English Class As Art Appreciation
One year when I was in high school, my English teachers (the same ones who inducted me into the magic writing cult) organized a class trip to New York City. They believed that the best way to teach literature was to expose students simultaneously to other forms of art (such as fine art, film, and music) and help them draw parallels between the art forms.
It’s especially instructive—I say this as a former English teacher myself—to examine periods of history through the lenses of the different kinds of art created in response to the times. So, alongside J.D. Salinger and George Orwell, we studied Andy Warhol’s visual art featuring Campbell’s Soup cans, Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass’s art film Koyaanisqatsi, and that guy who had himself crucified to a Volkswagen Beetle.
My high school English teachers were especially big fans of twentieth-century art, feeling that it was most applicable to the modern lives of teenagers—not to mention adults like them. And what better place to explore modern art than New York City?
Is Understanding Modern Art an Exclusive Club?
We were required to apply to be considered for the trip. In my little application essay, I wrote that I wanted to go to NYC because I didn’t feel that I fully understood modern art. I explained that I was intrigued by it and wanted to learn more.
I was accepted for the trip; but one of the teachers pulled me aside and said to me, in a scornful voice:
“If you don’t understand modern art by now, you never will.”
I was insulted and thought she was wrong. I still feel this way. (These English teachers changed my life in amazing ways, . . . but they were only human.)
I suppose my teacher was trying to express the fact that feeling a response to art is visceral: something mysterious within those who appreciate art, and not within those who don’t. She was drawing a hard line between those with, and those without, that ineffable capacity for art appreciation.
While it may be true that people can be divided in this way, the whole story is more complicated, and more interesting, than that.
Art Appreciation Is an Art
The whole story is complicated and interesting because art appreciation is an art. It’s not something you’re necessarily born with or without the capacity to do, or something you’re necessarily conditioned or not conditioned toward. While genetics and childhood upbringing surely play a large part in this, people aren’t going to fall permanently into one camp or the other by the time they reach the tenth grade (or any life milestone!).
No, art appreciation is something that’s cultivated through experience and practice, just like any other art. Here are some reasons why this is so:
1. People change; i.e., the brain has plasticity.
The term brain plasticity has gained popularity in recent years. To me, the term sounds like sci-fi scariness, but all the word plasticity means in this context is “malleability.” The brain, scientists have learned, has a wonderful capacity to change. For better or worse, the decisions you make on a daily basis change your brain’s structure and function.
Just because you’re not big into art now doesn’t mean you won’t be in the future. People change, sometimes in big ways and sometimes in small ways. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. But people change. I know that I have.
2. The response to art is always personal; it requires direct experience.
When I wrote that I didn’t feel that I fully understood modern art, I didn’t mean that I had never had a visceral response to a piece of modern art. I’d had many such. I meant that I felt that it was an area of exploration for me. It was something that I wanted to experience more of.
I didn’t, at the time, fully understand why someone would crucify himself to a car. While I don’t want to claim that I fully understand it now, I will say that I understand it a hell of a lot better than I did when I was in tenth grade.
This piece of performance art is a response to concepts in the artist’s life—to name just a few, violence, horror, victimhood, Christianity, the VW Beetle, vehicles in general, the pain of being alive, the shock of desiring to do something wildly undesirable. The artist may and certainly does experience the performance art differently from the audience, and each audience member may and likely does experience it differently from every other audience member. And yet, most people will talk of similar concepts when discussing the piece. So it’s a conversation starter, but also a starter of unique internal thoughts and feelings.
As a teenager, I was mainly just trying to sort out why the concepts I was learning in church, in school, and at home differed so wildly from one another. I was in a constant state of shell shock, trying to figure out what was going on. Today, I have pretty well figured out what’s going on (though I don’t want to state that categorically—I still have lots to learn, and in fact know nothing at all, at least in the Socratic sense). But I was only able to figure out what art was all about through years of experience with a lot of different people and ideas and artworks.
3. Art is a response to pain.
I love the following quote from Heather Rose’s brilliant novel The Museum of Modern Love. It starts by describing the difficulty of being an artist, but by the end of the paragraph, it seems to describe something essential about not just artistry but also art appreciation:
“Art creates a familiarity with loneliness. And possibly with pain. Physical, mental, it doesn’t really matter. It’s all a catalyst. I don’t like to admit that because it’s depressing, but in truth pain is the stone that art sharpens itself on time after time.”
Rose’s narrator points out that the process of engaging in art tends to push one toward pain, which in turn inspires art. It’s a vicious or virtuous circle, depending on whether you’re in a half-empty-glass or half-full-glass mood.
But the narrator also seems to be implying that pain is something that must be understood in order to understand art. Admittedly, in context, this paragraph is about the creation of art, not the appreciation of it. But remember, art appreciation is an art. Like all art forms, it sharpens itself on pain.
This explains why people who have suffered greatly often turn to art. It also explains why a privileged 15-year-old may feel slightly more lost in the woods when it comes to art appreciation than a 40-something divorcée with a concussion. (Join the club!)
And Speaking of Performance Art . . .
Despite still being in concussion recovery, I’ll be performing poems from my sonnet collection this coming Monday! All the details are here. I hope to see you there! Perhaps it will help you hone your (surely already powerfully developed!) ability to appreciate art.
But now, here’s an extremely important question to ponder:
Do you have an appreciation of the art of art appreciation?
Also: do you appreciate (a.k.a. “get”) the artwork by Lusi Lu at the beginning of this blog post?