Monday, May 19, 2008

Mixing It Up

“The best portraits are those in which there is a slight mixture of caricature.”-Thomas B. Macaulay

We have probably all seen the cartoonists at amusement parks or on beach boardwalks. They draw ridiculous pictures of people with huge heads and tiny bodies that provide lots of laughs. Typically cartoons and caricatures are intended for simple entertainment purposes. However, the message of a cartoon can sometimes be much more serious than its amusing appearance suggests. The latest exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, which intersects caricatures and politics, is an example. Although the portraits in Herblock’s Presidents: “Puncturing Pomposity” are very humorous and make light of important issues, they can also serve as a historical account of some of the major controversies and concerns of every presidential term from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.

Herbert Block was a cartoonist and a major supporter of the so called “underdog.” He adamantly supported policies aimed at assisting the underprivileged, such as the New Deal. He also advocated for United States intervention in World War II. Therefore, all of his caricatures are negative portrayals of presidents who enacted policies which hurt, or merely failed to help, the “underdog.” For example, he makes fun of Eisenhower’s “Administration Program”, Johnson’s “Great Society,” Ford’s economic policies, Reagan’s policy freezes, and Bush’s “no new taxes” promise. According to Block, “in some cases, a forceful, negative reaction can do the most good.” Although some of these caricatures may seem harsh, they are presented in a way that can amuse almost anybody, no matter their political position.

At present it is of the utmost importance for people to understand current political issues, as we are in the midst of a monumental election. As a history major, I must say that one of the best ways to understand the present is to understand the past, even if the past is presented in a humorous way. Therefore, the current National Portrait Gallery exhibit succeeds in multiple purposes by both informing and entertaining.

A Moment in Time

"I assure you no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament ... I know nothing."-Edgar Degas

The Philips Gallery is in many ways one of DC’s most unique museums. In fact, the Philips, which opened in 1921, was actually the first museum of modern art to open in America. Unlike the National Gallery, the National Museum of African Art, and many of the city's other museums, it is not a massive building designed specifically for its current use. Rather, it is a small museum which was formerly the home of owner, Duncan Philips. I remember the first time I visited this museum; I was so enchanted that I longed to move in and make the museum my home. I still harbor this unrealistic dream of living in a similar city home surrounded by beautiful art.

Recently, a new exhibit called Degas to Deibenkorn: The Philips Collects, has come to the museum. As its title indicates, a wide variety of artists are incorporated into this one exhibit: Hans Hofman, Ansel Adams, Elizabeth Murray, and Sean Scully to name a few. Needless to say, the works are not limited to just paintings. Photography, paper works, and sculpture are also included. However, among all these artists, it is Degas that attracts me most to this exhibit. It is not that I dislike the works of the others, but Degas and the related impressionist style have special appeal to me.

Although Degas painted in the nineteenth century, I believe the concepts on which he based his works are still very applicable to today’s society. Degas adamantly rejected the label impressionist; however, he, like other impressionist artists, painted pictures which captured one single moment in time. Essentially, his paintings are like snapshots which forever preserve the actions, movements, and emotions of on fleeting instant. In some works, such as Dancers in Pink, figures are actually cut off to emphasize Degas’s ability to portray a split second in the scope of all time. Degas used this technique to comment on the ephemeral qualities of life. Many people rush through life without ever stopping to appreciate the small things occurring around them. Thus, Degas focused on the transitory moments of life.

In modern times, society pushes people to move faster and faster. Many children are raised to live by the phrase, “time is money.” New technology and tools such as cell phones, Blackberries, and iPhones further increase the speed of the average person’s life. Therefore, it is often rare for people to take the time to appreciate individual moments whether they be extremely important or seemingly inconsequential. It is entirely possible that such people will find their lives flying past them without truly realizing it. Recently, I myself have been victim to this reality so much so that I have not even found the time to visit the exhibit at the Philips Gallery. Soon, however, I hope to slow down my own pace enough so that I can enjoy the works of Degas and his fellow artists before the exhibit is deconstructed. Thus, it can be seen Degas’s themes are relevant in today’s world and will probably be so for generations to come.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Straight from the Soul

“Photography records the gamut of feeling written to the human face, the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited, and the wealth and confusion man has created. It is a major force in explaining man to man.”-Edward Steichen

Photography is one of the few major art forms that I have not yet discussed. Yet, when I think about it, it must be one of the most popular. Digital cameras are becoming more and more popular, and disposable cameras are very easily accessible. These days, you can even take and send pictures on a cell phone. Therefore, almost anyone can take pictures, regardless of their skill level and whether or not they consider themselves artists. After all, everyone wants to capture their favorite memories. And I am not just talking about tourists walking around with huge camera bags and fanny packs. In fact, I have some friends who like to take pictures everywhere they go, whether it be a sporting event or just a dinner.

