Discovering Art at Age Forty

I have vague recollections about enjoying art when I was a kid. Cray-pas, construction paper, tempera paints—brief flashes of all of these light the rooms of my brain when I think back to elementary and middle school art classes.

And all those hours of staring at the obligatory M.C. Escher posters in every math classroom I ever occupied.

I also have dim memories of a class I took in high school—“Humanities,” I think—where we learned the word, “chiaroscuro,” which I think means “light,” but I was far too interested in reading William S. Burroughs in the back of the room to worry about whatever the hell it was those Renaissance guys were doing.

I know shit about art. And I never really cared to learn.

From a very early age it was clear that if I was going to make my way in this world doing something creative, it’d be writing. A hilariously-gory short story to shock my teachers, or an angst-ridden essay on whatever imagined existential crisis I was going through at the time–that was art to me.

You know, I shouldn’t say that. I did appreciate one other art, and that was music. I’ve always found enormous pleasure in music, though I certainly couldn’t tell you anything more about a piece or song than whether or not I enjoyed it.

But drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, collage, photography, mosaic? For the vast majority of my forty years on this planet, I never gave any of these a first thought, let alone a second. And I was quite content to remain ignorant.

Then, a few months ago, my attitude toward art changed.

It wasn’t due to any one specific incident or revelation. Rather, I just had this sense that I’d been missing out, a feeling that kept building itself up, becoming more insistent, until I decided that I should know at least a little about art forms which didn’t involve words or musical notes.

So, I picked up a book called The Annotated Mona Lisawhich bills itself as “a crash course in art history”–and started there.

“Les Grandes Baigneuses,” by Auguste Renoir. The first painting I think I’ve truly loved—and not because nekkid women.

Pre-historic, pre-Columbian, Greek, Roman, through the Renaissance, and up to the present day. There’s a lot here, and it’s laid out like a magazine, with many photographs (though not quite as many as I’d hoped, and there aren’t nearly enough color ones), sidebars, and timelines, all covering the major points of interest along the way.

At 216 pages, it’s more of an outline of art history than a deep dive, but that’s exactly what I was looking for: a skeleton which I could prop up and hang the flesh of further study on. And it was fantastic for that purpose.

Even before I finished it, I was looking up artists, finding large, full-color photographs of their major works, learning more details about the various schools and “isms” of the art world. On and on and on the book went, and I’m still kind of shocked at how easily it pulled me along with it. And how much passion for the subject it ignited in me.

As I alluded to in a previous post, one of the results of this foray into art appreciation and history has been to inspire me to get into photography, but it’s done even more than that.

It’s fueled a passion for art in general.

I’ve started looking more carefully at the art around me. I’ve begun to seek out new artists online, check out their work, and just try to understand–as best I can–what it is they’re trying to do and how they did it.

And yes, I’ll admit that I’ve been looking more closely at photographers and filmmakers than I have at illustrators or painters, but that’s a prejudice I’m hoping to rectify. And truth be told, I think it’s all accomplishing the job which I suspect was the underlying motivation I had for looking into this stuff in the first place.

It’s changing how I look at the world.

Let’s face it, in my “Hey, I turned 40!” post, I tried to be all blase about hitting that age, but you can’t live for four decades without forming a world view–and the last decade, at least for me, hasn’t made that view particularly pretty.

I won’t go so far as to say that my newfound-yet-still-severely-limited appreciation for art has turned everything all sparkly and colorful, but there are one or two more bright spots now, in what was once a uniform gray.