Dine and Discuss
During a year-long run of exhibitions exploring sacred texts, The Warhol invited local high school students, including Emily Stanley, to curate dinner events as a way to discuss religion, art, and anything else that came to mind.
Emily Stanley with work by artist Jeffrey Vallance in the final exhibition of the year-long series, The Word of God.
The Andy Warhol Museum’s “Dine and Discuss” dinners give teenagers a chance to expand their minds and palates by delving into controversial artwork while also learning about religious and cultural topics not often presented in the classroom. This past spring, during my senior year at City Charter High School in Pittsburgh, I was lucky enough to help plan and participate in these events, which were inspired by The Word of God, a series of exhibitions that explored sacred religious texts, such as the Koran and the Torah.
In this world, most everyone is searching for something, whether it’s an explanation of life or a way to get as far from the explanation as possible. We’re all going through the motions, and for many, religion plays an essential role. During my own childhood, I was not indoctrinated into any particular religion; instead, I was told to wait and make my own decision. I found myself interested in a variety of religious messages, but also soon learned that, for some, religion is an uncomfortable topic. As for my peer group—many of whom are just trying to figure out if they want to be doctors, plumbers, waitresses, or, a lot of the time, who they most want to date— they left me feeling inhibited. During my own search, I quickly grew fascinated by Quakerism (or, more properly, The Society of Friends) with its messages of pacifism and tolerance. The notion of tolerance is part of what drew me to the “Dine and Discuss” program when it was still just a concept.
The Warhol program gave me an outlet for my need to understand what others in my age group think about philosophy and religion, and gave me the chance to hear their questions about their own surroundings. In a more basic, life-skills way, “Dine and Discuss” went a long way in helping me learn how to feed and entertain a group, and plan for a large, themed event.
“Art was made, food was sampled, and, overall, it was an exciting new experience seasoned by the sensation that our opinion matters even before we reach voting age.”
During the run of each of the five exhibitions in the series, we’d pull inspiration from the artwork and cultural themes around it to curate a related dinner event, deciding what kind of food to serve, ways to stimulate meaningful conversation, and what mix of people to invite.
During a typical planning session, artisteducators from the museum took us on a guided tour of the exhibition and encouraged dialogue along the way. These group planning conversations were essential in that they forced students to give their very serious (or sometimes not so serious) opinions on a subject, sparking intriguing discussions that would inevitably spill over to the dinner table, leaving me and my fellow students still feeling safe while also being heard. Planning students in turn invited other students to the formal dinner events with the hope of spurring candid but respectful discussion of religious and cultural differences.
The result: Art was made, food was sampled, and, overall, it was an exciting new experience seasoned by the sensation that our opinion matters even before we reach voting age.
Another plus: For many of the students I worked with, this marked their first visit to The Warhol. The project gave all of us rare access to the museum, complete with afterhours tours and permission to plan and host dinner parties in the galleries.
There was always interesting dialogue when treading into unfamiliar topics. For example, I worked on the event inspired by Helène Aylon’s work The Liberation of G-d and The Unmentionable. Frankly, I knew very little about Judaism, and I was fascinated at the prospect of learning more. During a planning meeting, I proposed the use of an orange as a symbol. I had a limited knowledge of the controversial symbolism of the orange on a Seder plate, as it relates to homosexuality and feminism within the Jewish community.
After deep discussion about the sensitivity of the issue, instead of including the orange without knowing exactly what message we’d be sending, we decided instead to serve orange juice, along with samples of foods found during various Jewish holidays, to draw attention to the debate rather than espousing a particular position. This generated conversation about juxtaposing modern cultural issues and a major world religion, hopefully without offense.
Listening to the values of people who hold opposing opinions was, and is, key for developing my own views. Something about sharing opinions and experiences over a meal makes time spent with others more special. The most personal activity was listening to people discussing dinner traditions in their own families. Laid against the interpretation and misinterpretation of popular beliefs, the heartfelt descriptions and personal anecdotes that followed were eye-opening.
Since participating in the dinners, I have gone on to college. There, I am involved with the Islamic Awareness Society, where I hope to use what I learned from “Dine and Discuss” to continue spreading awareness and tolerance to other college students and, hopefully soon, high school students. People need to better understand major and minor world religions and learn to tolerate if not embrace other cultures, especially of people within their own community. These dinners showed me a fun, positive way to help meet that need.