At the end of February, teens in the Satellite High School Program gathered around Michelle Erickson’s Texas Tea Party (2005). They’ll study this object for the whole semester, using different methods of looking to form their own interpretations. For their first session, we spent one full hour looking closely at the work and having an open-ended dialogue about what we saw, the artist’s intent, and what it all might mean.
We began our discussion with a moment of silence to take in the piece individually. Michelle Erickson packs quite a lot into her small-scale ceramic sculpture, Texas Tea Party—it’s just 8” x 8” x 8”. After a few minutes, I invited the group to share comments, ideas, and thoughts. Although we’ve been in session for a few weeks now, this is our first time as a group discussing a work of art together.
Immediately, one student raises his hand and said, “Can I ask a question? What do the monkeys mean?” I smile and say, “I don’t think I’m going to answer that…” The group laughs, and I turn it over to them, saying, “Let’s figure out the answer together. What do we think they might mean?”
We’re at a bit of a loss—at first. There’s just so much to see. The group points out all the details: the monkey figures; the party hats (or, we note, dunce caps—or even miniature oil rigs); the heavy machinery and instruments of war littering the ground; the labeled cups beneath the marbled seats. We notice that one monkey holds a plate high above his head, and its base says clearly: MADE IN CHINA. A bird—a vulture (“shouldn’t it be an eagle?” one student observes) sits atop a large gilded tea pot labeled “Texas Tea Party.” One monkey is clothed differently than the rest: he has a black hat and a red coat. He waves a teapot around his head, dripping a glutinous dark substance—the shape, one student points out, is the logo of Shell, the gas company. We keep looking. “It’s as if they’re all sitting on thrones,” one student comments, “but I’m not sure they know what they’re doing with all that power.”
Details documented, we switch chairs so that those further away can get up close and vice versa. We start to comment not on individual aspects of the sculpture, but instead wonder when it was made and for what purpose. “Their outfits seem older, kind of historic,” says a student, “but this doesn’t really seem like it was made long ago.” Another student raises her hand, pointing at one of the cups underneath the chairs: “But it’s labeled ‘G.W.,’” she says. “Is that for Washington?”
I get a sense that the group is a little stumped at this point, so I share with them a little bit about the artist, Michelle Erickson. Erickson is a contemporary artist who works with ceramics. She has studied the historic processes of ceramics, I explain, but she often creates pieces that have something to say about the world today.
The group looks at the piece anew, now knowing that it was made recently. One student immediately shoots his hand up, but when I call on him, he looks a little sheepish. From his and other’s expressions, I can sense a number of the teens suspect there’s something intensely political going on here—but no one is brave enough to come right out and say it. I encourage him, and he says, with a question in his voice, “Well, could the G.W. mean George W. Bush? And maybe it’s about his administration and politics and power?”
The whole group lets out an “ohh!” as his comment clicks into place. Those who saw political overtones nod, and those who were perplexed suddenly see the piece through this lens.
“I think you all might be right,” I say. I read a quote from Michelle Erickson herself: “My work is based conceptually and physically on the history of ceramic objects and the role they play in the communication of social and political ideas.”
“It’s like a… like one of those cartoons that makes fun of famous people or actual politicians,” one student says, searching for the word. “What’s it called?”
“Satire?” I ask. He nods. We talk as a group about how satire is one tool, often used by artists and writers, to make a statement about contemporary life. We talk about how artists throughout history have engaged with politics and current events in their work—from satire, such as William Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode series, to monumental tributes such as David’s Death of Marat, to personal reactions such as Anselm Kiefer’s Midgard. We talk about how artists use art to make statements about the world around them, from Warhol’s soup can series commenting on consumerism to Glenn Ligon’s We’re Black and Strong, removing the phrase away from a protest sign to universalize the protest.
We keep talking, and the symbols take on new light. The figures—labeled Dick, for Dick Cheney and G.W., for George W. Bush—take part in a tea party where their cups are filled not with tea, but oil. A vulture, taking the place of the American eagle, sits atop the table’s centerpiece. The constitution is discarded at the base of the chairs—“like the foundation of our government is just on the floor and they don’t care,” a student says.
One student raises her hand and adds, “But maybe it isn’t all about the Bush administration. Maybe it’s more of a statement about the oil companies and how they have too much power over us.”
“That’s a great point,” I say. “As specific as many of the symbols are, there are many ways to interpret this and many statements this could be making. And let’s remember that this work is the artist’s opinion—Michelle Erickson’s opinion. She’s talking about politics here, I think you all are right, but that doesn’t mean we have to necessarily agree with her. This piece can raise questions beyond just the Bush administration or what happened the year this was made, in 2005. It can help us ask questions about the role art can play in politics and society and vice versa. What does it mean for art to be political? Do artists always react to the society they live in—can it ever truly be separate? And what effect can art like this ultimately have on the world at large?”
Instead of diving into these juicy questions, I surprise the students by saying that our hour is up. The group is astounded (“we’ve been talking for a full hour?! There’s so much more to say!”). I assure them we’ll tackle these questions throughout the semester.