Sunday, August 22, 2010

Why Look at Art?

“If you’ve seen one ruins, you’ve seen them all,” my daughter told me as I was preparing to visit Sicily. I had asked her if I should take a side trip to Agrigento.

Perhaps you do not find her comment shocking, but the backstory may explain why I did.

This 40-year-old woman grew up in a home with an artist-mother (me), and she painted pictures, extraordinarily good ones, from the time she could hold a brush through high school. The pictures won awards, and they earned her a scholarship to college (which she turned down to major in journalism instead). When she was12 years old, she accompanied me on a trip to France as I helped chaperone a Claymont High School senior trip. I showed her the artwork in the Louvre and everything else we managed to fit in, including the Bayeux Tapestry in Bayeux Cathedral (which she found more interesting than the 18 year olds traveling with us). She studied at the Barnes Foundation while she attended high school. She visited museums and galleries with me. Whenever I needed help in understanding one of my own paintings, or I was unsure how to fix one I was working on, she could tell me. She had a good eye. She knew how to look at pictures and understand them.

Now, a mother herself and a professional writer, she finds looking at art “so not me,” as she would say. To celebrate her 40th birthday, for instance, she is going to Italy, near Florence, “not for the art, Mom,” she told me defiantly. “I am going to relax and to attend a cooking class.”

“How can you go to “near” Florence and not go to the Uffizi, the Accademia, the Pitti Palace?” I wailed. “You must, at least, see the Duomo,” I begged.

“I don’t care about the art,” she said.

I no longer think she is unusual.

I meet too many people who either have no interest in art or simply go through the motions because they believe sophisticated, well-educated, and intelligent people should be art knowledgeable. If asked if they get excited about artwork, if they learn anything of value from going to museums or galleries, they often say, as my daughter would, “not so much.”

I meet many other people who collect art, who make it their business to seek out work to buy. When I ask them what they get out of doing this, they usually tell me they do it to make money. In other words, they buy art for the same reason people buy stock or gold: as an investment. When I ask them if the art they buy teaches them a new way of seeing, for instance, they look at me blankly. “What’s seeing got to do with it?” they ask.


We call it visual art for good reason: we must see it to understand it. Artists make pictures. Pictures are simply two-dimensional representations of something. That “something” may be immediate and observed as they begin to work, or it may be a visual memory they transform into a picture. No matter its origin, the “subject” they choose becomes “subjected” to a visual idea. This “picture idea” is born as the artist takes that first interested look.

Notice how all my words come back to seeing: visual; observed; memory; look.

In these posts, I will share with you how this works. I will provide you with simple explanations for the terminology I will introduce. I will show you why art matters.

I have taught this way of appreciating art to six-year-olds as well as seniors, to elementary and high school students, to college students, to my own kids, and now to my grandkids.

All you need to do is follow along, think about what I will share with you, and then try it out for yourself.

I guarantee you will develop a set of tools enabling you to see the art in works of art. In so doing, you will learn to see the way artists’ see. When that happens, you will transform the very world you thought you were seeing every day, as you go about your daily activities, into visual adventures. You will be equipped to do this work without research, without reading the wall charts in museums and without using the information headphones. You will do it by learning to see.

That is the topic of my next post.

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