond you, certainly, but in so many ways the work IS you, too.

    Excellent questions, though. I think and hope that those will help.

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