In “What’s Wrong With the World,” G.K. Chesterton wrote, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”
Here and elsewhere, Chesterton defends the amateur against the professional, what he called the “generalist” against the specialist. “Amateur” derives from the Latin “amare,” “to love,” and applies to anyone who performs a task or engages in an art, sport, or hobby out of love and not money. We run our fingers up and down a keyboard, we dig in the dirt and care for our beloved garden, we play golf or tennis for fun and exercise, or we scratch out some verse every morning before the rest of the household rises. We give ourselves to these things because they please us, not because we are particularly good at them.
In “Orthodoxy,” Chesterton expands his definition of amateur, stating that “the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves—the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state.”
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the subject of art appreciation.
Here’s an Opportunity
In this arena I am very much the amateur, untrained in aesthetics and often dazzled, dumbfounded, or depressed by a painting or a piece of statuary without really understanding why. Five years ago, a gift allowed me to spend a month in Italy, where almost daily I visited churches and museums, seeking relief from the brutal heat of the streets—it was the middle of summer, and Rome was experiencing a drought and temperatures in the 90s—and finding inspiration and beauty in the art of that ancient city. No guides and only the most cursory of books accompanied me on my explorations; I simply looked at paintings and sculpture, and took what pleasure I might from them.
Most of you reading these words are, I suspect, still in the pandemic shutdown, staying at home, entering stores only to buy essentials, prisoners of a sort in your own houses and apartments. With schools closed, many of you are teaching children or grandchildren at the dining room table, some of you through online courses offered by your child’s school, some through independent learning.
Some of our politicians, past and present, have said, “You should never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Well, I am going to turn that bit of cynicism on its head. Our present crisis has delivered a golden opportunity for us to visit the masterpieces of the past, share them with our young people, and discover in our excursions the hope, comfort, and strength such art affords us.
Because my public library is closed for the time being, and because I have packed up 90 percent of my books in anticipation of a move, I have only two art books available to me: a jacketless, coffee-blotched, and beaten-up copy of Sister Wendy Beckett’s “The Story of Painting” and Patrick De Rynck’s marvelous “How to Read a Painting: Lessons From the Old Masters.” In his excellent guide, De Rynck explores paintings from the late Middle Ages through the early 18th century, explaining to an audience often unfamiliar with Christian symbolism and mythological figures the meanings behind these great treasures.
Both books sit on a shelf beside my desk, and I open them frequently. On these excursions, I have realized that we don’t always need to accept the opinions of the experts. Sister Wendy Beckett, for example, describes Georges de La Tour’s “The Repentant Magdalen” by writing “the Magdalen does not so much repent as muse,” whereas I find this portrait of quiet repentance much more realistic than some anguished and fevered portrait. So as we proceed, bear in mind that you are entitled to your own interpretation of some particular painting.
Of course, we don’t need books to make art a part of our lives or of our school curriculum. For better or for worse—in this case, for better—we live in an age when the world is at our doorstep, great art at our fingertips. We can open the screens of our electronic devices and find museums, galleries, and websites galore.
Let’s begin with a visit to “Google Arts & Culture.” Hit “Explore,” scroll down a bit, click on “Explore by time and color,” choose “Time,” and click “1500” on the timeline, as I did, and you will be treated to an amazing array of great paintings.
Suppose we find ourselves enamored of the Dutch masters—not to be confused with the cigars. Off we zip wingless to Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum, where we can view at our leisure paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and their contemporaries, all living in what we now call the Dutch Golden Age of Painting. Here to our heart’s content we can immerse ourselves in canvas, paint, brushstrokes, and light.
Parents especially might employ these paintings as tools to teach not just art but also history, fashion, and geography. Suppose, for example, you decide to explore the work of Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. You Google his name, and there across the top of your screen appear dozens of his works depicting historical events, mythology, religion, and everyday life in Antwerp. Here are his paintings “Samson and Delilah,” “Daniel in the Lions’ Den,” “The Fall of Phaeton,” “Medusa,” “Saint George and the Dragon,” as well as portraits of various citizens, and much more.
Begin your adventure by selecting a particular painting, showing it to your children, and introducing them to the artist. Read with them a little about what the painting means, and then explore the story behind the art. Who were Samson and Delilah? Who was Medusa? You can charge off in all sorts of different directions. An example: Rubens’s “Portrait of Susanna Lunden” or “The Four Philosophers,” which Rubens created as a memorial to his deceased brother, might spark a discussion of fashion, hairstyles, and makeup of that time. Good detectives will engage in more online investigation of such topics.
(An aside: If your children tire of art, Good Housekeeping offers a link to many other virtual tours: museums, zoos, and amusement parks. Here are educational romps with creatures from sharks to elephants, and with historical artifacts from Ancient Egypt to the present time; you can even visit Disney World without shelling out money or standing in line.)
Connecting the Cultural Dots
When we study these paintings in this fashion—entering them instead of simply looking at them and moving on—we not only come to appreciate the artwork, but we also acquire what scholar, teacher, and author E.D. Hirsch calls “cultural literacy,” which he defines as the “network of information that all competent readers possess.” Readers unfamiliar with fairy tales and traditional children’s poetry, with Greek and Roman mythology, with Bible stories, and with other key elements of our civilization find themselves limited in their understanding of information and knowledge that was once relatively common among Europeans and Americans.
We live in an age when the visual—videos, television, and our electronic gadgets—dominates print. Many, for instance, prefer watching a movie about William Wallace than reading about him. The study of a masterpiece allows our children and us a meeting place between what we see in a painting and what lies behind the painting, a nexus of entertainment and education allowing us to broaden our cultural literacy.
Like poetry, like great literature, “reading” a painting makes us more fully human, more aware of the sorrows and joys of human beings, connecting us to a past that can comfort our present and enlighten our future.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.