Despite the popularity of photography, in some cultures, people believe that the camera is a tool used to steal the soul. To be quite honest, I also don’t like to be in photos. I can’t exactly explain why, and maybe it’s just a bit of self-consciousness. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think a picture will capture my soul. I do, however, believe a photograph can be a visual representation of one’s soul. As I see it, a picture can reveal a great deal about an individual’s personality and emotions. To be in no pictures at all would actually be very sad, almost like being completely forgotten. I cannot imagine losing my collection of photos, which hold priceless memories of the places I have been and the people I have known.

The photography collection of Norman and Caroline Kinder Carr, which is now on display at the Corcoran fully embodies this idea that a photograph can display one’s soul and personality. The Carrs are Washington, DC, residents who have built a remarkable collection including photographs by Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, and Paul Strand. This comprehensive collection is both a history of and a tribute to the genre known as street photography. The pictures successfully capture the essence of city streets and the people who walk them. A sense of vitality and impulsiveness emerges from each piece. Every photograph on display depicts a captivating scene which compels the viewer to look longer and closer in order to avoid missing a crucial element. Even the individuals in the pictures are intriguing characters that the viewer longs to know more about.

For the most part, the pictures in the Corcoran are successful in depicting city life. They encapsulate the dynamism, passion, and irregularity that essentially are the soul of the city street. In this way, the exhibit achieves its goal by summarizing the history of street photography and emphasizing the remarkable ability of this art to evoke emotion, hold memories, and portray spirit and character.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Center Stage

"The problem with our art form: it's so ephemeral, and catching performances can be so difficult... the important thing is what happens at the moment of performance, for the people who made the effort to be there: it lives with them."-Judith Weir

When I was a child, my parents used to take my sister and me on trips to New York City where we would often see a show on Broadway. On my first ever visit to New York, we went to see The Phantom of the Opera. I wish I could say I enjoyed it, but I was three, and I just fell asleep. Nevertheless, being introduced to the theater at such a young age instilled in me a life long love of the performing arts. Yet for years, I, probably like many other people, thought that New York was really the only place to see a great performance. In more recent times, the past six or seven years, I have begun to realize what wonderful theater is available in Washington, DC, a city so much closer to my home and my heart.

I first began to appreciate DC’s theater when I was about eleven and my parents took me to see The Man of La Mancha at the National Theater Since then I have seen several other shows, mainly at the Folger and the Shakespeare Theater. Currently, School for Scandal is showing at the Folger, and Antony and Cleopatra is playing at the Shakespeare Theater. Soon, Ballet Across America will be coming to the Kennedy Center. I would love to attend all these shows, and I encourage everyone to go enjoy another aspect of DC’s arts.

In Plain Air

“I am following Nature without being able to grasp her, I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.”-Claude Monet

The National Gallery definitely ranks high on my list of the best museums in Washington, DC. In fact, it may be my absolute favorite. I love the huge, winding, stone staircases, the high ceilings of each gallery room, and the arrangement of fountains and gardens. Something about the atmosphere and the feeling of grandeur keeps me coming back time and time again. In a way, it is my own personal escape from the busy world and my own hectic schedule. Therefore, when I heard about the arrival of the exhibit, In the Forest of the Fontainebleau, I was extremely eager to see it. The exhibit displays works by some of my favorite artists, Millet, Monet, and Rousseau.

Although I knew a fair amount about these artists from art history classes and by seeing their works in other museums, the Fontainebleau Forest, located outside of Paris, France, was a relatively knew topic for me. However, at this point in my life especially, anything remotely related to Paris is of great interest to me, as I will be there in less than a week’s time. Here is what the exhibit taught me about the Fontainebleau. Since the Middle Ages, and probably before, the forest has been used as grounds for hunting and hiking. From that time on, it has been a popular spot for tourists and Parisians to escape from the hustle and hubbub of the city. The natural landscape is quite remarkable with majestic trees and grandiose rock formations: hence its appeal to nineteenth century artists who began the style known as “plein-air” or “open air,” a forerunner of impressionism.

