Christians and Culture by Dr. Charlie W. Starr
In this final segment of our series on the purpose of art, I’d like us to consider the “how to’s” of experiencing art. How do we read a book to get the most out of it? How do we watch a movie or listen to a song? What are the best ways to enjoy, examine, and learn from different art forms?
Let’s start with painting and sculpture, the kinds of art we typically find in museums. Begin simply by looking at it. Pay attention to details. Pay attention to your reaction to it. Do you find it beautiful? Let it soak in. Then start asking questions about it: What do you see? What can you discover about the artist’s technique (this question implies learning something about how painting or sculpture works)? Is it about anything? Does it tell a story?
If you’re enjoying it, why? What about its beauty grabs you? If it’s ugly, is it a celebration of ugliness you should reject, or an honest portrayal meant to show something about the fallen world? If it makes no sense to you, there could be two reasons: you don’t know enough about the work of art or it’s the kind of garbage that often passes as modern art today.
Don’t miss what I’m saying. I know of no art forms other than painting and sculpture that produce art that pretends to be brilliant and is actually bad. While I usually tell my humanities students to learn from the experts, I tell them to be wary of the experts in the world of contemporary painting and sculpture.
Still, with art forms we don’t spend a lot of time experiencing, there is an element of education worth adding to the “how to” list. When you’re at a museum, read the names and descriptions on the placards beside the art works—those paragraphs that name the artist, date, medium of art, and sometimes offer an explanation of the piece. Otherwise do a little reading on painting and sculpture. It’s good to know artistic periods in Western culture (Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, and so on), and it’s good to learn some elements of technique in order to see them in the art you’re looking at: line, shape, structure, color, hue, light—these are just a few elements that will help your viewing.
Finally (and I say this in regard to all art forms), it’s okay to decide whether or not you like a piece of art, think it’s beautiful, think it has truth value, think it’s well or poorly done, and to consider whether or not it has moral value.
We don’t often pay attention to the beauty of buildings. Most are functional, but many are also works of art. Much of what I said about painting and sculpture can be applied here. And, once again, I think it’s important to do some learning. Simply knowing to look for basic architectural structures like post and lintel, arch, vault, dome, cantilever, and the elements of a facade can add much to our ability to enjoy architectural design. Other elements to look for include the way spaces are organized and used, color schemes, lighting, and the historical purpose of the building.
Stage performances include opera, dance, and theater (including musicals). I don’t mention concert performances here because I’ll cover music later, and though opera, dance, and musicals include music, they include stage performance as well. Dance is an art form I need to learn more about, and when I don’t know something I find it wise to follow Solomon’s advice in Proverbs 17:28 and keep my mouth shut. When you’re watching a performance, begin by taking it in—receive it, experience it, pay attention to all the sights and sounds and your reactions to them. Enjoy yourself.
Avoid the mistake of judging a play or musical the way you judge a movie—they’re not the same thing. Then pay attention to some key elements in stage performance: costuming, set design, lighting, the quality of the acting and/or music, the connection between the performers and the audience, the way space is used by the designers and the performers, and of course the story, musical, or opera itself.
Next month we’ll turn to some “how to’s” about more popular art forms in our culture.
Dr. Charlie Starr teaches English, Humanities, and Film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.