"How beautiful." "How interesting." "Look at the detail." "Look at the lines." "Man, I could do that." "It looks like a kindergarten could have drawn that." "That's not art." For most museumgoers and art enthusiasts, those thoughts often pop up when looking at something different.
It wasn't any different with KAWS's major survey exhibition "Where the End Starts," which uses a mix of iconographic imagery to explore human emotion. I took a six-year-old to the exhibit. Bright, deeply saturated colors redefine the Smurfs, SpongeBob, Peanuts, the Simpsons and characters from Hanna-Barbera. Looming sculptures with remarkable similarities to Mickey Mouse and the Michelin Man display obvious feelings. It looked very child friendly.
At first glance, it's simple. But turn the corner and the running Michelin Man's arms are severed with blood dripping.
Before I had to figure out to explain that to a child, five Snoopy's overlaid with images caught her eye. It's cute until it becomes a game of identifying other pop culture animations within Snoopy's shape. Or matching the Simpsons bodies to their heads. There's the moment when she realized that the beloved yet altered Mickey's ear were crossbones and his eyes were more than just closed. Those hybrid cartoon characters said much about intenseness of emotions like sadness, despair and weariness and shyness.
"But why?" she asked. "Why is he so sad? Why is that one in a corner by himself? He looks like Pinocchio—why did he lie so much? If I lie will my nose grow so long it breaks off?"
"No, your nose will not break off."
Trying to answer a barrage of questions you don't quite know the answers to is a feat in itself. Explaining what distorted animated character and complex human emotions have to do with each other is another matter. But both boil down to figuring out the why.
Past admiration or scoffing at a work, the more important question is always why. Why did he pick those colors, those images and those feeling together? The most important question —why— exists in a child's innate curiosity, the same curiosity that seems to wane in adults as cynicism develops and grows. It skews with the way we perceive art and the artist's message lost. Art is a lens to see reality and looking at it simply for face value is an opportunity lost. The why can fuel emotion and emotion is a step closer to empathy for the artist and for the subject.