Dial the Lobster

Bringing art into everyday conversation

Tag: art appreciation

Advice For Young Art Historians and Art Lovers!

Hey Lobsterites!

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.

lobster telephone


A Poem and A Painting: The Art of Losing

Hey Lobsterites!

I thought it might be fun and interesting to start a little series where I pair amazing poems with equally amazing artworks that (to my mind) illustrate, clarify, or expand upon a theme from the poem. Today’s pairing is about loss, and how and why we might lose someone. First, the poem. It is the incredible “One Art,” by Elizabeth Bishop. This is probably my favorite poem of all time, which is why I chose it for this first ‘pairing’ experiment…


One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.


Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.


I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.


What I love about this poem is the pay-off at the end. The moment when we realize that losing her loved one IS a momentous disaster, despite the author’s attempts to kid herself that it’s not-  that it’s akin to losing ‘things.’ We learn simultaneously how much she loves him: more than her memories of people and places; more than her ‘cities’ and ‘realms,’ which makes the loss seem even more staggering. And then the incredibly self-deprecating refrain, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master,” which reminds us with a kind of savagery that we should never take what we have for granted, and that the ‘losing’ of it is our own fault. The whole poem is a downward spiral as well, from the mundane and trivial annoyance of losing keys, to the grief of losing a loved one. It’s a masterclass in poetry.

Now to the artwork. Despite my alliterative blog post title, this isn’t a painting, but a sculpture! I chose Bernini’s exquisite “Apollo and Daphne” (1622-25) which I find almost impossible to view without a tear welling up. Some backstory: Apollo was in love with the beautiful nymph, Daphne, but she was a proto-feminist, and wouldn’t succumb to his (or any man’s) advances, preferring to spend her time rambling in the woods. When Apollo (with some help from Eros) finally catches her, Daphne pleaded with her father, Peneus  to save her, which he does: by turning her into a tree.

This story had been told in art many times before, but never with the sense of horror  that Bernini manages to convey. This is, to all intents and purposes, a rape about to happen. A double-horror stems from Daphne’s shock as her hands begin to morph into leaves.

Despite its underlying violence, Bernini doesn’t want us to think of Apollo as a monster. When you look at Apollo’s face close-up it is full of sadness, shock, and a sense of loss. And there is sadness too in the fact that where his hand finally touches the object of his desires, she has already turned into tree-bark. Daphne is a metaphor not just for Apollo having to face the consequences of loving ‘too much,’ but for the ‘art of losing’ in general. We lose, both Bishop and Bernini say, through an excess of wanting and striving, and an inability to accept the inevitability of loss. Bernini says it loudly and plainly; Bishop coyly and ironically, but the message is the same: we must let go of what we cannot have or risk losing not just a person dear to us, but ourselves as well.

apollo and daphne

10 Hacks for Enjoying Art in an Art Gallery

1) Skim. Rather than working your way around the gallery’s perimeter like some crazy-art-ninja, let your eyes move quickly over the works in the room- don’t read the plaques! Let your eyes settle on one work that speaks to you. Spend time with that work…how?

2) Despite what you may have heard, context (especially historical) can be useful. Now’s the time to read the plaque…

3) …but don’t let the plaque hold you back from forming your own opinions. Guess what? You can disagree with the plaque! If the curator says that this work is a ‘depiction of heroism,’ and you don’t think so, or think it’s more complicated than that, trust your instincts. Many works of art do explore a ‘theme,’ but it might not be the one the plaque says it is, or you might notice a different one that’s more meaningful for you.

4) Bring what you know to the painting. Whether your expertise is history, math, people, or cooking, you have a wide range of experiences and skill sets that will affect how you view the work. Most people read the plaque, take that information and apply it to a new reading of the work, and then move on. Don’t be that person! Spend a bit more time with the artwork and try reading into it a bit yourself. Perhaps you think this artist did an amazing job with color. Perhaps you love the way the artist captured a particular emotion. Perhaps you notice perspective, or can compare the fashions of the time to the fashions of today. Find your ‘in.’

5) Look ‘deeper’ into the painting. Most people look at faces and action in a work of art, but often ignore the background or the small details. Experiment with looking at the background, the smaller details, the ‘fur on the dog’ so to speak. You might be surprised how much this helps you enjoy the work as a whole.

6) Take a picture. If you’re not allowed, buy the postcard. Find out more about that artist and his/her art, when you get home. You will appreciate the work on a whole other level. Now with the power of Google of course, you can even do research on a gallery bench.

7) Time to challenge your own preconceptions! Choose an artwork that you don’t like, and repeat steps 2-6. We’re not really wired to do this, but this is what art historians do all the time and one of the main reasons I ended up liking (instead of hating with a passion) Pre-Raphaelite art. Once I knew where the artists were coming from, I could appreciate the art a lot more. I’ll never love Pre-Raphaelite art, but learning and growing isn’t just about discovering what you love – it’s also finding reasons to tolerate or like what you thought you never could.

8) If you really don’t like a work of art, try and give reasons for not doing so. “I just don’t like it,” gets you nowhere. Art is obviously very subjective but…not that subjective. Reason-finding is another art historian trick, and is a great mental exercise that helps you in the process of discovering your likes and dislikes. Contrary to what you might think, being able to put into words how you feel and why you feel a certain way is an important step in learning how to appreciate art. Which brings me to…

9) Take a journal with you to the gallery in which to scribble your thoughts down. This will make the whole experience way more concrete and tangible for you, and is great for researching later (plus, you’ll look kind of cool).

10) Let yourself be moved if something moves you. It’s amazing how people sometimes turn away from a work of art right at the moment they begin to ‘feel’ something. Let yourself be with the feeling. Write about it. Dwell.

There you go- my top ten hacks for enjoying art more. I hope they help!