CHICAGO – Art to Live With is an art loan program at the Smart Museum of the University of Chicago which allows University students living in residence halls to borrow works of art from the Smart to hang in their dorm rooms. The Art to Live With collection comprised about 150 pieces last year, assembled by the Smart’s Student Advisory Committee, and includes works by Takashi Murakami, Pablo Picasso, and Pope L., who teaches at the University. On October 6, 2018, at around 5pm, a day before the museum opened its doors and start lending out art, my flatmate and I arrived in the Smart’s courtyard, sleeping bags in hand and eye bags yet to form. Unsurprisingly, even more than 12 hours before opening, we were the ninth and tenth in line. 

Francisco de Goya, Ensayos, Aquatint on Paper, 20.7 x 16.6 cm, 1799, Chicago and Joan Miró, Woman with Blond Armpit Combing Her Hair by the Light of the Stars, Watercolor and Guache over Graphite, 37.9 x 45.8 cm, 1959, Chicago. 

The entire Art to Live With (ATLW) collection is available for preview on the program’s Instagram account, run by its interns. My flatmate and I had our eyes specifically set on some works by Francisco de Goya and Joan Miro, while others had set their sights on pieces by Picasso, Marc Chagall, and Giorgio de Chirico. As the night dragged on, more and more people arrived to stand in line, and by morning, an hour before opening, there were tens of students waiting to get their hands on an artwork. Why is the prospect of hanging a work of art from the Smart on one’s bedroom wall for three quarters so appealing, compelling some to go as far as camping outside the museum 24 hours ahead of time? How does the authenticity of a work of art bear on its aesthetic qualities and even value? Finally, what does it mean to give supposedly ‘under-qualified’ students temporary guardianship and curatorial power over historical and cultural artifacts?

Mauricio Lasansky, Bodas de Sangre, Multimedia, 51.7 x 73.0 cm, 1951, Chicago. 

I asked some participants for their thoughts. One student, who had borrowed Mauricio Lasansky’s Blood Wedding (Bodas de Sangre) said:

Artwork is something that I would say is kind of priceless. Like, it’s a manifestation of a fraction of a fraction of someone’s essence. It was created by someone. For the sake of being created. Someone felt the need to bring it into the world. The painting calls out, “listen to me!” It has something important to share. And I have the privilege to listen? Me? Generic college student? I was worthy enough? Ultimately, I don’t think I chose the painting. I think the painting chose me. And I am grateful.
Serge Poliakoff, Abstract Composition, Color Lithograph on White Wove Paper, 57.5 × 44.3 cm (image); 73.0 × 49.5 cm (sheet), undated, Chicago. 

Another, who spent the year with Serge Poliakoff’s undated Abstract Composition, said:

For me, to put up artwork in my room is a way not only to make my space feel more like home because I am surrounded by things I love, but it’s also a way I find very useful to connect with it and appreciate the meaning behind it as a non-artistic person. And also when I come back home by the end of a very tiring day, it’s amazing to lay down in my bed or in my sofa and just appreciate the energy that the artwork I put up there transfers to me and the environment which makes me feel better.
Students picking their artworks, 2018 ATLW preview.

For starters, at a museum, it is the staff who design the viewer’s journey towards and their experience of an artwork, to a large extent. Placing an artwork not only within the specialized architecture of an exhibition space but also in conjunction with a certain show, theme, or collection plays a significant role in manifesting particular aspects of the piece while neglecting others. As such, an image like Ensayos spoke differently when I saw it exhibited with the rest of the ATLW collection than it does now on my bedroom wall besieged by dozens of art prints and posters. Therefore, giving students the curatorial authority over a work of art allows them to experience it, and more importantly to explore the way they experience it, on their own terms. While you can still come up with a unique interpretation of an artwork while looking at it in a museum, hanging it in your room in tandem with numerous changeable miscellania gives you more freedom to excavate a more intimate and personal significance from it. 