The artists reflect the desire to escape by using elements from nature to create a tranquil, idyllic environment which directly contrasts with the atmosphere of Paris, or any other city for that matter. Almost any one who looked at these paintings would see the appeal and want to be part of it themselves. One work in particular had this effect on me, a painting titled Forest of Fontainebleau, by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Upon seeing this piece, I had a strong urge to grab a book and join the girl reading quietly by a forest brook.

I love cities, so I don’t often feel this need to escape from the cities, but rather the desire to escape to one. However, this exhibit brought to mind an issue which is slowly coming to the forefront of world politics. That is the problem of pollution which is shared by countries around the globe. Cities, due to high concentrations of people and large amounts of automobile and factory exhaust, are hit especially hard. In Beijing, the problem is so amplified that officials are scrambling to clean up the environment before the summer 2008 Olympic Games. In London, huge taxes are being instituted to discourage commuters from entering the city and bringing with them additional traffic and pollution. Therefore, it is understandable that people would want to flee to a place of “open air” where they would not be suffocated by masses of people and the toxic fumes made by man. It was actually the phrase “open air” which drew my attention to this issue and made me realize how acute the present need to escape really is. While Corot, Millet, Monet, and the others had no way of knowing it, their works and the history and ideas they embody are actually very relevant to modern times.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

“The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own.”-Frank Lloyd Wright

I remember my very first weekend at the University of Maryland, during freshmen orientation, the school organized a bus trip to DC. A group of students went to many of the major memorials: the Washington Monument, the FDR Memorial, the Jefferson memorial, and the Vietnam memorial. Although I felt a little touristy, it was a good experience for everyone to see some of DC’s greatest architecture.

This year a new site has been added to the list of noteworthy places. As an architectural structure, it may not be as significant as the above mentioned monuments, but its presence adds to the heart and soul of the city. The recently opened baseball stadium, Nationals Park, is a great place for Washingtonians to come together for a summer evening to celebrate their city and America’s national pastime. I haven’t had a chance to see a game in Nationals Park yet, but I can hardly wait, and I hope to see a stadium full of people.

Worth A Thousand Words

“I like America, just as everybody else does. I love America, I gotta say that. But America will be judged.”-Bob Dylan

Everybody has heard the old cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words. But are those words worth more if the picture is on a poster? A poster is much more likely to be seen by the general public than other types of art. A person does not have to go into a museum or gallery to see a poster. Rather, they can be found almost anywhere, including store windows, telephone booths, and school hallways. Most of the time, posters make their messages quite clear. You don’t have to think too hard to understand the meaning of a poster which says “Buy extra war bonds” in large, bold letters. However, do people really consider what poster’s say about our culture and society as a whole? Questions like this are explored in the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibit, Ballyhoo: Posters as Portraiture.

In answer to the above question, my answer would be a simple no. I live in a dorm room, and of course, the white walls would look absolutely horrific if we did not decorate them. So covering our walls are posters of our favorite artistic masterpieces, athletes, musicians, and actors. Yet as far as I know, not many college students take time out of their day to contemplate the significance of what they put on their walls. Nevertheless, in my opinion, a poster tells not only about an individual’s likes and values, but also about the society of which they are part. Posters can tell about society’s standards and ideals, and because posters are so easily produced and distributed, this message is quickly transported around the world. A poster of a celebrity, Johnny Depp, for example, gives the world an insight into the American concept of success and attractiveness. A political poster on the other hand can reveal a state of unrest or a general satisfaction on the part of the people.

The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit makes this point by displaying a variety of posters from America’s past and present. The oldest images are those of broadsides and theater handbills, the most primitive developments in the evolution of posters. Other posters reveal national pride as Americans rallied behind World War II. In quite the opposite fashion, posters from the 1960s display frustration with the government and world affairs. A well known image of Bob Dylan, for example, has come to be seen as the icon of the era and a representation of the growing counterculture. Still more modern works reflect on current trends and popular figures in American culture. While all these posters tell their own story and have an individual meaning, the entire collection together makes a stronger point. It shows how a type of art which most people take for granted can tell so much about a culture and spread its message to the entire world.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Through Female Eyes

“I have had to go to men as sources in my painting because the past has left us so small an inheritance of woman's painting that had widened life.... Before I put a brush to canvas I question, "Is this mine? Is it all intrinsically of myself? Is it influenced by some idea or some photograph of an idea which I have acquired from some man?"-Georgia O’Keefe

Sometimes when I am especially bogged down by homework and studying, like I am now during exam week, I reminisce about my days in kindergarten. Those were the days when life was divided into naptime, story time, snack time, and play time. Never did I have to worry about writing ten page papers and frantically cramming for finals.

