The Joy of Art
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The Joy of Art

How to Look At, Appreciate, and Talk about Art

Carolyn Schlam

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  1. 352 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

The Joy of Art

How to Look At, Appreciate, and Talk about Art

Carolyn Schlam

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About This Book

An Artist's Insights on Art Appreciation Written by a practicing artist, this book decodes and maps the basic elements of visual art, leading the reader to a greater understanding and appreciation. Not an art history lesson per se, this illustrated guide is rather a tool kit to make the study of art and a visit to the museum truly rewarding. An entertaining and informative read, The Joy of Art offers the reader:

  • A working art vocabulary to help you identify and explain what you're looking at
  • Answers to many of the questions you may have about visual art in general
  • A summary of the basic criteria to consider when looking at art
  • Highlights of the primary art genres and an introduction to the artists who pursued them
  • Many visual examples of aesthetic considerations and practices
  • Interesting facts about your favorite artists and clues to why they made the choices they did
  • A few games to test your new skills

T he Joy of Art contains 150 color photographs and many interesting insights from an artist-author who takes readers behind the curtain and into the studio to uncover what actually goes into making a work of art. If you love art, this book will take your appreciation to a new level. Not only will your enjoyment of art increase, you'll be able to clearly communicate your understanding to others.

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Chapter 1

Introduction: How the Book Originated

The idea for this book came to me while I was visiting a show of Picasso sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Being a Picasso lover, I was really excited about the show and was anticipating a long visit and the chance to really study the many works I was viewing for the first time.
The latter proved impossible, as crowds were deep, and just getting close to the work was a struggle. In addition, most everyone seemed to have their cell phones poised and snapping away at every piece. I wound up waiting for the seas to part and just managing a quick glimpse before moving on to the next work.
I wondered what, if anything, these avid photographers were getting out of the experience and frankly whether they would ever look at these photos again.
The interest was definitely there, and museum entrance stats do seem to bear that out. Wherever people travel, art museums are high on sightseeing must-go lists, and first-rate architects are competing to create new museums and museum additions that are ever more spectacular.
With demand clearly high, I thought, was there a way to make the experience of viewing art even more gratifying and elucidating?
As an artist, I have a particular method to view an exhibition. I am there to enjoy the work, of course, just like any viewer. But I am also on a hunt. I am looking for resonance, something in the work that speaks to me personally, suggests perhaps something I would like to explore further in my own practice. It might be a color, or a particular palette. A texture, treatment, composition, shape, material, anything really. Identifying why that particularity makes me take notice is a clue to what matters to me, and where I might want to take my own work.
My hunt makes going to the museum not just a viewing experience, or something to do on a rainy afternoon. It makes it an important part of my life, not an idle time-filling activity. It makes it personal. Making an experience personal means that I will remember it, relate it to the rest of my life, and actually get something out of it. I will learn something this day about art, and about myself simultaneously.
This is my method: I enter a room of the exhibition and do a general scan of the works. I may read the introductory writings, but probably not. More on this subject later. Though curators often do an excellent job in describing their curatorial bent, I often prefer to draw my own conclusions about the exhibit and don’t want my thinking scripted. Though I glance at each of the works in the room, I will certainly be drawn to one or two that particularly pique my interest. I don’t know why, but I follow my instinct and spend most of my time studying these pieces. I may look at the card identifying the title and date of the work, but not necessarily, not at this point. I then move on to the next room, performing the same routine, glancing and then focusing in on the works that attract me.
You may wonder why I concentrate in this way on only a few of the works in the exhibition. I do so because I know it is quite impossible to truly study them all. I would rather concentrate deeply on a few than take a parting glance at many. After all, we are only able to absorb so much information in one experience. When you try to see all, you go horizontal. With my method, I go deep.
After I’ve visited the whole exhibit in this way, I retrace my steps and review my favorites once again. On this revisit, I am making sense of what I’ve seen, noting the attributes of these particular works that interest me, and arriving at some tentative conclusions: I like this work because _______________. The artist has accomplished _______________. It is meaningful to me in this way _______________. Et cetera.
I have had a positive learning experience and I leave the museum happily. The process has taken an hour or two. I haven’t tried to see every work, read every word written about it, and cram every possible tidbit of information into my brain. I’ve seen many works that I admire, I’ve noted why they appealed to me, and most importantly, I remember what I’ve seen. I’ve had a real experience.
Now, a caveat. I have studied art and practiced art-making my entire life. It is my profession. So I have many tools at my disposal that the average viewer does not possess. But I have also taken nonartists with me to the museum and exposed them to this method and talked to them about art. And I believe their experience has been enhanced.
And so, this book. I am taking you to the museum with me. We are going to learn the vocabulary of visual art. We are going to look at a selection of works of art, many of which may already be familiar to you. But we are going to look at them with the eyes of an artist.
This is a book about art appreciation and that is our goal, appreciation. You may enjoy what you do not understand, but my theory is that your enjoyment will be greatly improved and deepened with understanding.
We will talk about taste and style, and why these are so personal and so variable. Fashions come and go, and this is very much applicable to art. There are reasons why certain works are popular and why they have survived generations. We’ll be examining this.
I’ll be giving you an art vocabulary that will help you to understand and to discuss visual art. I’ll also give you the tools to decode what you see and make sense of it.
We’ll be looking at examples of Western visual art throughout history. There have been many thousands of artists who lived and made their contribution to art, but in this book we’ll be choosing a sample, perhaps a little more than a hundred, to focus on. I’ve selected them for various reasons, not necessarily because they are the best or the most famous, but because they illustrate a concept that will help you to comprehend the overall scope and sweep of our subject.
They may be highlighted for their versatility, or the fact that they were forerunners of a new direction in art-making. Perhaps they were masters of a certain facet of art or exemplars of a technique, or created a work that became iconic. They are important for one reason or another, and I will point out what that reason is.
Some of the greats in the world of art are mentioned and even discussed, but images of their work do not appear in this book. I have been limited to photographs that are in the public domain, and the works of these greats, practicing in recent times, remain under copyright. I thank some of the artist foundations who have given me the right to use works under fair use, as this book has an educational purpose.
My hope is that this very broad overview will encourage you to delve further into subjects or artists that are of particular interest to you. I strongly suggest that you look up the artists under copyright and study their works. I also hope you will seek out other points of view, as mine is only one, and this is a big subject.
Though the masterworks of art have been much discussed and applauded, there are many unsung artists who are also wonderful and their works worthy of praise. A few of these are included here. My hope is that you will use the understanding you gain from this book to discover some of these lesser-known lights and even to collect some of their works.
Appreciation of art is quite subjective and opinions diverge. You may disagree with my assessments, and this is fine. If I’ve done my job, though you may not share my preferences, you will have learned more about yours. I won’t tell you what to like, but I’ll help you understand why you like it. You’ll learn about art, and you will also learn about yourself. It will be fun, I promise.
So let’s go. Come along with me as we look at art. There won’t be any crowds. No one will be snapping photos with their smartphones. No one will be standing in front of you. It will just be us, and the joy of art.

