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The Elephant in the Room

by Grace Needlman


Contemporary art often confronts us with taboo subject matter, from disease to sex to mental illness to death.

In my role as an MCA Artist Guide, I lead groups of elementary and high school students in conversations in the galleries and often have to negotiate how to address these artworks and issues. Rather than avoiding them, how can we face a challenging work of art head-on and start a conversation around it?

Recently, I took this question to a group of 300 museum educators attending the annual National Art Education Association National Convention. At the MCA I invited them to join an interactive discussion about artworks in the galleries that presents challenging content. Together, we collected the following ideas and strategies for addressing “the elephant in the room” in productive ways.

Tips for talking about uncomfortable art

First, get students to trust you by actually listening to them.

If there are giggles, acknowledge that giggling is a valid response. Ask what specifically they see that makes them giggle. Relate and validate. Then ask them to take on the perspective of the subject. Is the subject giggling or in a giggle mood? If not, what is the mood? Have half the group explore the mood of the sculpture from the perspective of the subject, and have half of the class take on the perspective of the giggling viewer. Ask them to engage in dialogue, asking each other “why.”

Ask why why why.

Relate to personal experience when possible.

Relate the work to personal experience by asking about:

A time you stood up for someone

A time you felt embarrassed for someone

A time you saw something that confused you

A time that you loved something that no one else loved

Focus on emotion, movement, and body language. Identify with a figure in the picture and imagine yourself in their place.

With difficult subject matter, begin with emotion: How does this make you feel?

Take some time to take in the work of art. If it’s a sculpture, walk around it. Really take it in from multiple angles: squat down and look up at it, view it from each side, view it from far away and from close up.

Work in small groups or pairs. Pose like the characters in the work. Focus on gesture and facial expression. Share out with a partner what they just experienced or, if students are comfortable, share out in a large group.

Build empathy by taking on the pose and facial expression (tableaux) of the characters in the piece.

Ask students to create their own work in response to the piece.

  • Tell the story of these characters. What happened just before this moment?

Write a short story/poem that shares that story.

Which of these figures would you rather ask a favor of?


Ways to discuss uncomfortable art

When looking at a contemporary work with sexually explicit imagery, start by referencing a historical artwork, Brueghel, for example. Have a conversation about the biblical story of Adam and Eve.

Talk at a personal level, addressing body image and phobias.

Keep looking and talking about it until those who are uncomfortable start to relax.

Address the topic very directly. Address fear and ask whether an image is scary. Ask those who aren’t afraid to explain why, and help them encourage others and let them know they don’t need to be afraid.

Share a relatable story from your own experience.

Honor the element of fear. Allow a work to be scary and nightmarish. Invite students to share their fears.

Instead of talking only about what we see, ask: what is the artist trying to communicate?

Acknowledge the discomfort without shaming. Point out that sometimes when something makes us feel uncomfortable or is unfamiliar, we respond with laughter. Tell the students that you are confident that they are mature enough to handle themselves.

What kinds of interaction do you see between the characters in this work? Are there mythological associations you have that come to mind?

Discuss the difference between naked and nude. Imagine you’re drawing your hand—look at all the details. Now imagine slipping on a glove—can you get the same detailed image of your hand? This can help explain an artist’s intentions about painting bodies.

Be sure you have established a culture/dialogue of respect.

Explore the use of different symbols throughout the work. Discuss how the symbols may signify different things for different people.

Without introduction, ask the students to write three words and one question that come to mind when they look at the piece.

Ex: Prickly, intrusive, tactile

If the woman is afraid of this figure, why is she interacting with him?

For populations who have experienced trauma/torture and displacement: Wait and listen. Embracing silence is ok. Accept what you’ve been given and don’t push.

Talk about mental health and the extreme need to make art.

Collection work

Collection work