One interesting thing I remember about kindergarten that is slightly more significant than the luxury of naptime is the kinds of activities available to us during our indoor play time. My best friend and I, along with a couple other girls, would always choose arts and crafts. We would engage in simple projects like coloring pages our teacher had printed for us or pasting white circles on construction paper to make snowmen, but almost never were we joined by a boy from the class. Looking back, this makes sense, as young boys are generally trained to think that some activities are more feminine and others, like sports, are more suited for them. Why then are women so underrepresented in the arts? I think almost anybody would be hard pressed to think of a female contemporary of Leonardo Da Vinci or Raphael. Even modern art is dominated by men including Picasso and Duchamp. For this reason, I find exhibits such as that by Paula Rego at the National Museum of Women in the Arts to be especially interesting.

Paula Rego is not only a leading contemporary female artist, but also a wonderful story teller. All of her paintings are narratives, based on literature, observation, experience, or imagination. Looking Out is the story of a woman who wastes her entire days looking out her window hoping to catch a glimpse of the priest with whom she had an affair. The Jane Eyre lithographs were inspired by the novel The Wild Sargasso Sea, which is about Bertha, a character in Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece Jane Eyre. In addition, The Maids is an account based on Jean Genet’s play in which two sisters kill the woman they work for and try on her clothes.

While Rego’s primary goal may be to entertain viewers through the art of storytelling, as a woman painting women it is impossible for her messages to be completely separated from gender. As I see it, most of her works including the ones mentioned above serve as a commentary on the position of women in society. The woman in Looking Out has been condemned to a life of isolation and imprisonment because she got pregnant by a priest. Meanwhile, the man walks free without sharing the blame and continues his life like nothing ever happened. The Jane Eyre lithographs, on the other hand, portray a strong, brave, admirable character to which the entire female gender can look for inspiration. Meanwhile The maids is a psychologically intriguing depiction of women which gives some insight into the complexity of the female mind and emotions.

In a way, art by women such as Rego falls into a completely different realm than that of their male counterparts. Although artists, such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Picasso often painted women they, as men, were unable to capture female emotions and the truth of a woman’s experiences in a male dominated world. Therefore, Rego and other female artists have the potential to make monumental steps in the art world, while simultaneously depicting and criticizing the role of women in society and encouraging critical thought on the part of the viewer.

Baking Up A Storm

“To give life to beauty, the painter uses a whole range of colours, musicians of sounds, the cook of tastes—and it is indeed remarkable that there are seven colours, seven musical notes and seven tastes.” –Lucien Tendret

For a long time now, it has been my dream to go to culinary school. I would love to become a pastry chef and open my own small bakery where I would sell a variety of fruit and berry tarts, quiches, and cakes. Every time I watch the food channel, especially “Ace of Cakes” which is set in Baltimore’s Charm City Cakes, I long to be in the kitchen with the chef. I would be willing to perform even the most menial task to give my career a jump start.

Due to this baking passion, I was extremely excited when I heard about the opening of Georgetown Cupcakes. The two sisters who opened this shop have essentially fulfilled one of my highest aspirations. Although I have not actually tasted a cupcake yet, I have visited Georgetown since the bakery’s opening and been able to look in the shop window. It is a tiny, but cute little shop with an ideal location and the cupcakes which include flavors such chocolate banana, key lime, and lemon blossom look delicious. To be sure, long lines and early sell outs are a great testament to the quality of these cupcakes. Personally, I find the idea of a chocolate hazelnut or chocolate mint cupcake hard to resist.

While some people may deny that baking is an art, I beg to differ. A baker must design goods so that they are visually appealing. Taste means nothing if it does not look good enough to eat. In the case of a cupcake, decorating calls for the same care and precision that an artist uses when handling a brush. Attention to detail is also a must. Therefore, Georgetown Cupcakes has succeeded not only in developing a profitable business, but also in promoting an art form.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Rainbow of Color

“The whole world, as we experience it visually, comes to us through the mystic realm of color.”-Hans Hoffman

One of my favorite things about DC is the great wealth of art made available to the public. I love going into the city to visit my favorite museums, and I actually enjoy getting museum paper assignments in my art history classes. Despite this, however, it is not so common for one of the exhibits shown in DC’s museums to have actually originated in the city. Nevertheless, this is the case with the exhibit Color as Field which is currently showing at the American Art Museum. Many of the artists whose works are on display, including Louis Morris, Kenneth Noland, and Gene Davis, actually lived and painted in Washington, DC. Therefore, when put into the context of its location, the exhibit is made doubly interesting.

