Art Appreciation 101: Benefits and Pleasures
In “What’s Wrong With the World”, GK Chesterton wrote: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing wrong”.
Here as elsewhere, Chesterton defends the amateur against the professional, what he calls the “generalist” against the specialist. “Amateur” derives from the Latin “amare”, “to love” and applies to anyone who performs a task or engages in an art, sport or hobby for love and not for money. We run our fingers up and down a keyboard, we dig in the dirt and tend to our beloved garden, we play golf or tennis for fun and exercise, or we scratch worms every morning before the rest of the house gets up. We give ourselves to these things because we like them, not because we are particularly good at them.
In “Orthodoxy”, Chesterton expands his definition of amateur, stating that “the most dreadfully important things must be left to the common men themselves: the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of State “.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the subject of art appreciation.
Here is an opportunity
In this area, I am very amateur, not trained in aesthetics and often dazzled, dumbfounded or depressed by a painting or a statuary without really understanding why. Five years ago a gift enabled me to spend a month in Italy, where I visited churches and museums almost daily, seeking relief from the brutal heat of the streets – it was the middle of the summer, and Rome was experiencing drought and temperatures in the 90s – and finding inspiration and beauty in the art of this ancient city. No guide and only the most superficial books accompanied me in my explorations; I was just looking at paintings and sculptures, and enjoying it as much as I could.
Most of you reading these words are, I guess, still in a pandemic shutdown, staying home, only going into stores to buy the essentials, prisoners of sorts in your own homes and apartments. With schools closed, many of you are teaching your children or grandchildren at the dining room table, some of you through online courses offered by your child’s school, others through independent learning.
Some of our politicians, past and present, have said, “You should never let a serious crisis pass. Well, I’m going to spill that bit of cynicism. Our current crisis offers us a golden opportunity to visit the masterpieces of the past, to share them with our young people and to discover in our excursions the hope, the comfort and the strength that this art offers us.
Because my public library is closed at the moment and because I have packed 90% of my books for a move, I only have two art books available to me: an uncovered copy, stained with coffee and beaten. from “The History of Painting” by Sister Wendy Beckett and the wonderful “How to Read a Painting: Lessons from the Old Masters” by Patrick De Rynck. In his excellent guide, De Rynck explores paintings from the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 18th century, explaining to an audience often unfamiliar with Christian symbolism and mythological figures the meaning of these great treasures.
Both books sit on a shelf next to my desk and I open them frequently. During these excursions, I realized that we don’t always have to accept the opinions of experts. Sister Wendy Beckett, for example, describes Georges de La Tour’s “The Repentant Magdalen” by writing “the Magdalen does not repent as long as a muse”, while I find this portrait of quiet repentance much more realistic than such an anguished and feverish portrait. . As we proceed, keep in mind that you are entitled to your own interpretation of a particular painting.
Of course, we don’t need books to make art part of our lives or our school curriculum. For better or for worse – in this case, for better – we live in a time when the world is at our doorstep, great art at our fingertips. We can open the screens of our electronic devices and find museums, galleries and websites galore.
Let’s start with a visit to “Google Arts & Culture”. Hit ‘Explore’, scroll down a bit, click ‘Explore by time and color’, choose ‘Time’ and click ‘1500’ on the timeline like I did and you’ll be treated to an amazing range great paintings.
Suppose we find ourselves falling in love with the Dutch masters – not to be confused with cigars. We fly without wings to Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum, where we can see at our leisure paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer and their contemporaries, all living in what we now call the Dutch Golden Age of painting. Here, at our leisure, we can immerse ourselves in the canvas, the paint, the brushstrokes and the light.
Parents in particular could use these paintings as tools to teach not only art, but also history, fashion, and geography. Suppose, for example, that you decide to explore the work of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. You google his name and there, at the top of your screen, appear dozens of his works depicting historical events, mythology, religion and everyday life in Antwerp. Here are his paintings “Samson and Delilah”, “Daniel in the lion’s den”, “The fall of Phaethon”, “Medusa”, “Saint George and the Dragon”, as well as portraits of various citizens, and much more.
Start your adventure by selecting a particular painting, showing it to your children and introducing them to the artist. Read with them a bit about what the painting means, then explore the story behind the art. Who were Samson and Delilah? Who was Medusa? You can charge in all sorts of different directions. An example: Rubens’ “Portrait of Susanna Lunden” or “The Four Philosophers”, which Rubens created in memory of his late brother, could spark a discussion about fashion, hairstyles and makeup of that time. Good detectives will engage in more online investigations of these topics.
(As an aside: if your kids get bored of art, Good Housekeeping has a link to many more virtual tours: museums, zoos, and amusement parks. Here are educational adventures with creatures from sharks to elephants, and with historical artifacts from ancient Egypt to the present; you can even visit Disney World without spending money or waiting in line.)
Connecting the cultural dots
When we study these paintings in this way – by penetrating them instead of just looking at them and moving on – we not only come to appreciate the work of art, but we also acquire what the researcher, teacher and author ED Hirsch calls it “cultural literacy”. he defines it as the “network of information possessed by all competent readers”. Readers unfamiliar with fairy tales and traditional children’s poetry, with Greek and Roman mythology, with biblical stories and with other key elements of our civilization find themselves limited in their understanding of the information and knowledge which were once relatively common among Europeans and Americans.
We live in an age where the visual – videos, television and our electronic gadgets – dominate print. Many, for example, would rather watch a film about William Wallace than read about him. The study of a masterpiece allows our children and us a meeting place between what we see in a painting and what is hidden behind the painting, a connection of entertainment and education allowing us to expand our cultural literacy.
Like poetry, like great literature, “reading” a painting makes us more fully human, more aware of the sorrows and joys of being human, connecting us to a past that can comfort our present and illuminate our future.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing squad of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin at homeschool seminars in Asheville, North Carolina. Today he lives and writes in Front Royal, Virginia. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.