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Conceptual Art for Dummies

Visual art is a self-contradicting enterprise, a delicious and complex can of worms: it is, on the one hand, about making accessible the privileged visual psychology of a single individual-about lending one's own personal metaphysical lens to others. It is, at the same time, about an incommunicable intra-personal struggle, the sturm und drang plight of the soul and the extent to which its subjective experience is completely inexpressible.

Unfortunately, visitors to the Clifford Smith Art Galleries are all too aware of this complex dichotomy-only for them, it is the gallery itself that is horribly self-contradicting. On the one hand, they seek an exhibit, a gallery, where art is on display for public consumption. They encounter, however, that gallery in the most obscure of places, folded into a remote corner of Boston's Berkley district, poorly labeled and wholly inhospitable. And this geographic intractability, unfortunately, seems reflective the gallery as a whole-a gallery whose intended audience seems to be the artists themselves, displaying a highly insular, masturbatory collection.

Clifford Smith's current exhibit, KidsArt, keenly focuses this painful contradiction. KidsArt, a collection of 60 or so simple sketch pieces, will eventually take the form of a coloring book for elementary school children. Its list of contributing artists, though, reads like a veritable who's who of the contemporary American art scene, including names like Sol Lewit, Jill Anderson, Carl Andre and Lawrence Weiner. The purport of the project, sponsored by Pilot Programs 217, Brooklyn, artkrush.com, and Clifford Smith, is to "introduce young to ideas and images in contemporary art." This, though, only begs the question: Can art, especially contemporary art, whose bent is highly intellectual and who's philosophical underpinnings are still being forged, be taught to elementary school children?

The answer, like all good answers, is a convoluted admixture of yes and no. Art is both a craft-a techne-and, well, an art. The former part of this formula, the technical part, can be taught, while the latter cannot. Unfortunately for all those involved, the artists contributing KidsArt fail to take this distinction into account. They offer technically simple (at times absurdly minimalist) examples of highly philosophically charged artwork. The messages are complex and multifarious, and the technique almost nonexistent.

In fact, to preserve the theoretical intentions of his piece "Sliding Down a Volcano With Kleenex Boxes as Skis," Lawrence Weimer resorts to a textual caption, since the visual image itself is apparently not enough. The drawing is strictly geometrical and almost devoid of a visual subject matter. Three bold black curves, each crowned with an unassuming hexagon, cut large swaths across the page (not, mind you, the canvass), and converge on a fourth prosaic stroke. It is almost entirely visually uninteresting and the negative space accounts for the vast majority of the framed image. It represents a feat of the intellect, not one of the imagination-it is, again, a scholastic exercise and has little to do with beauty and visual representation. It is perhaps the least apt model for budding visual artists to follow, since it imposes on them a theoretical framework without encouraging the development of a dynamic visual style.

Weimer's caption is a particularly telling addition, since it rightly suggests that elementary school aged children are not prepared to digest the highfalutin philosophy of these postmodern statements-their own viewing lenses are too unsophisticated, uninformed, theoretically simple. Elementary school children tend to be less interested in art as an intellectual enterprise than as an exposition of beauty-an activity that plays on the pleasures of the sense. And while "Sliding Down A Volcano With Kleenex Boxes as Skis" is intellectually appetizing, its over-simplified visual schema doesn't have a leg to stand on in terms of beauty, especially the sort of colorful and kinetic beauty that often resonates with youngsters.

Jill Anderson's offering, "Super Boring," is almost comically self-indicting. This too features ample negative space and a precious few broad stroke of black paint that take the form of a penguin and a personified rectangle. The image as a whole is tragically unimaginative and isn't at all visually fleshed out. Again, the commitment seems to be more to art theory than to art itself-the piece, if it speaks to its viewer at all, will surely do so in intellectual, and not aesthetic terms.

Art pedagogy at the elementary level should be about piquing interest and curiosity, about exciting the natural artistic proclivities of young students, about appealing to their sense of beauty-on their terms-not about inculcating them with the postmodernist party line: meaning is dead; beauty in the eye of the beholder.

KidsArt, then, represents more an insular and self-congratulating exercise on the part of 60 professional contemporary artists, than a bona fide attempt to imbue young people with a zeal for artistic creation. Its incorporation into any sort of pedagogical schedule will be tricky indeed, with few children able (or willing) to pay $50 for a coloring book.

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