As an art lover, I did not want to miss the opportunity to see art made by Washingtonians on display in a major Smithsonian museum. The exhibit’s title draws direct attention to color, and I was certainly impressed by the arrangement of colors I saw. The combination of pale pinks, greens, blues, yellows, and purples in paintings such as Morris’s Floral V creates a lively and upbeat atmosphere. Personally, I thought Morris’s color composition had a very soothing effect. Other pieces such as Noland’s Earthen Bound and Helen Frankenthaler’s Flood employ a similar blend of purples, yellows, pinks and greens to add to this ambiance. Obviously, color is an essential and crucially important aspect of this exhibit. Through color, these artists were able to break from traditional painting and create a distinctive genre for themselves. However, it is all too easy to become so wrapped up in the beauty and complexity of these color arrangements that the context and message are forgotten.

It was not until I thought about the dates of the art that I begun to fully understand its meaning. Many of the works are dated in the 1950s, the first full decade following the end of World War II. During this period, America was marked by a universal relief due to the end of the war. The country was finally returning to normal status after decades of turmoil as reflected by the attitudes of its people. Furthermore, the world wars functioned as economic stabilizers, paving the way for a time of comfort and hope. Considering this historical context, it is easy to see that the bright colors and cheerful compositions of Color as Field were in response to the state of society and a reflection of the people’s general mindset.

The works of these artists prove that color can be very powerful. While it can and should be valued for its beauty, it also needs to be considered for its deeper connotations. It can depict a feeling or state of mind and evoke certain emotions. It can be a reflection on the condition of society or commentary on past events. In displaying this particular exhibit, the American Art museum shows that color can truly be the ultimate form of expression.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Hidden Pictures

“What a funny thing painting is. The abstract painters always insist on their connection with the visible reality, while the so called figurative artists insist that what they really care about, is the abstract qualities of life.”-Marlene Dumas

I know quite a few people who don’t like abstract art at all. It is easy to understand why a person would rather appreciate art simply for its beauty than remain puzzled as they attempt to interpret an abstract piece. Although I do like abstract art, especially painting, I sometimes find it frustrating to look at a particularly baffling piece. While I am aware of the aesthetic qualities of such art, there are times when I just cannot understand the artist’s meaning or recognize a figure that is supposedly hidden amidst a random assortment of colors and lines.

For these reason’s, I went to Amy Sillman’s exhibit, Third Person Singular, at the Hirshorn not knowing what to expect. Therefore, I tried to learn as much as I could about the artist from the wall posts and descriptions at the museum before I actually looked at the works. As it turns out, Amy Sillman is a New York artist who tries to express emotion and anxiety through a very abstract style. She began the work in this exhibit by sketching numerous couples, sometimes using models and sometimes from memory. The bulk of the works, however, are paintings inspired by these couples. According to one of the wall posts, “Her works embrace abstraction without abandoning representation, as the details of the figures are shrouded behind bold strokes and geometric forms.” Now, maybe it’s just me, but I had trouble finding the figures in many of her paintings. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at some of the works again with my friends that I began to see things in them.
At first, I thought this was a shoe and the purple was a pant leg. However, a friend pointed out that a dark spot near the center of the shoe resembled a face and that the purple could be a billowing cape worn by this figure.
To me, this looks very much like a window. Outside the window I see a blue sky and a red and white sale boat with a rectangular sail. However, after staring at it for awhile I saw what seems to be a cupped hand at the bottom of the window sill.
This is one of the most abstract pieces of the exhibit in my opinion. Maybe the bottom right corner is a body of water and the lighter blue and white represent a ship coming toward the viewer. When it comes down to it though, I cannot identify many objects in this piece. Can you find the hidden figure in this painting?

