Is the art at the Walker stupid? Who gets to decide?


by Erica Mauter | July 14, 2009 • Via Paul Schmelzer comes this link to an opinion piece in St Cloud State’s newspaper, the University Chronicle. The author is SCSU student Ben Kaufman who recently made a visit to the Walker Art Center. is a cityblog for and about life in the Twin Cities, published by Erica Mauter. Contact

Go read the whole thing first. It’s not too long. The point I’m about to make is about being informed and it would help the discussion if you informed yourself to begin with. And it’s kind of entertaining in a painful sort of way.

So the short of it is this kid (yeah, I’m in my 30s, I can call a college student a “kid”) went to the Walker to check out some modern art, he didn’t get it, and he thinks it’s stupid. Stop me if you think that’s an unfair characterization of what he wrote. I’m not going to fisk it or cherry pick quotes. There are too many to choose from.

There’s been some discussion over whether or not he’s right. I think we’ve all had the alternate experiences of being genuinely moved by a piece of art, of being utterly baffled, and of being completely disinterested. We all know what we like and what we don’t like. We all know what we get and what we don’t get.

By nature, shouldn’t we all have very personal and thus very different reactions to the art we see? A number of people agreed with Ben Kaufman that they pretty much don’t like modern art and also stuck up for his right to his opinion. That’s cool.

On the other side of the argument is the idea that his opinion is completely uninformed and while he’s entitled to his opinion, he’s not entitled to be taken seriously. There are subjective (I liked/hated it) and objective (the artist did/didn’t meet their stated objective) ways to critique art. You’ll probably have a better experience of the art if you do a little reading or take advantage of the many tools that museums in general and the Walker in particular provide for you to learn about what you’re looking at. And if you still don’t like it, you’ll be better able to state why.

Context is important. This is an opinion piece (seems those do not get edited in the least at the University Chronicle). Ben Kaufman is apparently not an artist himself, nor does he have any kind of art background. I am no artist, student of art history, connoisseur of modern art, museum curator, or even remotely arty person myself. But, much as I do when I consume news, I need to know that the person writing knows what they’re talking about or has a credible source before I lend any credence to what they’re saying.

People say the Walker is one of the best art museums in the country. People I know who I know know things about art say that, so I’m more inclined to believe them. I’d believe Max Sparber and Paul Schmelzer over Ben Kaufman any day. If Ben’s comfortable with making his ignorance so clear in such a public way… well, okay.

Credit goes to Brandi, Connie, Jason, Max, and Courtney for tossing this question around and getting me to think about it. Not sure if I did any or all of your arguments justice so feel free to chime in.

UPDATE 7/15/09: Discussion also happening at Secrets of the City. I also wanted to include Max’s comment on the article (which was there yesterday, but for some reason I couldn’t see it).

I presume you also go to operas and walk out bewildered because they weren’t in English. Very little art makes instant sense; that doesn’t mean it is a con game or ridiculous. It does, however, mean a little bit of self-education is required to appreciate it, rather than blundering into a gallery and complaining when the work there doesn’t match your preset notions about what art should be. Honestly, the Walker Art Center does a first-rate job providing context for the work they display, in the form of guided tours from docents, or self-guided tours, or podcasts, or descriptions on their Web page, or a myriad of other opportunities to familiarize yourself with the work on display. Not availing yourself on these resources, and then complaining that you didn’t understand, is not the mark of an educated opinion, which is the very least you should be providing when you go public with your responses to an entire gallery of work.

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