Interpreting Sandy Skoglund's
Maybe Babies Through Beliefs About Religion
Department of Art Education, Ohio State University and
Visiting Scholar, Getty Center for Education in the Arts
The following are prompts for getting learners involved in discussions of
Sandy Skoglund's Maybe Babies. The prompts are meant to help you
and your students engage in inquiry-based art criticism, especially
interpretive criticism, of Skoglund's work so that your students learn
more about art criticism, the work of a contemporary artists, and
contemporary art in general. These prompts about Maybe Babies are
also, in part, cross-disciplinary, asking that readers interpret the image
through their own and others' beliefs about religion, life, and death. There
are also interpretive prompts about signs in the work. Please try these
activities yourself and with your students, invent others for these
images, and tell all of us about what you are doing. We hope that you will
share your own and your students' best comments and reactions by
sending an e-mail message to ArtsEdNet Talk, the e-mail discussion
Religion and Maybe Babies
Edmund Feldman (Varieties of Visual Experience , 1987) distinguishes
between "religious art" and "spiritual art":
Religious art tells sacred stories, encourages moral behavior, and offers
answers about the divine that are determined by communities of
Spiritual art searches for answers about humanity's origin, destiny, and
place in the universe, reveals what is sacred or holy in the everyday,
and seeks answers to important questions of moral value.
Feldman cites Van Gogh's Starry Night as an example of a spiritual
The Starry Night
The Spiritual in Art
Edmund Feldman, Varieties of Visual Experience (1987)
On the surface, The Starry Night of Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) is a
picture of a village at night, with prominent cypresses in the foreground
and large circles and spirals of light emanating from the stars and moon.
It is a scene animated by flame-like shapes in the trees and active
brushwork in the hills and sky. Everything appears to be alive and in
motion; only the houses and the church are at rest. This landscape has a
kind of life we do not normally see; the differences between solid and
void, organic and inorganic, hardly exist. Van Gogh has shown us the
sacred where we did not expect to find it. For those who do not
possess his spiritual gifts, the experience of this painting offers a
glimpse into a hallowed world; we share in the vision of a
Do you think Feldman would consider Maybe Babies to be a spiritual
or a religious artwork? Why?
Do you think Skoglund would consider Maybe Babies to be a spiritual
Question: Are you disturbed by the fact that viewers often interpret your
works different from yourself?
Skoglund: An example is Maybe Babies which is a picture in which I
sculpted babies and I thought I was being completely descriptive and sort
of coldly analytical and how babies actually looked, except that they
were bigger. I mean I photographed friends' babies. I don't have any
children. And you know, I was definitely trying to get beyond the
stereotype Gerber baby and the happy baby and all that kind of thing.
I don't think that childhood is a happy time. I think that we fortunately
grow up to be some kind of adult and make ourselves happy, but I don't
think we are born happy at all. That's my feeling. And I think that
American society wants to see it the other way around, which is that
we're born happy and then we descend into some kind state of trouble
and contamination which is also very Catholic and involved with sin and
that sort of thing. My overall view is the opposite and as a result, what
I'm trying to lead up to, is I thought I was just being very descriptive and I
thought it was funny, a rather funny piece you know, that these babies
are wandering around. I painted them pink and blue because I wanted to
talk about gender but that led to purple which lead the viewer into
thinking that they were bruised. So, that's been one interpretation of that
piece. Another interpretation has been about abortion, and nothing could
have been further from my thoughts.
Question: Has that bothered you?
Skoglund: No, because the work is the work you know, and I could say
you know, I thought it meant such and such and in all sincerity I did what
I thought I did. But the work exists. I mean, that's the beauty about making
something is that it's outside of you, and them it goes out into the world
and the culture looks at it and then a new marriage takes place which is
the mentally of the viewer and the reality, the physical reality of the
work. So you now have a new sort of ingredient and it's fascinating.
What religious ideas might Maybe Babies imply?
A Virginia Beach high school student who is familiar with the
Catholic notion of limbo described the infants in Maybe Babies as
"restless spirits in limbo." Catholic doctrine refers to Limbo as a region
between Heaven and Hell for unbaptized infants or a place for the
righteous to temporarily inhabit until Christ returns for them. Webster's
Dictionary also defines limbo as a prison, jail, or place of confinement.