Students and Ann Arbor community members gathered in the University of Michigan Museum of Art Tuesday evening to attend a talk titled “The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword, but Who Wins When It’s Pen vs. Paintbrush?” Hosted by UMMA curator David Choberka the talk is part of UMMA’s Subject Matters event series which seeks to influence the way people view art through social learning techniques. Scott Beal, a lecturer and the director of the Lloyd Scholars for Writing and the Arts, joined Choberka in facilitating the event. The talk centered around how social resistance can be explored through art.
During the event, Choberka and Beal guided attendees through the UMMA’s current Curriculum / Connection exhibit, explaining interpretations of pieces of artwork along the way. The Curriculum / Connection exhibit was curated by Choberka in collaboration with U-M faculty, including Beal, and was designed to connect academic content to art in various ways. To help participants understand each piece in the exhibit, Choberka and Beal talked them through Subject Matters’ three-step analysis: describe, interpret and connect. In an interview with The Michigan Daily at the event, Choberka said he hoped attendees would leave the event with a better understanding of how to talk about art and its impact with other people.
“I want them to walk away, thinking, ‘Wow, it’s really fun, and it’s really enlightening to talk about the meaning of art with other people,’ ” Choberka said. “It’s possible to talk with other people about important topics and listen to one another and be heard.”
The event highlighted different photographs, including images of the graffiti on the West side of the Berlin Wall before it fell, and a self-portrait of South Korean visual artist Nikki S. Lee. In an interview with The Daily, Beal explained that he was the one who had asked to include the Lee photograph in the exhibit. He said he chose that particular portrait to encourage students in his Race and Ethnicity class to connect course material to the exhibit.
“I wanted to take students to the museum to see a specially curated selection of works and … I wanted to find works by underrepresented groups to share with that class, including Asian Americans,” Beal said. “I asked about what work the museum has by Asian American artists, and at the time I asked that question, the answer was ‘not much.’ (The Lee) photograph is probably the biggest piece in the exhibit — it’s a large photograph.”
Beal said he and Choberka decided to include a photograph of the Berlin Wall by Piotr Michalowski because of the clear connection graffiti draws between art and acts of resistance.
“I think graffiti is a really interesting art form that a lot of people have real strong feelings about,” Beal said. “Graffiti is often illegal, it’s considered vandalism. It raises a lot of questions about private property rights, public space and what it means to have things appear to us in places where we didn’t consent to have those messages there.”
While discussing the Berlin Wall photograph with the group during his tour of the exhibit, Choberka noted that it’s important to keep an open mind when thinking about and interpreting diverse artwork.
“What does (art) get us thinking about? There’s no right answer,” Choberka said. “One-word answers are good. You don’t have to know why it’s making you think of it. It’s really just about thinking about the meanings that this piece brings up for us.”
LSA senior Kathryn Jones attended the event to learn more about the history of each of the pieces selected for the exhibit. In an interview with The Daily after the tour, Jones said she felt her coursework at the University directly connects to the broader theme of resistance highlighted in the exhibit.
“I’m interested in coming to this event because I am interested in art, and I’m actually an art history minor,” Jones said. “I came to this event for a communications class I’m in. … We talk about futures, thinking and signals in our daily environment that can relate to the future. I think that looking at art from the past and contemporary art can relate to that.”