Teaching with Contemporary Art

Jumping Right Into the Shark Tank

Jeff Koons, Vacuum cleaner: New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers, 1980 Image: Artnet

Back in the fall, a good friend and colleague passed along Denis Dutton’s New York Times Op-Ed piece titled Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank? Deborah knew that the editorial would provide fodder for much needed dialogue about what qualifies as art today, and she suggested I use it for a Socratic Seminar since I would be focusing some of my own professional development this year on running more effective seminars with my students.

Well, today is the day.

I created packets of readings that students would review prior to our seminar, including the Dutton piece, reader comments on the Dutton piece, a Sol Lewitt quote, a review of the recent Tino Sehgal exhibit, and a few other articles. All of the readings address, in one way or another, what qualifies as art. We will open the discussion simply with this: Does an idea qualify as a work of art? Can an artist have an idea, instruct other people to make it, and take the credit?

Experience and history tell us the answer is obviously YES to this second question, but is it fair? When does the idea become art? I remember Deborah facilitating a Socratic Seminar with her classes last year where she explored whether or not those who retouch photos for fashion magazines should be given credit along with the actual photographer. I remember sitting in on the class conversation and thinking, “I want to run more discussions like this. I want more dialogue like this in my own class,” as students defended their positions on whether or not someone who digitally manipulates a photo should be given any credit at all (in a Socratic Seminar, for those who aren’t familiar with them, participants aren’t charged with finding a “right” answer but rather are asked to explore a text, work of art, and/or question in depth and in search of multiple perspectives to inform an opinion. Gee… what a novel idea).

Denis Dutton may have criticized Damien Hirst’s “Medicine Cabinet” and Jeff Koons‘ “Vacuum Cleaners” as “reckless investments”, but the opportunity to use these works as a springboard for defining and redefining art with students is really quite priceless.


  1. an-aesthetic says:

    Wollheim trashed the Institutional theory of art. Hirst and Koons make kitsch, if their work has value then it is used to help students see what constitutes kitsch!

  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    I beg your pardon! This ‘kitsch” you speak of led to one of the best sets of Socratic seminars I’ve ever facilitated! No, kitsch is what my mother-in-law brings home from Florida when she goes on vacation.

    Hirst and Koons make work that sometimes make us cock our collective heads like a dog, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it kitsch.

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  4. an-aesthetic says:

    Roger Scruton terms Koons and Hirst pre-emptive Kitsch, like many many others these artists cannot make art (look at Hirst’s paintings which are a bad joke, he would have been slung out of art school in my day) so they produces work that postures/fakes the avant garde. The posture is all, vision, content and formal ideas they have none. Your tutor is an acolyte of a dead movement, an anomic propagandist for a dead art form! Koons makes what your mother-in law brings home there is no actual qualitative difference. Try Reading Scrutons recent book on beauty and sacrilege or watch a U-tube video by Robert Hughes!

  5. Joe Fusaro says:

    Boy, I just love it when readers use lots of exclamation points in their comments. Shows the world we’re really fired up!

    Not sure if I’m going to be taking much direction from Robert Hughes, but I will certainly look at the Scruton book. In the meantime, I must disagree about Koons. If you saw the stuff my mother-in-law brings back from Florida you would definitely notice a qualitative difference. Besides, Koons’ work gets us talking. My mother-in-law’s souvenirs aren’t exactly hot topics of conversation…

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