The Joy of Learning About Art From Your Couch


After a marvellous lunch with a friend yesterday, I hopped in my car and, as usual, sang along to whatever was on the radio on my way home. This, unfortunately, quickly revealed that a verrry sore throat was a-brewin’. By the time I got home, I was in full groaning-out-loud, complaining-to-the-dog misery, and so (after a brief stop off at the medicine cabinet) straight to the couch I went.

I had downed a coffee at the tail end of lunch, so despite the handful of meds I had just taken, I was wide awake. Rather than nap, I snuggled in to watch a movie. I’m not much for high drama in such a situation, I don’t much like action movies, and I positively could not stomach comedy crap in addition to feeling crappy…

Thankfully, I remembered that earlier this week I was reading about this year’s big art documentary, The Price of Everything. In it, director Nathaniel Kahn explores the vices and virtues (okay, mostly vices… or, perhaps the more accurate word is follies) of the ultra-high-priced art market. It’s from HBO, so I popped it up on demand, and away I went on Kahn’s journey through the upper echelons of wheeling and dealing modern art.

I’ll let you watch it for yourself, but here’s my review: holy crap so good. Even if you know nothing about art, it’s a fascinating examination of what it means for something to be “valuable.” If you’re into investing, pricing, or sales – or if you hate all those things! – it really is must-see.

What I really enjoyed about the film, personally, was the opportunity to learn more about modern art. That’s not at all the point of the doc, but I absolutely loved the chance to think things like, “oh RIGHT, I forgot about that Maurizio Cattelan sculpture of Hitler!” And, “ohhhh right, LARRY POONS!!!” If you don’t know much about visual arts post 1960, I highly recommend you check out the movie, if only to be able to tell the difference between a de Kooning and a Rauschenberg (or to understand what the heck people’s problem is with Jeff Koons).

I had a similarly delightful viewing experience when I recently discovered the marvellous BBC series Fake or Fortune (I know, I know… I live under a rock). One season of the show just hit Netflix (hence my late discovery), and I binged it. Hard. I mean, who wouldn’t love a show that’s half CSI and half art history (and 100% real!). Again, while I love the parts of the show that are about the people and the hunt to pin down the pieces’ provenance, my FAVOURITE parts are about the artists and the works themselves.

Usually, when we think about enjoying visual arts, we think about going to the museum. But that’s not the only way! When I was a kid, my graphic designer mom always had cool coffee table books, including several filled with art. She also had all her art school textbooks in her home office, and I adored pouring through their pages, running my fingers over the images and wondering what the surface of the paintings must look like up close. I learned all the names of the great masters. I knew the difference between impressionism and expressionism without a course or teacher. I figured out what I liked and what I didn’t. Most importantly, I learned to look – to stare deep into the painting and get lost in it. To see what feelings came from it. To let my mind wander and make associations and query what the artist might have intended to convey.

In arts advocacy, we spend so much time talking about patronage – going out and supporting your local museums, theatre companies, symphony orchestras, etc. But it is just as important, I believe, to encourage people to take every opportunity to interact with art. To watch it on TV (in the rare moments it appears on PBS), to buy beautiful books filled with it, to click through any of the magnificent online databases just for fun. It’s SO rewarding to consume art like you consume other media, and it’s a wonderful icebreaker into the world of the fine arts if you’re just getting started. Is it as good as the real thing? Hell no. Never will be. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome in its own way.

So – go check out a movie about art. Or ballet. Or theatre. Click through some awesome stuff on Artsy or Google Arts & Culture. I can say from experience that it makes a couple hours on the couch that otherwise would have been lost to oblivion into something really valuable.