The M Blog

The M Blog is an online space for us and for you — artists, museum staff and curators, guest writers, and community contributors — to discuss issues and ideas related to the many experiences of being American today.

Defining Terms With Loaded Language

What defines American art? I can’t tell you, because there isn’t a singular answer.

Creating concrete definitions is a dicey endeavor, but we need them all the same. Each definition contributes to a uniform understanding of the way our language works. An agreed-upon vocabulary provides us a basis of communication. Words, however, are constantly evolving. Our definitions become outdated, and it can be difficult for us to grasp onto an updated meaning when we’re comfortable in the old one. For a simple example, look at the word “clue.” By its original definition, the term denoted a ball of yarn or string. Think metaphorically, of the way yarn can thread, weave, and move through a maze, and you can see the etymological link to the bits of evidence we currently think of as “clues.”

Rather than thinking of language as a static thing, it is more useful for definitions to live in a movable state, with the flexibility to update and adapt with contemporary usage. But establishing a workable lexicon is further complicated by contextually determined subtleties in meaning. Shared terminology is slippery, shifting in ways specific to culture, generation, location, context, slang, language barriers – the possible nuances in meaning are never-ending and can exist in endless combinations. All of which is why arriving at a definition for something like “American art” is a difficult task.

When I took on the Arts Access Manager position at the M, I was worried this topic would alienate our Listening Session participants. It is such a big concept to handle. I quickly realized that asking a group of people, point-blank, what they think American art is, is not productive. Instead of starting with such a lofty idea and hoping for a definition, it seems important to begin a conversation with some basics. It’s better to start by talking about a personal interest in art, personal involvement in the community, and the ways art ties to people’s individual ideas of being an American. Why not begin with a conversation about likes and dislikes, and how people see themselves as members of their community? And while such conversations may be incredibly personal, they’re more likely to reveal the depth and subtleties of what “American” really means. Because every person’s experience is different, each one’s notion of what it means to be American is different – they’re all wholly unique and none of them are wrong.

In my own life, I can pinpoint where my ideas of being an American started. I was born into an interracial family. My mother immigrated to the US from the Philippines, while my dad is descended from early German and Polish immigrants in Minnesota. Due to this combination, I don’t readily look like my father. In fact, we have a running joke in my family to remember Dad’s sunscreen when we go outside, because the rest of don’t easily burn. I am the oldest kid in my family, and when I was little, this meant I got to accompany my dad on special outings, like going to the grocery store with him. He’d pick me up from preschool on his way home from work and teach me how to place objects in the cart, narrating how we would use each of them for our meals later on. Between the overstimulating environment of the grocery store and just being a young child at the end of the day, these weren’t always the most peaceful of shopping endeavors.

Shared terminology is slippery, shifting in ways specific to culture, generation, location, context, slang, language barriers – the possible nuances in meaning are never-ending and can exist in endless combinations.

On one such occasion, my four-year-old self decided to throw a tantrum. I can’t specifically remember why it happened; I probably wanted something impractical my dad said I couldn’t have. He tried to remain on task and continued to walk around the grocery store as I followed behind, howling my laments. But I destroyed that mission with one particular phrase: “This is not my dad. I’m being kidnapped.” Once I saw my dad’s shocked face, I kept repeating this bombshell, over and over, hoping to force him to get what I wanted. Stunned, my dad stopped what he was doing, picked me up, and walked out of the grocery store. I’m sure, on the way out after my tirade, he faced concerned stares from a number of staff and customers.

When we were in the car, he strapped me into my booster seat and asked me why I would say he wasn’t my dad. He told me how dangerous this was, and how I could really scare people with such a lie. Not knowing the foolishness of my words and ever the precocious strategist, I told him, because he didn’t look like me, I could fool people into thinking I was being kidnapped. We drove home, and later that night he and my mom sat me down to talk about what had happened. They both explained to me the ways our family might seem different from other families, because my parents don’t look alike. They told me how my mom grew up in the Philippines, while my dad grew up in Wisconsin; they talked about American citizenship tests, and airplanes, and a whole myriad of things that made up our family. All of this to say: my mom is my mom, my dad is my dad, and we’re a family.

As young as I was, I had no idea what I was doing. Honestly, this story still embarrasses me and makes me feel awful. In fact, just a couple years back, I apologized to my dad for the whole episode. He graciously laughed and told me I was a smart little kid; he excused it, saying I didn’t know any better. Now that I’m older, and now that I have dealt with people’s criticism and awkward missteps regarding my family’s make-up, I have a better idea how difficult it must have been for my dad when I made such a claim. In my adult life, I have come to value the intersection of cultures within my family. I have been so fortunate to have both factions of my family, similar (because we’re all just people), but also distinct in their cultural differences. And this is my family, my American experience.

As we talk with people about what defines American art, I’ve no doubt, the responses we hear from them will be just as specific as my own. Each person’s experience is a definition in itself, and, as such, “American art” likewise takes on all of these unique perspectives. With the Arts Access program at the M, we’re focusing on the fact that American art should reflect the entirety of the American public. To take it a step further, all the people who comprise the nation’s many communities should be able to have a voice in the process of defining the terms we use; they should have access to this work from the ground up. But we all know that isn’t always the case. With each Listening Session, all of us at the M want to hear from you. We want to hear your unique stories and experiences. These are the kinds of conversations that will open all of us to the subtleties of what truly inclusive arts experiences and communities can look like.

More information about the museum’s Listening Sessions:

The M is partnering with cultural organizations around the state through the summer to hear from communities about how art fits into their lives. These conversations will culminate with an exhibition of artwork selected by emerging curatorial voices, opening at the M in fall 2017: We the People. Find further description of the project, including a full list of the Listening Sessions, including dates, times, and locations elsewhere on the M’s website. Check in with www.mmaa.org/events to keep track of individual Listening Session details in your area.

No prior arts experience is needed to participate in one of the M’s Listening Sessions. In fact, we encourage anyone with a curiosity in the arts, or who is interested in broadening the reach and impact of regional arts and culture, to join the conversations. Listening Sessions are free and open to the public.

The M’s Listening Sessions are supported, in part, by the taxpayers of Minnesota, thanks to a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board.

Image: Photo of the author (right) with her family at Niagara Falls, 1998.

Jessica Eckerstorfer moved to the Twin Cities in 2012 from Sioux Falls, South Dakota to attend the University of Minnesota earning her dual degrees in English and in Philosophy in the spring of 2015. Before starting her role at the M, she worked and volunteered with a variety of arts organizations and nonprofits, such as Free Arts Minnesota and Multicultural Achievers Program.  As the Arts Access Manager, Jessica works to help address the significant barriers that prevent equal access to the arts in our  community. In addition to her work at the M, she is an arts editor for Paper Darts magazine.