I’ve had the opportunity to be a docent at the Kemper Art museum for a year now, and I’ve realized that I’m not only leading a tour, I’m learning about art alongside visitors. On one of the first tours I gave at the Kemper, I chose to focus on one of my favorite works in the collection – Choke by Robert Rauschenberg.
Choke is a politically fraught work that combines Rauschenberg’s typical reliance on the image with the gestural techniques of abstract expressionism. There are images of a helicopter, rubble, the Statue of Liberty and a confusing conglomeration of “one way” signs. Dominating the work is a rocket-like swath of violent red.
I can talk about the painting from an academic, perhaps too pedantic, view. I can explain why Rauschenberg was an important transitional figure in modern American art. I can call attention to the date that Rauschenberg created the work and draw connections to the social upheaval surrounding the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.
But I never really understood it.
I didn’t understand Choke until an older man on one of my first tours at the Kemper chimed in. He said that Rauschenberg was able to perfectly capture the atmosphere of the 60s; the disorder of the war, the turmoil of social change and the prevailing feeling of a directionless nation. Born thirty years after Rauschenberg made Choke, I could not come to this conclusion myself. I needed to hear that man on my tour explain his emotional response to it before I truly understood Choke despite thinking that all I needed to know was written on the wall label. I’ve shared this story on tours since then, and each time I see people nodding their heads in agreement. They see what that first man had seen and what I was unable to.
I probably learned more from him that day than he did from me, but that fact revealed something to me. This is why we share art in the first place. We could lock ourselves up with piles of books, or we could stand in front of Starry Night or Guernica or Choke and learn together.
By Jeffrey Waldron (Friday, October 25, 2013)