The study of art history starts with examining tools. Every discipline has its tools. Writer’s craft with words to stimulate the senses, rouse the emotions, and spark our ideas. Construction workers use tools to make an architect’s drawings a physical reality. Teachers use books, imagination, and dialog to inspire their students to learn.
When we want to know more about art, how to read it, understand it, and enjoy it…we need to know more about the tools that the artist uses. While artists educate themselves about color, line, shadow, symbols, and perspective to create their works, we, the viewers, educate ourselves about these same things so that we can engage with art works intelligently.
In my curriculum, The Grand Tour, I’ll explore the tools, symbols, and techniques that artists use to help decode the visual language of art and lead you in a deep dive into the study of art history.
To appreciate art fully we must learn its language.
The study of art history includes learning art’s language. Everyone has the potential to respond to and find enrichment in art, but often that potential is untapped. When we lack experience and knowledge at decoding the visual language of art we are quite literally, toddlers still learning to speak. Walking in a museum we look at a work, we decide if we like it and move on to the next…normally feeling out of our element and not understanding what all the fuss is about or what we were ‘supposed’ to see.
We are held back from enjoying art due to ignorance and our fear that we appear ignorant. Unless we grew up in a household of artists, this feeling of being ‘out of our depth’ in a museum is fairly universal. It’s like me sitting with the Russian side of my family and only getting snippets of the conversation. The solution to this discomfort is simple enough, learn a bit more of the visual language of art, and exponentially our enjoyment and comfort with art will grow.
Love And Knowledge Go Hand In Hand
Love and knowledge go hand in hand. When we love we want to know more, as our knowledge grows our love and appreciation will deepen, which will lead us to learn more. And so it goes in an ever growing cycle that enables us to enter the conversation that is art.
I have a friend, he’s an Egyptian from an immigrant family who loves rap. He writes serious posts about the importance, meaning, and social commentary behind albums and artists. I’m intrigued because I can tell I’m missing a great deal when it comes to appreciating this form of art, I recognize that there is deep conversation going on that I am not a participant in.
Now, I understand music and can understand the language of music to a degree, that is not where my ‘lack of language skills’ is coming from. However, understanding Rafik’s commentary requires a deepening of my understanding of history, social context, and economics. The metaphors and symbolism found in rap are missed by this 50 something white woman who grew up in a privileged family. I have work to do in learning a new language if this is a conversation I want to enter into. I have no doubt that expanding my awareness in this area would enrich and broaden my perspective of the human experience.
Art Is A Two Way Conversation
Now art is a two way conversation between the artist and the viewer. Too often we think of art as we would a speech, the artist is talking to us and all we have to do is stand there and listen (or look). But that is not the case.
Art is a conversation and since, normally, when we interact with art the artist isn’t standing next to the work guiding us through his side of the conversation, we must allow the work itself to speak. The key to all good conversation is the ability to listen, to really hear what is being said.
In order to ‘hear’ what art is saying we need to speak at least some of the language of the art we are viewing. Otherwise we are like a tourist in a foreign country helplessly gesturing and repeating ourselves while being hopelessly misunderstood, no fun for anyone. This is why many people dismiss abstract or modern art. They haven’t taken the time to learn the language of that style and they cannot hear what is being said. They miss the deeply spiritual experience an artist like Kandinsky felt when creating his abstract works because they lack the ‘visual language’ skills to decode his meaning.
Instead of learning the language of unfamiliar styles we decide we only like art we understand, because we are at least speaking the same language. Again, love and knowledge go hand in hand, and we won’t really appreciate what we can’t understand.
Artists are individuals with crazy stories, quirky personalities, and marvelous imaginations. Political disruptors, forward thinking philosophers, lovers of beauty, and observers of men, artist uniquely capture their societies values and truths, and transmit them to us.
We can converse with a sculptor from ancient Rome, a print maker from Renaissance Germany, or a painter who lived through the horror of World War 2. We can have a conversation with a tribesman from Africa, a Hindu monk from India, or a Buddhist priest in Japan. Living or dead, through the art they have created we can enter into conversation.
Again, all good conversations go two ways. The artist brings their viewpoint to the conversation and we bring ours. Just as we don’t enter conversations with friends without our own opinions, we don’t approach art in a vacuum. Part of what makes conversation interesting is the give and take, the areas of disagreement that challenge us, the new areas of knowledge that we have to explore.
You bring all that is you to the conversation, your age, experiences, nationality, religious beliefs, and personality will affect what you think of a work of art. None of us will, or should, like every work. Some art we will decide is just plain bad, or maybe worse pointless. Not all art will resonate with you and bring you joy or cause you to think. Art speaks to everyone differently.
However, just as we need to be careful when judging people we don’t understand, we need to be careful of judging and rejecting art before we learn a bit of the backstory. We may not agree with an artist’s point of view, but we can still appreciate their story.
The Study of Art History leads to a broader understanding of history and humanity
Even when we have mastered the language of art, we still have some work to do. Each artist lived in a particular place at a particular time in history. As we learn to read a painting we don’t just need to expand our understanding of art, but of history, literature, science, theology, and humanity as a whole. We need to learn what symbols the artist was familiar with, what his religious background was, how the historical context informs her perspective.
In school, in separate courses, we explore math, science, literature, history, government, economics, geography, philosophy, etc. In the study of Art History we bring all of those threads together, like a beautiful tapestry and then we can stand back and actually see where all of those varied subjects come together. We realize that a conversation with any great work of art has multiple layers and meaning and that each time we return to the work the conversation deepens and we learn more.
That is the beauty of studying art history. In exploring the visual history of another time period, we actually get to step back and see the world with their eyes. Think about that for a minute.
With a work of art we are going straight to the source and entering into a conversation with great minds like Picasso, Monet, or Rembrandt. We can see the sculpture Michelangelo touched with his own hands, view the drawings Da Vinci sketched. In the study of art history, we aren’t reading what people thought of the these men, instead we are seeing the world with their eyes even if they lived hundreds, or thousands of years ago.
As long as we come to the conversation of art willing to took, listen and learn we will walk away with a greater understanding of humanity and our shared history. The study of Art History is far more than learning about a pretty painting, it’s about entering into the exchange of thought that has been going on throughout human history.
When we see the expertise of the artist wielding the tools of visual language we are moved. We are moved intellectually when we see a striking truth. We are moved emotionally by an evocative scene. We are moved to action when confronted with a provocative image. The Visual story presented will come to life when we understand the method and symbolism, which in turn will evoke the beginnings of love. It might make me angry and I will vent. It might make me sad and I will cry, It might make me want to change something and I will move. Overall, I will get a fuller sense of the world and my place in it.
Some artwork that we encounter will be a conversation between two close friends, other encounters will resemble the conversation between political opponents, filled with tension, and a few conversations will be those between lovers, a communion of souls. All of these diverse conversations come together to form the complex, intricate exchange that is art.