"One of the things I feel strongly [about art] is that no one view is canonical," says Sister Wendy Beckett, reached by phone in London, where she is dutifully promoting her new PBS series, "Sister Wendy's American Collection (Wednesdays, Sept. 5, 12, and 19, 8-10 p.m., check local listings).
"Everybody comes to a work of art with their own feelings, and may well read it differently," she says, welcoming dissent with her own interpretations. "All I'm trying to do is to persuade people to go and look for themselves, and if they disagree with me, that's splendid - as long as they have taken the trouble."
Sister Wendy is a Roman Catholic nun who devotes her free hours daily to the study of art. Born and educated in South Africa, she lives in England in a Carmelite convent. But this retiring lady is well known around the world for her many books, television series, and commentary on visual art. She fairly twinkles with enthusiasm for the art she discusses, and even when one wonders at some of her analyses, she manages to open new vistas about individual works and whole cultural perspectives with her empathy and affection for art.
She says this is her last series. So she takes on six great American museums in six hour-long segments: The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Art Institute of Chicago; and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Her aim is to give the viewer a taste of the variety and depth of the American holdings of world art. She does discuss American-made art, but the show is not heavily weighted in that direction. Nor does she spend a significant amount of time with contemporary works - though her remarks about modern masters like Richard Diebenkorn and Georgia O'Keeffe are illuminating.
Because she does not present the art chronologically, but links themes loosely and intuitively, she helps us see art as an ongoing expressions of beauty. At one point she quotes David Hockney as saying all art comes from love.
How do we learn to look deeply into works of art?
"Art needs time," she says. "Just as to appreciate a book, you have to spend time reading it, or a film, you have to spend time watching it. Well, you can't walk past a work of art and look at it for a few seconds and expect it to open itself up to you."
She recommends that people look at a museum catalog, carefully select a handful of works they want to really look at closely in the museum, and then study up on the histories of the artists and the pieces themselves. Then they should spend time with these pre-selected pieces.
"It's necessary, if we are going to get the depth of the experience and not just a superficial glow," she says. "The more we know, the more we get out of a work. Love always seeks to know. If you love something, you will want to know it better - if you really want art to open up to you like a flower and change you...."
But a bookish background is only the beginning. Once you have acquired information, she says, you should let it recede into the imagination and concentrate on the image itself.
"Simply look, and let the painting impose its serious meanings on you," she says. "I think this is the most demanding of tasks, but it is a personal thing. You can only do it if you take responsibility for yourself and contemplate the work of art."