Art Appreciation for Non-Specialists

My favourite room in my old high school is the art room. Large well-worn out desks; old boxes of paintbrushes, pen and ink supplies, and pastels; small works of student art pinned on every available wall surface; and a huge worktable across the back, splattered with all kinds of paint throughout the years, still fully functional and well organized (despite the havoc that a first-time viewer might see there). There is a special type of peace that comes from the casual atmosphere during an hour of watercolour work or still life drawing. Memorizing 120 paintings and sculptures for a final test was methodical, almost a meditation. The frustration that came from trying to force complementary colours of acrylic paint into a blending gradient wasn’t even – well, it wasn’t even frustrating. There was an understanding that we worked on something enjoyable during those hours. It was work, but it was about beautiful things and about healthy expression, our own and that of others.

Art can do that, whether we study it or create it. In the movieĀ Mona Lisa Smile, a 1950’s art history class of conservative college girls is presented a work of contemporary abstract art, and told that they are “not required to like it” but are certainly expected to “consider it.” I feel that this is the real charm of art. The beauty lies in the aesthetic of the piece, yes, but also in the thought process that a visual composition can generate.

I’ve recently become aware of a project called “Slow Art Day.” Participants meet at a specified museum or gallery, view five pieces of art for a full ten minutes each, and then get together to discuss over lunch. This seems so obvious, art should be looked at slowly and each piece should be considered individually – of course! But really, few people do this. I have been to a fair share of museums in the past few months alone during my trip through a few European capitals. I try to single out pieces I want to see and spend good time observing but in retrospect, I must not have spent more than 2 minutes at each of these select works. (As a sidenote: try spending more than just a few seconds in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre – you shall not, because the crowds will do their best to sweep you away by their powerful, constant, near-apocalyptic current. I’m serious.)

We all participate in the world of art much more than we realize. Interior design, report formatting, choosing outfits, writing letters – these all have strong aesthetic elements. There is no harm in getting involved in more direct art appreciation. In fact it’s healthy and intellectually stimulating; I don’t think you need to be someone directly involved in the field of fine art to be allowed an opinion. We should all take advantage of opportunities to view, scrutinize, and react to beautiful things – two great places to start are listed below.

Cave to Canvas is a fantastic, well-kept tumblr blog run by an undergraduate art student at the University of Texas. She features one artist per weekday and provides great starting points for exploring those pieces, people, and time periods that might catch your eye.

Cave to Canvas

Google Art Project is my favourite result of unleashed corporate creativity in Silicon Valley. You can explore many artworks in many museums from around the world, and some have a feature where you can literally “street view” your way through the gallery. You can visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam without leaving your desk, nevermind the country!

Google Art Project


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