Before I became a teacher, I studied long and hard to attain my PhD in Art History. Whether or not it was worth it is a question I could debate all day, but one thing that the process taught me was how to approach art analysis, and ‘reading art’ (art literacy?) in general. And although research and archival work was not my strength AT ALL, analysis and my ability to write about art, was. One of my happiest moments as a human being on this planet (sad, I know!) was when one of my supervisors, at the end of my viva, said ‘I wish I could write about art the way you do.’ This meant a lot more to me than the celebrations afterwards, I can tell you.
Parting from academia is something I have slowly come to terms with over the course of my life. I have often questioned why I gave up, and there were practical reasons, and psychological reasons, but I think that perhaps there were also – for want of a better word- ‘spiritual’ reasons too.
You see, one of the reasons I was successful as an art analyst was because I knew, and still know, one of the secrets to creative and insightful analysis of a painting. And I think the reason I have/had this ability was because of some very special teachers I had, who taught me to open my heart as well as my eyes to art.
When many of us encounter a painting in an art gallery the tendency, I think, is to externalize it. To see it as something ‘other’ and distant; to read the wall plaque, to search for context.
The key to good analysis, though, is to enter the mind of the painting. Does this make me sound like a loon? The best way I can describe it is that you become part of the painting, and drop all the outside context. Rather, you view it as an extension of yourself.
As the American scientist Evelyn Fox Keller beautifully puts it, “…the highest form of love…is intimacy that does not annihilate difference.”
In other words, you lean into the painting; put your whole self into it, whilst at the same recognizing and respecting the distance between you and it.
I wish that I could explain in more concrete terms, but I’m sure you’ve all experienced moments like this in class, or in an art gallery, when you’re regarding a work of art more subjectively than objectively. A connection sparks in your head between something in the painting and a childhood memory, or a line from a poem, or something you saw in another painting a couple of weeks ago. Do you follow that trail where it leads? Or do you snap your mind shut and go back to taking notes?
The same could be true of any learning experience; not just learning about art. But art invites it, and to not listen to our instincts or to the stirring of our hearts is to cut ourselves off from all that makes art so beautiful. I’m not sure that the art history world invites this kind of personal connectivity to art, at least insofar as it informs analysis and academic publishing. Hence, one of the reasons I quit. But perhaps I shouldn’t have. Perhaps I should have pushed back. Perhaps it’s up to the next generation of art historians to celebrate this form of inquiry, and reestablish art history as a discipline that is interdisciplinary, inter-related, ‘inter’ everything.