This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio “How to Tell the Story of Art,” with guest Ross King. You can hear the whole episode online here.
One of my favorite photographs is of my daughter, about six months old, sitting in her bouncy seat, in the sunlight, holding a book. She’s turning her head as if to chastise someone for interrupting her. It’s an adorable picture, a bald, big-cheeked infant, too young to read, holding a colorful board book like it’s War and Peace. It’s also well-composed and interesting. Everyone I know who has come across it has remarked on it.
But the picture gets better the more you learn about it. First, the book was her favorite: we read Come Here, Cleo to her over and over and over, and I will always have tremendous affection for it. Second, Adina has grown up to be quite the reader, as voracious a consumer of books as her parents, reading early and always high above her grade level, having the kind of relationships with book characters that most of us only dream of. Third and, not surprisingly, interrupting her still inspires the same annoyed look. You can see the baby in the eight year old and, in the photo, the eight year old in the baby. She’s the daughter of two academics, raised in a house full of books, and the picture is prescient. It anticipates so much of her life so far, of her personality, of her attitude. To really appreciate the picture, I think, you have to know all of this.
Now imagine that I’m telling the background, not of a family snapshot, but of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or The Last Supper, or Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass, what would I have to tell then? How much detail would I have to provide? Where would the story have to begin and at what point does it end? This is the puzzle for today’s episode, how much knowledge do I have to have in order to really understand a work of art?
There are at least three important philosophical issues here. The first is quite familiar; how do we distinguish between art that people like and art that is objectively good. Further, how we identify the difference between enjoying art and understanding it? We all have relationships with art, whether it’s a classic painting or a movie still, and much art inspires instantaneous emotional responses. But just as there is a difference between popular art and good art, there is also a difference between reacting to something and comprehending it. Certainly, once we understand art, we may react to it even more forcefully, but the question before us today is whether that new reaction is simply more intense or whether it is better, deeper, more…valuable.
There is, for example, tremendous agreement that The Last Supper is one of the greatest artworks in history, but does our relationship with the painting become more valuable when we learn that Leonardo Di Vinci used his own image for the faces of the apostles Thomas and James? Or, another example, most of us recognize the greatness of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel even from just the ubiquitous images of it, but do we not really “get” the painting if we don’t know that it’s a fresco, if we don’t know what a fresco is, or if we don’t know how hard it is to paint with plaster—how quickly it takes it to dry? Surely knowing Michelangelo’s material and process is only going to increase our appreciation, so do we turn around and say that if we don’t know about the painting we don’t really appreciate it at all?
This leads us to the second philosophical issue: how can we know anything without knowing everything? Let me explain: suppose you want to know about my life. How can you do that without knowing about my parents? But then, if you want to know about my parents, how can you really understand them without knowing about their parents, and how can you understand them without knowing their parents? It seems that in order to know about me, you have to learn everything about everyone that came before. This certainly seems to set an impossible standard for human knowledge.
Yet, we do think this about art. To understand why the impressionists were so important, we have to know, not just what they were trying to paint, but what they were trying to not paint. We have to know who they were responding to and who they were trying to dethrone. Rebellion doesn’t look like upheaval if we can’t identify the status quo.
And so we end with the third issue, how do we put all of this together? Is our object simply to learn facts—this painting was painted with oil on canvas, in the year 1853—or do we have to know the artist’s intention? And, if we have to know their thoughts, do we have to know them discretely, out of context, or as part of a narrative, with a beginning, middle, and an end, with a plot, and a protagonist and antagonist? This is exactly what our guest today does. He tells the story of works of art as just that, stories, not encyclopedia entries, but dramas that unfold over a lifetime.
These are the fault lines of art understanding and art appreciation: subjectivity versus objectivity, experience versus understanding, information versus storytelling. The question we face now is, do we have to choose sides?