On Being a Work of Art

One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art.
— Oscar Wilde

Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987), Robin and Abby Weisman, 1977 August, Large Format Polaroid photograph, MH 2008.3.91, Gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987). “Robin and Abby Weisman,” August 1977. Large format Polaroid photograph. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. Gift of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, 2008.3.91
Mary Ellen Mark (American, born 1941), Three Girls in Plaid, 10/1086, 1986, Gelatin silver print, AC 1993.53.10, Gift of Stanley and Diane Person
Mary Ellen Mark (American, born 1941). “Three Girls in Plaid,” 1986. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Stanley and Diane Person, 1993.53.10 

In these two photographs of young girls — one by Andy Warhol from the collection of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, the other by Mary Ellen Mark, in the Mead’s collection — the girls are the focus. Their clothes — matching collared dresses in one and plaid jumpers in the other — are recognizable markers of innocence and youth. There’s nothing unique about these dresses. The works derive their power and sense of art from the way the girls make the viewer feel. In both photographs the girls look directly into the lens with solemn expressions that show confidence and independence. Warhol and Mark strip away preconceptions about children’s naïveté to bring these pictures beyond visual appeal and into the realm of art.

Alen MacWeeney, Irish (born 1939), Bridesmaids Dresses, Aran Islands, 1985, printed later, Photograph Endura c-print, AC 2009.224.1, Gift of Loretta Ippolito Zetterstrom (Class of 1985) and Erik Zetterstrom
Alen MacWeeney (Irish, born 1939). “Bridesmaids Dresses, Aran Islands,” 1985. Endura c-print. Gift of Loretta Ippolito Zetterstrom (Class of 1985) and Erik Zetterstrom, 2009.224.1
Mary Ellen Mark (American, born 1941), "Two Girls in Dresses on Lawn, Miami, 10/1986," 1986. Photograph. Gift of Stanley and Diane Person, 1993.53.7
Mary Ellen Mark (American, born 1941). “Two Girls in Dresses on Lawn, Miami,” 1986. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Stanley and Diane Person, 1993.53.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Alen MacWeeney’s Bridesmaids Dresses and Mary Ellen Mark’s Two Girls on a Lawn, Miami, the photographers focus on pairs of dresses that are more elaborate, special-occasion creations. But are they works of art? The two powder-blue, tulle dresses in MacWeeney’s photograph hang on a clothesline from cheap plastic hangers. They sway on the line, worn only by the wind, perhaps drying from revelries the night before or in preparation for a wedding ceremony soon to come. Surrounded by the bleak gray stones and hazy sky of the sparsely populated Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland, the blue dresses are a source of light and joy. In Mark’s photo, meanwhile, two young women sit side by side on the ground in long white dresses, their skirts spread across the grass in circles that echo the umbrellas behind them. With their hands folded in their laps, they tilt their heads and look into the camera. These photographs are aesthetically pleasing in their compositions, one of the formal features that makes something a work of art. The photographer frames the dresses — and dresses the frame — for the viewer, and it is for the viewer to judge the works as art.

Written by Catherine Rose O’Brien, Class of 2017

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