The Art Institute? Is it Free?

By Israel Rojas-Moreno, Class of 2016

Classicism, impressionism, cubism. What the heck does that even mean? I too, was an art-newbie. I’d visit museums, glance at paintings, and occasionally note, “that was pretty.” But this past weekend, I took advantage of my free admission (available to all University of Chicago students) to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. Even for a “know-nothing” like me, it was amazing.

Thankfully, the museum was prepared for a novice like me. A volunteer docent with 25 years of experience was on hand to provide an hour-long tour that included a curated selection of art. I learned one artist thought it ridiculous that men and monkeys could share an ancestor, but not so ridiculous for women and monkeys to be distant relatives. I learned Claude Monet got famous because he realized morning was different from evening, and winter different from summer. Most importantly, I can now do more than nod along when somebody uses the word “impressionism” at my next black-tie gala.

Saint George Killing the Dragon, painting by Rafael. Can you spot the fly? Hint: it's easier in person. Image: Wikipedia

Saint George Killing the Dragon, painting by Rafael. Can you spot the fly? Hint: it's easier in person. Image: Wikipedia

My playful summary aside, the trip was a very rewarding experience. Not just because of impressive skill of the artists, or the beauty of their works, but also because I actually tried to experience the art. This meant, when I saw a piece of art I appreciated, I would comment to my spouse, “this is why I like this piece…this is what I think of.” When I saw something I didn’t appreciate, I would comment, “I don’t get it. This looks dumb.” Some of those times, my wife disagreed and it would lead to conversations we’d never explored before. The art, combined with an open mind and sense of curiosity, was the perfect medium for gaining fresh insight into someone else’s perspective.

Which brings me to the image accompanying this article. The museum docent can provide additional context on the painting, but one incident on the tour bears repeating. The docent asked, “How do we know this knight is good and not from a bad army?” The audience response was immediate: “Because he’s riding a white horse!” “That’s right,” said the docent, “Also, notice he is coming from the left.” Obviously. White, the color of purity and innocence and the West, the bastion of all that is good and holy.

If the symbolism ended there, maybe we’d be ok. But, the symbolism goes beyond what the basic color spectrum might dictate; moral values are also ascribed to colors. More troublesome,  similar values or moral character are also ascribed to people, often based on their skin color. Understanding this, it becomes easier to understand why emails demeaning to African-Americans or Middle-Eastern cultures still circulate at the University of Chicago. It becomes easier to understand how Booth students would think sending smokers to Woodlawn is funny. America’s had hundreds of years of practice to establish these subconscious associations; America’s cultural dominance also means these associations don’t end at our borders. It will take us more than three hours of Cross-Cultural Communications (or one lengthy email about inclusion) to change.

This author is overdue on delivering previously promised diversity forums and thanks you for your patience (and support).