Monday, December 7, 2015

Learning to Love Art I Didn't Like

When I was first becoming interested in art in my late teens, I was drawn to European modernism. Picasso, Matisse, and Munch were among the first artists’ names on my bookshelf. Then I learned to appreciate abstract expressionism, then neo-expressionists of the ‘80’s. But by and large, my 20’s were devoted to 20th century abstraction. Most of my time in museums around the east coast and Europe was spent rushing past hundreds of years of art history towards that which was most familiar to me.

More than a pretty picture:
Thomas Cole's The Oxbow
Image: Wikipedia
Then, when I went back to college after my time in the Army, I chose to get my degree in Art History. It was a bachelor’s program, and I wasn’t required to choose a concentration. I had a smorgasbord of courses from which to choose, and as long as I took the correct number of them, I’d graduate. So, there’s the rub. Do I learn more about the art I’ve visited so often in museums and about which I had already read so much?

Instead, I chose to take a variety of classes on topics with which I was unfamiliar or which I had always found boring. Pre-war American art, early Latin American art, nineteenth century European and the Italian Renaissance. Some of the most famous artwork in the world, and while I could identify a lot of it, I didn’t know the stories behind much of it. I had snobbishly dismissed impressionism as office cubicle d├ęcor without knowing about the rebellious quality of the work, both aesthetically and ideologically. I didn’t know that Gustave Courbet was the world’s first hipster. And shamefully, I didn’t know nearly enough of the rich tradition of Latin American art before Frida and the famous muralists. Through these classes and my own research, I learned the historical context, art historical narratives and the intentions of the artists, which made all of these eras of art significantly more interesting. The most valuable experience of my college education was studying art I had never really liked.

The World's First Hipster
Gustave Courbet's The Meeting
Image: Wikipedia

I share this with you to encourage you to find a room that bores you at your local museum and make a point of studying up on it. If it’s not enough that it will broaden your horizons, you’ll also get more bang for your buck for your entrance fee or membership. 

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