The Art of the Ordinary


Joseph Beuys, German, 1921-1986

Noiseless Blackboard Eraser,1974

felt, ink on paper

An eraser… a pair of salt and pepper shakers… pieces of cardboard. These are just some of the objects you’ll find on display in the Weisman Art Museum’s latest exhibition, “Common Sense: Art and the Quotidian.”

There are no royal portraits here; the most glamorous piece is a sculpture by Minnesota artist Judy Onofrio, studded not with jewels but sea shells.

Curator Diane Mullin says “Common Sense” celebrates a particularly American artistic trait; that is, finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

A sense of the ordinary person–meaning not royal or aristocratic–is at the heart of the American experiment. Americans and their democratic, European kindred spirits like Poland and France were citizens not subjects–all equal before the law. What better art subject than picturing this new modern person, life, environs? Of course, this belief manifested itself in different ways.


Lewis Hine, American, 1874-1940

Fresh air for the baby, Italian Quarter, New York City, 1910

The exhibition begins in the late 1920s and early 30s, with etchings and photographs of everyday people going about their daily lives. There are Walker Evans’ WPA portraits, and Lewis Hine’s photographic documentation of the conditions of poverty. Mullin says used his work for a new sort of “political evangelizing.”

[Hine] believed that showing people the lives of immigrants, whom he felt were getting an unfair deal, would inspire the ordinary person to use his or her own voice (vote) to help make it better for these fellow Americans. Though this seems like it maybe is an obvious strategy, that was not always so. Hine fought for equal treatment and opportunity for all, not noblesse oblige.

Mullin says you can see similarities between the political activism of the 1930s and that of the 1960s. Andy Warhol became famous for his pop art, which took things like a Campbell’s soup can and raised them to the level of hight art. Mullin says Warhol used ordinary objects to call into question the public’s expectations around what art should be.


Andy Warhol, American, 1928-1987

New England Clam Chowder, 1968-1969

screenprint on paper

Mullin says while some people might think that such treatment of commonplace objects makes art more mundane, she argues it has the reverse effect.

One can see this sort of celebration of the ordinary person–the songs of ourselves–as a plea to free the average life from its categorization as the banal, uninteresting, and trivial, setting it free to be as marvelous as each person inevitably is.


Nina Katchadourian, American, born 1968

Untitled (salt and pepper shakers), 2007

glass, metal, plastic shavings

Common Sense offers a particular lens on American art, picking out objects for their commonplace subject matter or the materials with which they were made. But Mullin admits that all art is ultimately related to everyday life.

I think that is the power of art. When we engage with a work of art, we make that work relevant and a part of our everyday lives. When we engage with the work–another’s viewpoint–some are spurred to action–like those who after viewing Hines’s images lent their voices and their votes to change childhood for the better in America. Or the transformation can be more personal, which is just as important really. In the end I believe all art we truly consider and actively engage is relevant to our lives.

“Common Sense: Art and the Quotidian” opens to the public at Weisman Art Museum on February 6, and runs through May 23. The public is invited to attend a free preview party on Friday, February 5, 2009 from 5 to 8 p.m.

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