Episode 0: Art! What is it good for?
A little while back, I was at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where I give monthly lectures. I usually spend my time parked in front of my painting of the day, corralling an audience for the next hour’s talk, but this time I abandoned my post and wandered through the galleries, eavesdropping. I’m always curious as to how this whole operation is going over. I walked past a small Cezanne still life where a small group had huddled. “Oh, I love Cezanne” a woman said. This perked me up – there’s a small group of people in this world who love Cezanne, and an even smaller group willing to admit it, and she, in her windbreaker and crocks, didn’t look like one of them. So I bust in.
“I’m curious,” I asked, as genially I could. “Why do you love Cezanne?”
Immediately she turned red. I’ll admit, my staff badge acts as both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it gives me the authority to interrupt any conversation I want, but then it stops the conversation dead in its tracks. No one is willing to sound dumb next to someone they think is an expert.
“Oh,” she said, and started stammering. “I don’t know. I certainly couldn't tell you why in any fancy way.”
The fancy way, the academic language spoken in whispers, the fear of being wrong, the belief that art museums are a secret club and only a blessed few know the special knock, is, to me, the death of art history. It sucks all the fun out of museums. It makes them boring, and pretentious, and out of reach. And it’s insane. Cezanne didn't have a secret knock. He just looked.
I’ve been teaching art history for almost a decade, I have a master’s degree in the stuff, and I can tell you with the authority of an expert, that you – yes, YOU – are not meant to be shut out. In fact, you’re exactly who they’re after. Ask an artist in any profession if they want fewer fans. It doesn't work for Beyoncé, and it doesn't work for Van Gogh.
If art was only meant to stay in the hands of people with graduate degrees, and if art historians were the only ones who were supposed to feel welcomed into art museums, then you wouldn't have Monica Lewinsky as the Mona Lisa on magazine covers. You wouldn't be competing with everyone else’s elbows and iPhones when you try to see the real thing at the Louvre. Art is everywhere. Famous paintings are referenced all the time. They’re sold at Christie’s for millions. And seeing a famous artwork is like meeting a celebrity – always smaller than you think it will be, and steeped in the aura of something powerful. Even if you’re not that impressed in person, you get to be part of history by making its acquaintance.
So. Let’s introduce ourselves. Let’s squint and see the object underneath the celebrity and fancy words. Let’s understand why it’s worth caring about in the first place.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret about looking at art: what you see is what you're supposed to see. I know that seems simplistic, and I promise I’m not insulting your intelligence. But you would be amazed how tripped up people get. They start to question their own eyes. And when we’re looking together, they think that they’re looking at the same painting as me, but I must be seeing something different, something correct. I’m not. I see the same brushstrokes, the same figures, the same blue square. The only difference is that I have a little more background in the history. And soon you will too.
Let me try to ease this process along by introducing 4 tips that are almost entirely universal when it comes to looking at art:
1: Art is an interactive experience. You and I are looking at something that someone created to be seen, presented in an environment that someone else created, in order to facilitate that looking – the museum. That’s pretty much the whole story. You’ve always got four key figures in play: the artist, the viewer, the object itself, and most often, the curator. Note that three of these four are subjective human beings who, like all human beings, bring their own baggage to anything they experience.
As a viewer, looking at art is always colored by where we are – museums can be eerily quiet and expectant places that make you feel like you always need to avoid your teacher’s eye, or, quite honestly, they can be bliss. Sometimes both in one day. And it’s colored by how we view – we can be alone and bored, or with a guide and fascinated, with a guide and bored, or with your high school crush who you’re trying to impress. In other words, you and I will never experience the same object quite the same way, and you might even experience it differently each time you see it. And there’s no judgment there.
2: The artists themselves often have an idea of what they’re trying to accomplish, but sometimes they don’t. They are, however, almost always responding to the world around them, to their training, to the old masters of the Renaissance, who themselves were looking at the old masters of ancient Greece, and they’re responding to the movement that immediately preceded them, which they especially care about, because they’re almost always trying to do exactly the opposite. Imagine art history like a giant pendulum swinging back and forth.
Think of the artists who make their way into textbooks as basically giant teenagers, not necessarily in temperament (though sometimes), but always in a state of rebellion. As soon as one colors inside the lines, the next generation colors outside them, prompting the next to pull back into them, and so on and so forth, from tidy high classicism to the raw emotion of Hellenistic Greece, from overwhelming Gothic cathedrals to elegant Renaissance architecture, from messy Abstract Expressionism to restrained Minimalism. Action, reaction. And the pendulum swings apace.
This is all, of course, organized with an art historian’s lens. Sometimes, especially as we come to the Modernist period, roughly 1850-1950, artists are just experimenting with different styles, throwing colors and textures and various ways of looking and describing the process of looking against the wall and seeing what sticks. Sometimes paintings are byproducts of ideas, expressed with varying degrees of success. And sometimes, going back to tip 1, we look at a painting and project everything we know about the artist onto it and actually give it a lot more meaning than it even had. The truth is, artists don't always have intentions.
But curators always do. That’s tip 3. Every time you walk through a gallery, every step has been thought through ahead of you, from the painting height to the lighting design to the wall color to the text font. I guarantee you, an educator and curator exchanged about 100 heated emails about what information was put into the little explanatory card next to any painting you’re looking at. Most of the time, the curator has done an excellent job creating a space and situating the object in that space to provide the clearest and most thoughtful interpretation. But it’s always their interpretation. And it’s one you can agree with. And it’s one you can also disagree with. Don't forget…you’re all looking at the same object. They create a story to follow to make sense of it. And it’s probably a good story. But it’s just one entry point out of many.
4: All art has been contemporary. It’s a cheeky little truism, but it is indeed true. The art that we see was intended for its own audience. Every single time. And just because a bunch of art historians came along and organized it into a canon doesn’t mean that artists were necessarily gunning for their tidy spot in the ages. So even though we approach these objects with the benefit of hindsight, of a linear trajectory that helps us understand them – this lead to this lead to this—try to think about how the intended audience might have viewed them. All of these paintings benefit from being approached, and judged, on their own terms. Imagine you’d never seen a painter show his brushstrokes before; imagine the pearls you’d have clutched.
Actually, in the same vein, all critics have been contemporary too. Remember also that, by and large, most movements were named by critics, and often as an insult that the artists stuck a middle finger at by appropriating. You call my work an unfinished impression? Then we’ll call ourselves Impressionists, assholes. But the first time that painter showed his brushstrokes, the critic either voiced the audience’s anxiety, or, a generation later, praised its genius. Either way, critical opinion both set the tone and frequently changed its mind. It still does. So take that into account – nothing here is static. No one person’s opinion is the final word, even among the experts.
So let’s jump in together. We’ll go painting by painting, story by story. Whenever I go into a museum, I take my mic and ask people to describe the paintings we’ll be looking at. I love their reactions. I love the words they choose. I love what they see first. And I love watching them trust their own reactions and start to care.
Turns out, that secret knock is just a pair of eyes.