Another thing the ATLW program accomplishes is that it fights against the art world’s tendency to conflate art’s socio-cultural and psychological value with its financial value. Whenever one artwork tops another as the most expensive one sold at auction, and whenever it is absorbed into the depths of a private collection hidden from the public eye, it seems to be implied that those with just enough money have a more valid right to view and appreciate visual art than others. The Smart’s art-loaning program makes it possible for those without that same purchasing power to experience the same private enjoyment of art that a wealthy patron would. Cycling through the art loans throughout the years this way democratizes the experience of art.   

Jad Dahshan with Goya’s Ensayos hung inside his dorm room.

The piece I ended up settling on was Ensayos, or Trials, by Goya. The etching is part of the Spanish artist’s Los Caprichos series, a dark but humorous collection of allegorical images touching upon the macabre, light-hearted, and political all at once. Published in 1799, the images were Goya’s way of criticizing various aspects of Spanish society. Ensayos particularly capitalizes on his contemporaries’ superstitions by depicting a witch performing some seemingly satanic ritual, an ominous goat looming in the background and a stern familiar at her feet. I decided to spotlight the supernatural subject matter by printing images of other Goya works pertaining to witches, such as Witches’ Sabbath and Witches’ Flight, as well as more contemporary representations of witches in popular culture such as Disney’s Queen Ravena (from the 1937 Snow White animated flick) or the 1959 Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. I also hung up a smattering of other witchy images, ranging from JW Waterhouse’s painting of a sorceress to Odilon Redon’s depiction of a cauldron. The goal was to underscore a few varying representations of and attitudes towards witchcraft across history, and how they’ve evolved from fearful superstition, to skeptical mockery, to romantic fancy, to children’s entertainment. 

Image from 1968 viewing exhibition of the Art to Live With programme.

Yet, the central artwork around which all of this revolves, namely, Ensayos, is distinguished from the rest by its authenticity -that is, it was not printed on copier paper by the community printer in my dorm, while the other images were. This brings out another conceptual dimension of the arrangement, and forces us to question the very meaning of art’s authenticity in the age of mechanical and digital reproduction. This is a question German philosopher Walter Benjamin addresses in his The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, in which he explores the way the advent of photography had revolutionized humanity’s ability to reproduce pictures, and what that meant for art. For Benjamin, the authenticity of an artwork is “the here and now of the work of art -its unique existence in a particular place”, (Benjamin 21) which he describes using the concept of an aura, a “strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be” (Benjamin 23). While the authenticity of an artwork is protected by tradition, “the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition” (Benjamin 22). In summary, the authenticity of an artwork like Ensayos is threatened by technological reproduction, which eliminates uniqueness and undermines tradition. 

Image from 1969 viewing exhibition of the Art to Live With programme.

Normally, while manually made copies of artworks are often branded as fakes and forgeries, technological reproductions surmount the authority of the authentic original for two reasons. The first is that such copies can reveal things invisible to the naked eye thanks to special imaging techniques, such as microscopic shots. The second is that the replica is able to enter spaces and situations inaccessible to the original, thus undermining the latter’s importance. In other words, “it enables the original to meet the recipient halfway” (Benjamin 21). However, this is precisely the purpose of the ATLW program: it allows original, authentic works of art to come to students instead of having the students come to them. 

Moreover, at a museum, “A person who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it”, whereas in the context of living with art, as well as with film, “the distracted masses absorb the work of art into themselves” (Benjamin 40). The former of these expands effort in concentrated contemplation, whereas the latter peripherally and casually notices the artwork. In other words, the ATLW program allows students “a new mode of participation” (Benjamin 39) with art, one which Benjamin claims is only possible through film. With ATLW, students can experience art unconsciously and through habit, and not merely through conscious perception. Benjamin believes that “films trigger a therapeutic release of unconscious energies” (Benjamin 38) and that non-filmic art is not capable of doing that, but, as the student who lived with  Poliakoff’s painting testified, perhaps the ATLW program is slowly changing the way we appreciate the authenticity of original pieces of art. 

Read more from Jad Dahshan.
Image courtesy of Art To Live With social media.