Preface: Why should you care about art?
This is a book about you, and about your interaction with art. It is not a dry, dusty list of names, dates, and places for you to memorize. Instead, it focuses on skills that will help you understand how art works, how it inspires feelings and thoughts through its styles and subjects. Looking at art is not an easy, straightforward process, even though it often feels natural.
The power of art can be immediate, striking, even arresting. We are now living in what is likely the most media-saturated era of world history, as we are bombarded with visual images constantly, but we have very little training in how to critically interpret these images. The fundamental tools are not taught to children in school. Looking – real, deep, careful looking – is not as simple as it seems. The aim of this book to teach the skills needed to decode art, to provide you with tools you can apply to all of the visual data around you.
Over the course of the book, you will explore a wonderfully diverse array of works. They will likely strike you as beautiful or ugly, stunning or strange, funny or compelling, or any combination of these at once. Art does not have to be beautiful or uplifting. Likewise, though, it does not have to be weighty and serious. There are no limits to the moods and ideas art can or should convey. There are, though, tools and tricks through which artists convey these moods and ideas. These visual techniques, above all, will be the subject of this book.
But why should you care about art? There are a great many potential answers to this question. It can enrich your life, open your eyes to new experiences, “expand your horizons,” and so on. But the main answer to be offered here is that art is a powerful means to see through the eyes of others – people distant in time or place from you, or living within your own country, your own city, on your block or in your house. Through other peoples’ eyes, we see the world as we had never seen it before. We might be shown a glimpse of staggering beauty or of breathtaking horror, of joy or passion or pain. By learning how to understand the visual elements used to create these images, you will become more able to understand the messages they contain, and more receptive to the perspectives of those who made them.
Just as importantly, whenever we look seriously and carefully at another person or culture, we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. You may not yet care about the life of a Buddhist monk living two hundred years ago in Japan, or about a Roman solider worshiping a long-forgotten god, but like everyone else, you are surely interested in yourself and your world. Just as leaving home is the only way to truly see the home you leave, so too, looking outward is a powerful path to looking inward, to seeing yourself more clearly.
While the specifics of the names and dates of the works in this book will fade with time – unless, of course, you continue to study the history of art! – the skills needed to interpret works of art and other elements of visual culture will last your lifetime. Close visual analysis, along with an understanding of some of the more common and compelling themes throughout the art of the world, can be used to unlock possible meanings of just about any work of art you might encounter on your campus, in museums, in religious or historical sites, but also in your friend’s living room. These skills will also help you find points of entry and access into any works of art, celebrated and world-famous or as-yet unknown. The purpose of art appreciation is simply that – to help you learn to appreciate art. You do not need a great amount of historical information about every period of art history to appreciate works (though it never hurts, of course). Instead, you need the skills involved in careful looking.
It is my hope that once you have the skills you need to understand any works of art, wherever you might find them, you will also have the desire to look carefully and deeply at them. The visual arts produce in many viewers two great anxieties: the uncertainty about how long we should spend looking at any individual work and the sense that there is supposed to be a “deeper meaning” that eludes us. We listen to a song or watch a movie from start to end. But, of course, a painting or sculpture goes on indefinitely. How do we know when we should move on? And how do we know if we have found that deeper meaning, or even if there is one, at all?
The first two chapters of this book will provide you with the basic tools of visual analysis. Then, we will look at a series of exciting themes commonly found in art. These include among others religion and power, sex and violence, community and personal expression. The goal of these chapters is not to familiarize you with particular periods or movements in the history of art – the Italian Renaissance, Meiji Japan, the Impressionists, and so on. Instead, by using examples chosen from throughout the globe, and from prehistory to the present day, the book should help you learn how to apply the basic tools of visual analysis to any object.
At the heart of each chapter will be three Spotlight Images. The first two will serve as touchstones for the chapter, and will each be treated to careful and extended analysis. The third will be the final image in the chapter, and here you are invited to actively analyze the work of art on your own. Between the Spotlight Images, you will find groups of images discussed briefly. This book contains fewer works than is common in large survey textbooks, but treats some of them in greater depth in order to help you to learn to do the same. In short, by the end of the book, you will be equipped with the tools to make you more comfortable in the often bristly art world, and confident in your personal experience of it.
I recently put the question to my own freshman art students: “Why should you care about art?” They offered some of the ideas I have used, here. At the end of the discussion, one student summed it all up well: “Why shouldn’t you care about art?” Indeed, why not? Each and every work of art is worth your time and merits you close attention. I would stand before each and every work of art – in this book or not – and shout to all those passing by, “Look at this!”
–Asa Simon Mittman, Chico, CA (2023)
- Me standing in total awe in front of the Borgund Stave Church, Norway, 2023. Photo: Selfie © Asa Mittman