Open Enrollment

Open Enrollment | Comfort the Disturbed, Disturb the Comfortable

It’s thesis crunch time in my second-year grad student bubble right now, and I, like most of my peers, am swimming in ink. A mess of printed pages, covered with red pen edits; a towering stack of books to return to the library; a thousand different versions of each of my chapters, saved in at least three places on my hard drive: such is the state of my life.

I might be guilty of neglecting the physical ordering of my space, but I’m doing my best to make sure that the chaos doesn’t spill over into my writing. This means undertaking one of my least favorite parts of composition: rereading each section of the paper to check for continuity and minimize repetition. In the process, I’ve discovered that my biggest problem is actually an omission. I forgot to define my key terms. Just over a year after my Research Methodology professor asked me to draft definitions of my keywords, I finally understand the significance of the exercise. How on earth are my readers going to make sense of my thesis unless I explicitly outline the meaning of the terms that I use again and again within it?

I’ve succeeded at nailing down definitions for most of these words, but one in particular is proving resistant to delineation, and that is dialogue. My research centers on the presence and potential of doubt in the museum of art, and examines dialogue as the site of both its expression and transformation. The problem is, dialogue means a lot of things, to a lot of people. What do I want it to mean?

Returning to my annotations of those library books in the towering stack, I came across this thought from Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee’s 2011 Teaching in the Art Museum: “opposition makes for rich and productive dialogue” (p. 89). My definition of dialogue definitely has something to do with opposition, and I finally feel as though I’m getting close to figuring out exactly what it is.

Last Monday, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by the artist Marilyn Minter as part of the School of the Art Institute’s Visiting Artists Program. At that point, I was not very familiar with her work, and it was a treat to sit back, listen, and look at her lustrous photos, lush enamel paintings, and entrancing video work.

Some of my favorite images were paintings of women’s feet, towering high on what are obviously very expensive stilettos, and splattered with – or really, bathed in – muddy water. Without delving into any kind of critical analysis of her work, I will simply say that what drew me to these paintings was exactly what Minter commented on: the beauty in their internal contradiction. Women in the city who can afford to buy the most extravagant shoes still have to walk through the mud in them, and can’t help but get dirty feet. Filtered through Minter’s aesthetic, this reality is visually stunning.

Marilyn Minter. "Shit-Kicker," 2006. Chromogenic print. Courtesy Whitney Museum of Art.

Also represented in these paintings is Minter’s interest in calling our attention to overlooked parts of everyday life. This, in turn, directs my mind back to my thesis (let’s be honest: these days, what doesn’t?). Besides keywords, something else stressed in our Research Methodology class was the need to outline the rationale for our projects. I still ask myself from time to time why the project is vital to my development as an art educator, and why it is vital to the field of art education.

My answer to this question has to do with awareness. My interest in doubt, dialogue, and inquiry within museum visits is tied to my belief that the museum of art can and should serve as an instrument of awareness. It should instill self-confidence in visitors that enables them to question power structures, as well as to reexamine their own value judgments. When I talk about awareness as a sort of ethics or lifestyle, I often refer to the late writer David Foster Wallace, who promoted the idea that “the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” Here’s a clip I found of an interview with DFW in which he shares some of his thoughts about literature, and arts and entertainment in general:


He starts off by citing an unnamed American author’s advice to “comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.” Is this what opposition is about? Finding a way to turn the tables on your reader/viewer/visitor?

Later on in the video, Wallace talks about the magic of reading books and identifying with characters in them, saying: “I’m able to jump over that wall of self and inhabit somebody else… there’s a tremendous reassurance about that kind of community and empathy.” In a nutshell, this is what I believe the combination of art and education (and more specifically, conversation in museums) can accomplish. It can allow us to “inhabit somebody else.” I may still need to work on my definition of dialogue, but I take comfort in the fact that I know why I started talking about it in the first place. What does dialogue mean to you? And do you think it has the power to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable?”