227. Art Appreciation

I used to think art appreciation was totally pretentious. I thought the honest way to respond to art was to like or dislike it. To me, trying to understand what the artist was trying to “say,” or trying to feel what the artist was feeling, was a dishonest game some people played. I like art that resembles things I’ve actually seen. Some stylistic ideosyncrasies are okay, but I like to have a pretty good idea of what I’m seeing. I like VanGogh, but I like Norman Rockwell more, because he didn’t put those funny-looking swirls in his paintings. And I don’t know of any Jackson Pollack paintings I like.
One year, I decided to try an art appreciation lesson with children. Most children haven’t learned to be pretentious about art yet. I borrowed Goya’s “Toledo” from the library, and sat next to it, with the children sitting on the rug facing “Toledo” and me. I asked them how many people were in the picture. The people in “Toledo” are not conspicuous; the weather and scenery are. Children said there were no people in the picture. I told them there were many people in the picture, but they were hard to see because they seemed so small. Children looked closer and saw what I meant.
Then I asked the children where the people were going, and why. Most agreed that they were going to and from the spooky castle that was up on top of the hill, but there were various speculations about why. Some thought they were going to ask the king for help. Some thought they were going to attack the castle. When I asked whether the people might have been going
to see a movie, or go shopping, they all seemed to agree that those activities were not possibilities; they’d all done that kind of thing, and it didn’t involve any castles.
One boy said he’d been to Toledo, and it didn’t look anything like that. I could have avoided the boy’s confusion by pronouncing “Toledo” correctly, but at the time, it hadn’t even occurred to me that I might be pronouncing it wrong. In fact, I knew next to nothing about the painting, or Goya. I just knew that I liked it. I told the boy that this was Toledo, Spain. I asked him whether he’d been to the one in Spain or the one in Ohio. He’d been to the one in Ohio.
Not wanting to be one of those pretentious art critics who, from my perspective, had lost the ability to see what they were looking at, I hadn’t read anything about Goya or Toledo. I wanted the painting to speak for itself, and it did. I left it in the classroom for a week, and children often stopped to look at it. They were honest art critics; they were looking at it because that’s what they felt like doing, and they were discussing what they felt like discussing.
That being said, I must say that I’m curious about Goya and Toledo. I’m sending this article, by e-mail, to several friends, and I hope some of them will tell me what they know about the painting, the artist, the town. If not, maybe I’ll go to the library. Maybe some of the children who sat on the rug that day will do it, too. And the next time I teach children about it, I may casually mention what I know.

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