“This is my ArtPrize,” D says. “I made it with paper and markers and it is about how rainbows are made of water and sky and light. Would you like to touch it? Here is a card if you want to vote for me!”
I’m not an artist. My primary artistic accomplishments include Play Doh birds and drawings of kitty cat faces with long whiskers. Based on D’s recent drawings, I’d say she is well on her way to surpassing me in the visual arts department. I also don’t know very much about art history, or contemporary art, or how to interpret or critique art. My art education borders on nonexistent: I remember going on a field trip to the Grand Rapids art museum in third grade; we each got a poster of a painting of fried eggs to take home. Was it a famous painting? Did we see it at the museum? I have no idea. After the art museum we went to the fish ladder, which I mistakenly believed to be art until well into adulthood, when I learned it actually serves a really important purpose for salmon who swim up the Grand River and would otherwise be halted in their progress by the dam. I took one art history class in college, while on study abroad, and it was taught in French, which I barely spoke. The midsize Midwest city where I live has never been known as a hub for art or artists. I admit, I probably would not have taken my kids to the Art Museum on my own.
ArtPrize is a ginormous public art competition, and when I say public, I mean anyone can enter, anyone can vote, almost anything goes, and huge sums of prize money are awarded based on the public votes.
Almost every aspect of this is controversial. Read the comments section of any article about ArtPrize and you will hear the same arguments over and over: That’s not art, it’s just skillful welding! That’s not art, it’s just really big! It’s just shocking and offensive! It’s just loud! It’s not original! If ArtPrize keeps awarding prize money to grizzly bears carved with chainsaws/enormous metal animals/really big images composed of really tiny things like push pins or post it notes or polka dots then real artists will stop coming back!
And it’s true that some aspects of the experience are predictable. ArtPrize BINGO capitalizes on the repetitive memes; even Lucy is on to it:
ArtPrize is different every year, but some things are the same, like the giant stuff. There’s always giant stuff at ArtPrize.
And she’s right. There’s always giant stuff. Trout that tower over parking lots. A life size T-Rex skeleton. Enormous dragons made of buttons and wire and reclaimed metal and duct tape (each of those is a separate entry).
In addition to giant, there’s also weird. Thousands of paper bags filled with the artist’s breath and arranged into a tunnel not unlike the enormous balloon structures you might have built for your high school prom. A wood floor that oozes bubbles. An abandoned museum exhibit festooned with antique lightning rods.
And some of the entries are experiential. One year, an artist launched thousands of paper planes from the roofs of downtown buildings. We spent the better part of an hour inside a hippie temple with neon lights. We took the girls to be part of the lighting and release of 20,000 biodegradable Chinese sky lanterns.
I think we established in the first paragraph that I am probably not qualified to judge whether any of those are art. But here’s why I love ArtPrize: the radically open approach means I don’t feel pressed to explain anything. I feel like it’s okay if I am not an expert, if I don’t have all the answers. Often, I just listen to what the girls say, how they respond, what they think it all means. I vote for the entries that excite and interest them and the entries that excite and interest me, and yes, some of their choices are predictable (ceramic penguins frolicking in the fountains outside the Gerald R. Ford museum, for example) but they are also learning to pause and think about the entries that don’t have immediate kid appeal. My interpretative strategy is to tell them what a piece is called, read them snippets from the artist’s statement, and then help them figure out how they feel about an entry by asking a couple basic questions:
What do you see?
How does this make you feel?
What does this make you think about?
Can you make your body into that shape?
If the artist is there (and many of the artists hang out near their work, trying to garner more votes by engaging the crowd), I help the girls ask questions. I have been amazed by how many of the artists are willing and able to talk with kids and meet them at their level, explaining how a piece is put together and sometimes letting kids cross the lines to touch a piece that’s officially marked hands-off. Artists have lifted the girls up to touch T Rex teeth, pointed out small details in paintings I hadn’t noticed, patiently showed D how to find the word TULIP hidden in a garden of tulips made of wooden dowels.
Sometimes an entry still fails to engage. That’s okay. There are literally thousands of pieces of art and hundreds of venues to explore. We can always move on to the next one. I don’t push if it seems like they’re not into it or not ready for it. I let them linger when they are interested and move on when they are bored. If they ask to go back to a favorite piece we go back, look again, see if we can find a new angle to view it from or a new question to consider. I love to return to their favorites with friends and family members who haven’t been there yet so I can hear the girls explain what they’re seeing and why they like it. And I love it when they come home and play ArtPrize: they draw pictures, then stand in the kitchen holding them up and I walk through pretending to be a visitor, asking them questions about their entry.
I’m not an artist or an art critic. Maybe the critics are right when they argue that some artists will refuse to return because average people are too enthusiastic about Jesus mosaics and reclaimed metal polar bears. But it’s hard for me to imagine that the attrition of the few artists who would prefer more exclusive exhibitions and awards could compromise the incredible outpouring of energy and goodwill and yes, enthusiasm for art in many forms, that I’ve witnessed and experienced.
I love ArtPrize because it has changed our family’s relationship to art and to our city. My girls have seen countless amazing, beautiful, powerful, surprising, thought-provoking pieces of art over the past few years. They know artists are real people and they know art takes many forms and they are confident about their ability to talk and think and ask questions about art in whatever form they encounter it. They feel connected to their city, to the downtown landscape, in a way I never felt when I was growing up here. They know how their city can be transformed by the presence of steampunk pigs and horses running down the river and impromptu puppet theatre and tens of thousands of lanterns rising above the skyline past the full moon, and they have been part of that transformation with their own eyes and ears and hearts and hands. This is my ArtPrize: water and sky and light.