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What is Art?

Left: Paul Klee (German [born Switzerland], 1879–1940). May Picture, 1925. Oil on cardboard; 16 5/8 x 19 1/2 in. (42.2 x 49.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984 (1984.315.42). Center: Barnett Newman (American, 1905–1970). Concord, 1949. Oil and masking tape on canvas; 89 3/4 x 53 5/8 in. (228 x 136.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, George A. Hearn Fund, 1968 (68.178) © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: Willem de Kooning (American [born The Netherlands], 1904–1997). Easter Monday, 1955–56. Oil and newspaper transfer on canvas; 96 x 74 in. (243.8 x 188 cm).The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1956 (56.205.2) © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Is art merely the "imitation of the good," as the ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote in his Republic, or the "lie that makes us realize truth," as the Spanish artist Picasso contended? Does art serve a utilitarian, religious, or aesthetic purpose, or no purpose at all?

In this winter's Paper Experiments teen program at the Metropolitan Museum, participants looked at modern art through a critical lens, learning to appreciate what some might not see as art at first glance. Through conversations in the gallery with educators Randy William and Yayoi Asoma, students were inspired by the pathological madness of Paul Klee's works, the bold drollness of Barnett Newman's Concord, and the hectic urbanism of Willem de Kooning's Easter Monday to create their own works.

In this course, art was no longer confined to dry or wet medium on paper; rather, it became a reflection of our own experiences in the modern world. With a firm belief that "things near are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote" (Emerson, The American Scholar), we weaved a narrative that ranged from rabbits in a wonderland to urban landscapes with their boundless, creative energy.

Left: Teens filling a framed screen with orange pulp. Right: A teen rolling and sponging off excess water from the pulp.

In the third and final session of the class, Randy and Yayoi taught us how to make our own paper from (guess what?) special paper mushed up in a fruit blender. At first, making paper from paper seemed paradoxical, even nonsensical. But upon contemplation, wasn't this experience the epitome of modern art? A metamorphosis of the most common, ordinary things into something witty and worthwhile without the protracted toil so characteristic of nonmodern works?

Left: Tiffany participating in the 2012 Paper Experiments class. Right: Tiffany. This is Art-This is Junk, 2012. Paint and collage on paper

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