The Art of Art Appreciation: My Son Sets Me Straight

I have often wished that I had a truly critical appreciation of art. As it is, I can only struggle with surfaces.

I understand some of the basics, of course: El Greco's use of light, the vivid marginal details of the Flemish painters, Picasso's "Blue Period." But as to what makes a particular work truly great or just plain good, I am at a loss. While the mavens around me coo and analyze, I can only incline my ear in a desperate attempt to learn something I didn't know before. But more often than not, I don't know what they're talking about.

Like plumbing, art appreciation may just be something I cannot learn.

Why this sense of urgency? My 11-year-old son has shown himself to be a very capable artist. Alyosha portrays animals, action figures, and landscapes with a naturalness and detail that I can only envy. He receives accolades at school and kudos from his friends. Wouldn't it be wonderful, I thought, to show him that art is not a pond but an ocean, a universe?

But where to begin?

When I was in grammar school, the teachers made half-hearted attempts to introduce us to art. We were given postcard-size prints of the greats: Van Gogh's "Starry Night," Monet's "The Poppy Field." Our instructions were to paste them in our scrapbooks and then "write about them." I remember my earnest analysis of "Starry Night." It looked like scrambled eggs to me, but I was afraid to admit it, so I wrote: "It reminds me of fireworks."

For which I received a checkmark and the hastily scribbled comment: Perhaps.

In the ensuing 30 years I've read books on art history, attended lectures, visited the Met, the Whitney, and the Prado, as well as numerous local museums. Although I know what I like (Hopper's austerities), I cannot state the reasons for it. And I think I know why.

IT has to do with the difference between the art of writing and the art of, well, art. For writers, there are some rules about form if not content: Don't repeat the same word too often; don't lose track of your theme; avoid jargon; reject clichs; strike out unnecessary language. But in art, everything is valid: black poppies, triangular heads, blank canvases.

Is that my problem? Looking for boundaries where there are none? If so, I guess I'm not ignorant, just stymied.

Which brings me back to my son. I can sit with him, paging through a tome of art prints of the masters, pointing out differences in style and esteeming beauty of form. But what happens when style and form are beyond Dad's meager expertise?

This is exactly what happened recently while we were traveling cross-country. In Santa Fe, N.M., I was encouraged to visit an art museum. I girded myself and hurried my son along to the inauspicious building. As we entered the vestibule, I went over the tenets of Cubism, Impressionism, realism, and Pointillism in my head. But when we entered the first hall I broke out in a cold sweat.

I had ushered my boy right into the maw of modern, abstract art, where everything is not only valid, but touted. As I surveyed the field before me, I found myself wondering how I would orient him to the harrowing fringe of graphic art without revealing to him both my ignorance of and frustration with the form.

We walked over to a piece hanging on the wall: a checkerboard with a large, sculpted nose bulging from its center. We studied it in silence for a few moments. Then I turned to Alyosha. "What do you think?" I asked him, doubtfully.

Silence.

I was soon looking less and less at the creation as I concentrated on my son's face, his finger dimpling his chin. I knelt down beside him and draped my hand over his shoulder. "Alyosha," I whispered, "what do you think?"

To my surprise, he began to describe and analyze, pointing out color, form, and proportion in a way I never could. "I think it has something to do with checkers," he began, at which I smiled. And then he went on. "Maybe it's that to play checkers you don't just have to use your eyes, but your nose, too."

I bit my lip. "What do you mean by that?" I prodded.

"That checkers is tougher than you think," he said in all earnestness, still staring at the work, still studying it.

Who knows whether he was right or wrong? He was thinking in a way I never ventured to. It struck me that there might not be another person in the world who saw that piece the way my son did. But that's OK. In fact, it's wonderful. In art, opinions must be as valid as the works themselves. I suddenly felt elated. Perhaps I still had a chance. Perhaps I should just let loose with my impressions, acknowledge that I am their sole and proud owner, and tip my hat to the prevailing assessments of others without losing my head over it.

As we left the museum, I realized that my son had pried the door to art a little wider for me, but that it was already fully open for him. "Starry Night" still makes me think of scrambled eggs, only now I'm not afraid to admit it. I think I might even be able to tell you why.

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