It is very curious to me that all of these images were inspired by couples which in Sillman’s sketches are very recognizable as people. I have given considerable thought to the Hirshorn’s exhibit in the past couple of weeks. Maybe, Sillman is reflecting on our dynamically changing society and the shifting status of individuals and relationships in this society. It is possible that relationships as we traditionally think of them are becoming more abstract. It is not uncommon to see two people having lunch together while talking on their cell phones. Sometimes, relationships can be developed on the internet without any real human contact at all. The recent popularity of facebook and texting make both of these incidents even more frequent. Even blogs can be a to testament the abstraction of relationships. Blogs are an easily accessible forum for conversation which create group relationships with a very different feel than those developed in small living room gatherings. I do not know if Amy Sillman thought at all about these things when painting, and I may never fully understand the message she intended to convey. However, abstract art as my friends and I discovered, can have unlimited interpretations, and for now I choose to believe that Sillman’s art is a commentary on relationships in modern society.

A Day At the Zoo

I will admit from the start that I don’t find very many artistic aspects about a zoo. Even I, a person who sees art in basketball and graffiti, don’t consider small children looking at caged animals an art form. Nevertheless, I do enjoy a nice day at the zoo. In fact, I went to the National Zoo just a couple of weeks ago with my sister. We spent about five tense minutes watching a tiger try to catch a bird for its lunch, and I could have spent the entire afternoon staring in amazement as the sea otters did repeated underwater summersaults. Some parts of the zoo are currently closed for renovations, but we were still able to observe the giant panda, cheetahs, lemurs, and a assortment of other animals.

So I bet you are wondering why I am talking about the zoo in a blog about art. Well, it just so happens that the National Zoo in Washington, DC, is part of the Smithsonian, the same institution that funds the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and a slew of other wonderful museums. While this connection may be minor and somewhat insignificant, it still exists. Like all the Smithsonian art exhibits mentioned in this blog, the National Zoo is absolutely free. So why not use that as an excuse to spend a day at the zoo and maybe even check out one of the Smithsonian museums while you’re at it.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Redefining Art

“You are Just, if there is a Just, trying to be an artist. You are Just trying to show the beautiful soul of your people.”- Nikki Giovanni

A few days ago I was riding back from DC to College Park on the metro. As the train was pulling into the Fort Totten Station, I noticed a cement wall covered in graffiti outside my window. Placed in a very prominent position in huge burgundy and gold letters was the name Sean Taylor and the number twenty-one. Surrounding it were various other tags and phrases such as “Go Hilary”. Until then I had never given much thought to graffiti. In school we were always told that graffiti was vandalism and wholly dishonorable. I never really stopped to think that graffiti could be a tool for self expression, a way to honor a local hero, or a voice on political viewpoint.

As I continued to contemplate, I was reminded of an exhibit I had recently seen at the National Portrait Gallery titled Recognize: Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture. As its title suggests, this exhibit is a display of portraits of prominent individuals in popular music and sports: LL Cool J, Ice T, and Big Daddy Kane to name a few. The exhibit obviously focused on the portraits of these figures, mostly paintings by the artist Kehinde Wiley. Unlike most monotonous portraits painted against plain backgrounds, these were puns on famous historical portraits and images of legendary figures. For example, one painting placed three pop-culture celebrities together under the title Three Graces. In another titled Ice T Channels Napoleon, Ice T adopts the regal pose of the Napoleon. To me, however, one of the most interesting things was the gallery hallway in which the walls were covered with graffiti designed especially for this show. It was this memory which encouraged me to think about the graffiti outside the Fort Totten Station.

In the music world, some types of music are much more highly regarded than others. Some people may not even think of rap or hip hop as music. The same is true in the art world in which some works are thought of as high art and others as low. Graffiti, if it is art (and I do think it is,) is certainly on the low side. The National Portrait Gallery, however, challenges these ideas by bringing pop culture icons and graffiti into the high art realm known as the museum. Portraits such as Ice T Channels Napoleon suggest that a rap star is just as worthy of lasting recognition as Napoleon. Similarly, the graffiti panels in the hallway suggest that graffiti can be as aesthetically pleasing and thought provoking as other highly praised art forms.

Museums definitely play a role in shaping the way the public views art. At times, a museum can even alter a viewer’s perception of culture. In this particular exhibit, The National Portrait Gallery shows the significance of popular culture and questions the current understanding of art. If the goal of this exhibit is to make people think about graffiti and its role in modern culture, then it certainly succeeds. I myself am proof of this. But does simply placing something in a museum make it art? Should museums have the sole authority to label something as art? If graffiti in the National Portrait Gallery is art, then the name Sean Taylor on a cement wall is also art. Right? So who decides?