November 2, 2012

Themester Gallery Tours at the IU Art Museum

From now until May, the IU Art Museum will host gallery tours with the theme of "Good Behavior, Bad Behavior." Two docents, IU undergraduates Adam Grossman and Emma Bressler, give their takes on the collection and the tour. 

What can people expect to learn from these gallery tours?
"Judith with the Head of Holofernes"
Image courtesy of IU Art Museum

EMMA: I think people can expect to learn two things from these gallery tours. The first is how to analyze art. In these tours, unlike many others, we don't just throw facts at you. Instead, the tour is much more interactive. Questions are asked about what you see in the artwork and what this leads you to think. These tours help to grow the skill of looking at a piece of art and trying to decipher its meaning. The second thing people will learn is more about themselves. Throughout the tour we ask for opinions about whether you think a piece of art is showcasing good morals or bad morals. People will have the opportunity to reflect on their own personal morals and grow a stronger sense of self through the process.

ADAM: These gallery tours can teach a little about art history and expose you to what a unique art museum IU has. They also teach you a lot about yourself. You learn that you really are good at looking at art and most people find that they enjoy it. The confusing moral questions that the artworks pose teach you about how you really see the world, and the tours ultimately teach you the true value of art in philosophy, politics, and culture.  

How does the art chosen relate to good and bad behavior? What sorts of good or bad behavior are represented?
New Caledonian mask
Image courtesy of IU Art Museum

EMMA: The art chosen for our tours shows a variety of good behavior, bad behavior, as well as behavior that could go either way. One piece of artwork that could be considered good behavior is a Japanese series of prints about filial piety. It depicts different vignettes of children doing deeds for their parents. An example is a boy fanning his dad and wearing minimal clothing in order to sacrifice his own body to the mosquitoes that surround them. A piece of artwork that shows bad behavior is a print in the series called "Rakewells Progress." This print is one of my favorites because there is so much going on! It shows a wild 18th century party being thrown at the home of the newly rich Tom Rakewell, the hero of the story in the prints. This lavish party includes prostitutes, a woman setting fire to a painting, a woman stealing an intoxicated Tom's watch, and many appalled servants. Instead of saving the money he inherited, Tom spends it on partying where he ultimately catches syphilis (a death sentence in the 1700s) and dies. There are also pieces like "Judith and Holophernes," where the beautiful Judith decapitates the General (Holophernes) of the army that took over her city. In the painting you can see how torn Judith feels. She just saved her city, but she had to kill a man in the process. 

ADAM: Each piece of art relates to good and bad behavior in a unique way. In some pieces artists try to pass moral judgement on the subjects of the artwork. One such piece depicts, in profanity, the downfall of a man who spends all his inheritance on indulgence. In others it is the purpose of the artwork that raises questions of good and bad -- the ethics of propaganda. While, still, in others it is the tradition surrounding the piece of art that raises moral questions. The variety of pieces do well to address the depth of the good and bad behavior topic, and give us a chance to examine the diversity of manners through which the issue presents itself. 

In your opinion, which piece is the most representative of the theme of Good Behavior, Bad Behavior? Why?
African Esu figure
Image courtesy of IU Art Museum

EMMA: It's hard to choose just one! One of the most interesting pieces to me, morality wise, is the mask "Apouema." This mask comes from a native group of people form New Caledonia, which is just east of Australia. The mask is commonly worn by the chief (although at times there are exceptions to the rule) during mourning. When wearing the mask, the chief would often be armed with a dagger or a club and both threaten and attack various members of the community, including children. I find this so interesting because in modern western society we look at this as bad morality; a person shouldn't be hurting others for no apparent reason other than wearing a mask. But in the society where this mask comes from it is acceptable behavior. This behavior is used by the chief and other high up officials to demonstrate their power. Even more interesting, this is still being done today! 

ADAM: In my opinion the most representative piece of the "Good Behavior, Bad Behavior" theme is the "Staff for Esu." It is the head of a staff crafted by the Nigerian Yoruba people depicting their god Esu. Esu is a perfect example of a good behavior, bad behavior paradox. He is a spirit of chaos, a trickster, who leads people astray in order to teach them meaningful and powerful lessons about the world, others, and themselves. His behavior leads one to ask the central question that unites good and bad behavior: "Do the ends justify the means?"

For more information on the tours, visit

Rebecca Kimberly
Themester 2012 intern

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