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Seen Art? Transcript
Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s Seen Art? is one of the newest examples of what The New York Museum of Modern Art publishes for children. Seen Art? is, in part, like so many museum publications for children (particularly books put out by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) in which the text acts as a guide to contemporary art conduct and culture. For example, Scieszka’s and Smith’s protagonist (a young boy who is artfully distorted looking himself) sits on a rare, original Panton chair and is told, “Ahem. No sitting on art.” This particular book also engages amusingly in one of the supposed big art world questions: What exactly is art? Seen Art? begins, “It all started when I told my friend Art I would meet him on the corner of Fifth and Fifty-Third. I didn’t see him. So I asked a lady walking up the avenue, ‘Have you seen Art?'”
The protagonist then begins a journey through the museum looking at everything from Impressionism to mass-produced furniture to video installations. Each time our nameless character is exposed to a room and shown a painting — for example Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” — he exclaims, “‘But where is Art?,'”an ambivalent question that also means, “What is art?” Someone new then grabs him and says, “You said it brother.” Or, “I will take you to art.” But our protagonist never actually discovers what art is. Art is, according to his encounters with high-art connoisseurs, “personal, playful, puzzling, provocative, powerful.” The main character does find out where art is, however. Art is within the institution called MoMA, and his friend Art just happens to be standing out front.
MoMA has given a more concise answer to this question in the past however, as in Warja Honegger-Lavater’s out of print rendition of Little Red Riding Hood, published in 1965. This small, wordless picture book opens like an accordion into a single gorgeous abstract painting made up of small colorful shapes. A guide at the beginning simply explains the name of the character with an equal sign leading to the corresponding symbol. A red circle stands for Little Red Riding Hood and a green triangle represents a tree. Each shape is the same size and is placed in accordance with the fairy-tale’s narrative. Art is, according to MoMA’s 1965 publication, symbolism and metaphor.
While neither of these works can be read as representations of the complexity of modernism or postmodernism, Honegger-Lavater’s fairy tale parallels the many bold statements being made circa 1965 regarding what art is. On the other hand, Scieska’s and Lane’s Seen Art? has trouble committing to any particular definition of art — which makes Seen Art? an ideal text not only for introducing various artists and art movements to children, but also for raising questions for children about what and where art can be.