Art that really matters

by Brook Gardner-Durbin

Freshman Joe Kermen has had a life altering experience so far at Montana State University. “I was really inspired by the community of ideas I found [in classes at MSU]” he said. “My literature and philosophy classes really opened my eyes and changed how I view the world.”

It has not been all peaches and cream, however. Once his “eyes were opened” he started coming into conflict with the same professors he had once idealized. “After I realized that everything that makes our world tick … all the rules, all the culture was just a human-made construction, I was like ‘who are you to tell me when my paper is due, man?’” He started skipping classes and conducting his own investigations into art and culture independently. “I didn’t just want to learn about the world, I wanted to contribute,” Kermen said.

This changing belief led to his recent attempt to give something to the world, spraypainting the word “art” on the side of a brick structure on the MSU campus, between Cheever and Haynes Halls. “The idea is … what is art, you know?” Kermen said, explaining his piece. “Who decides what’s art and what isn’t? It is supposed to make you think.”

Others on campus have not been as impressed. “I don’t get it. Is it saying the building is great, a work of art?” asked Brittany Stewert, a sophomore studying history. “I walk by there every day, and I don’t see the point.” Other students were equally unimpressed. Stephen Bredeth, a fellow freshmen, pointed out the concept was far from new: “It seems pretty basic. Didn’t this get done a long time ago, several times?”

Kermen, however, was not surprised by the reception his artwork received. “Of course they don’t like it — it’s too deep for most people to really understand,” the 19-year-old said. “All the greatest artists have been hated for disturbing the status quo.”

Alfred Fogle, a professor of art history at MSU, believed Bredeth was correct. “We’ve seen this plenty of times before. This is nothing new or interesting.” Elaborating on where the same ideas have been expressed by other artworks, Fogle cited “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp in 1917.  “Duchamp took a urinal, signed it, and stuck it in an art exhibit. Exactly the same basic idea of attempting to make you think ‘what is art?’ and ‘who decides?’ and yada yada, close to 100 years ago.”

Many art critics have seen similar themes in the works of Andy Warhol, some of which were close to a half-century ago. His famous reproduction of a Campbells soup can, for example, raised eyebrows for sparking similar conversations about the nature of art. “There are probably more,” Fogle continued, “But that’s all I can think of off the top of my head. Sorry, I’m a little hungover at the moment.”

Kermen is undeterred by the poor reception his work has received so far and still has big plans for the future. “I’d like to continue to develop my art,” he said, “And use that to get a job in art criticism.” Dermen, who has never had a job, appeared unaware of the fact that spraypainting campus property was not something that would make his resume shine.

Displaying a profound sense of optimism and unfamiliarity with the world, the freshman also started applications to graduate school. “I’m hoping at a higher level my art will be more fully appreciated and my ideas can truly shine.” If this fails, Kermen plans to move back home. “I’m from New York, and it would be nice to be closer to a real art scene so I could truly be surrounded by my peers.”

Kermen’s parents, however, were less excited by the possibility. “Well, of course we support our child,” said his mother, Amanda Kermen, “But I — I think it would be better for him to live on his own … not with us.” His father, Paul Kermen, was more adamant: “That pretentious kid is not moving back in with us. You think we paid his whole tuition, across the country, so he could stay with us?”

Joe Kermen can be found on facebook at facebook.com/joe.kermen.art and on tumblr at tumblr.com/art/profound/deep, where he has one photo posted.