Chapter 2

What Is Visual Art?: Some Basic Definitions

That’s a big question, isn’t it? And a good place to start.
In my book for children, Art Smarts: A Primer for the Young Artist, I define visual art in this very simple way:
Visual art is something created by an artist that people look at and enjoy with their eyes and feelings. When an artist makes music, he turns his feelings into sounds. A writer uses words to express herself and a dancer uses her body moving through space. A visual artist makes pictures and objects that are meant to be seen.
Visual art can be flat or solid. It can be a drawing, a painting, a sculpture, collage, assemblage, bas-relief, a video, or even a performance. It can be made of mud or steel or bronze or paper or canvas or clay or even things found in the trash.
Art is a message from the artist to the world. Whether it tells a story or illustrates an idea or a feeling, the purpose of the artwork is to express and to share.
Now the adult version:
Generally speaking, art is a heightened form of communication. It arises out of the consciousness of an artist who has an intention to express something felt or thought or both. The manner in which he or she chooses to express is determined by many factors. These may include but are not limited to ability, personality, interest, preferences, culture, age, gender, and experience, so many aspects that conspire to produce a unique means of expression.
Just like the DNA of a person determines their appearance, characteristics, temperament, strengths, and weaknesses, so does the artistic DNA forecast the art they will create. As a life unfolds, so does a body of an artist’s work, as much a revelation to the artist as to those fortunate enough to view it.
Visual artists like to make things. The things they make may be delicate and ethereal or tough and powerful or any gradation and variation between the poles. But visual artists are charged to make their feelings concrete and available to be seen, and perhaps touched. They want their creations to be touched with your eyes certainly, and if these works engage all your senses, that is even better.
Not every visual artist, contrary to public opinion, is interested in making pictures. Many do “pictorialize,” but not all the pictures are representational or even suggestive of anything. But regardless of how confusing or difficult to understand they may be, artworks are never random. They are made by a process I call “deliberate evolution.”
What I mean by this phrase is that visual art is created with intention, but the eventual result is not known by the artist. It “evolves.” One stroke leads to another and the journey to completion is just that . . . a journey. Something about the final work is likely recognizable by the artist as something that is “his” or “hers,” that has arisen out of that artistic DNA.
Artists like to think and talk about their body of work. That is because each work is only a fragment of the whole picture, a sentence in a book. We recognize that we cannot say it all in one piece. We can only utter a single thought and, as I discussed in my book The Creative Path: A View from the Studio on the Making of Art, the more clearly that thought is expressed, the better will be that individual work.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, or a life by a day, or an artist’s work by one piece. You have to look at the whole to really make sense of it all. Looking at an individual work without knowing anything about the artist’s output may give you an incorrect or insufficient conclusion about his effort. We have our good days and bad, dark and joyous moods, the full gamut. As a viewer, your appreciation of that individual work will be enhanced by your familiarity with the artist’s body of work as you are able to see it in context. We will be delving into this as we go on with this course.
Think of this book as a “sampler,” like a whirlwind holiday where you spend a bit of time in many ports and stops. Perhaps there are a select few artists or art movements or genres that will linger in your memory and whet your appetite for more. You can then make a decision to study them in depth, either as an appreciator or even as a practitioner yourself. My aim is to open doors and hopefully spark a new interest, passion or pathway as a result.
In the introduction I talked about going on a “hunt” when I visit the museum. An artist is always and completely on a daily hunt, a quest, to find his pot of gold. What is the gold, the prize, he or she is seeking?
A quest is defined as a difficult journey toward a goal. In folklore, a hero must overcome many obstacles and hardships to achieve it, and many quests involve arduous travel. The quester is often seeking something supernatural, and this something may be new, something that was taken from him, or that he believes will fulfill him in some way. The object of his search may be something he wishes to return home with but in fact, he may not be able to do so. It is highly likely that he will be transformed by the journey he undertakes.
The writer Joseph Campbell discussed the quest, suggesting that the hero sets forth from the world of the commonplace to a land of adventures, tests, and magical rewards. It is said that the object of a quest may be just a convenient incentive for the hero to undertake the journey. In this case, the journey itself is the purpose, the meaning, and the glory of the undertaking.
If this sounds like the process of undertaking creative work, I am on board with you. An artist is on a journey to find something unknown. He sets out forsaking the quotidian, on a march toward magic. On the way, he st...

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