Last post, I went on a bit of a rant about why I think the canon (the most well-known works of each of the fine arts) is still absolutely essential and incredibly valuable. If you missed it, my rationale is that, (1) the works are still masterpieces – paragons of human creation – and the fact that they emerged from Patriarchal settings does not negate this; and, (2) because to understand not only these works but also the now emerging works of marginalized groups from earlier times as well as all the incredible art being made by a broadly diverse group of people today, we must understand creative lineage: we need to know who and what artists have studied and been influenced by.
So with that being said, today I want to talk about a bit of a funny topic, and I’ll start with perhaps a controversial sentence that will reveal how unfancy I really am:
I love me a novelty apron with the statue of David on it.
It’s true. I love a mug with Van Gogh’s sunflowers. I love a tote bag with the Mona Lisa. I don’t care what you think – when I visit a really great museum, I freakin’ love the part where you end up in the gift shop. So sue me.
Sometimes people get the idea that, to love art and truly be “a person who appreciates art,” one must rise above the classics. “Starry Night? Laaaame-o. Girl with a Pearl Earring? What am I, a teenage girl? I am a REAL art lover.”
The most famous pieces of visual art ever created are such for a reason: they’re amazing. Sure – like many of the greatest songs of all time, they’ve been overplayed. Perhaps if you see The Birth of Venus (aka, Venus in the clamshell) one more time, you’re going to barf. I get it – I feel that way about The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” and that is a certified jam! But hear me out on why you shouldn’t write off the classics of visual art, and why you should lean into a little kitschy appreciation now and then.
1. Classics are Classics for a Reason
They’re Classics cuz they’re great, duh. If you’re just starting your journey to becoming a fine arts fanatic, don’t you want to start with stuff you know is amazing? Yes, you can wade through art history and see what you like and what you don’t – I totally endorse that approach as well. But why not take the path of least resistance?
2. Classics Give Context
If you want to build your fine arts knowledge over time, you need a skeleton frame to hang your increasing understanding on. You need some road markers, some posts along the winding road of history to say “oh of course – he was a student of Rembrandt, and I know who that is because I love his (extremely famous) painting, the Night Watch, so I get that his student would be starting from his style and moving forward.” The classics help us go, “boy, is it ever a big evolution from Botticelli (Renaissance master painter) to Jackson Pollock (the paint splatter guy from the 20th century).”
3. Classics Build Confidence
I believe one of the reasons the Classics of every art form should be taught in school is to build young people’s confidence about the arts. If you leave school knowing even a tiny bit about the ten most celebrated artists of all time, you can go into any major museum in the world and recognize the most important works in their collection. You can answer a crossword clue. You can understand a meme or a joke or a pun about the artist. And, you feel less afraid of art in general because you don’t think you aren’t smart enough for it – hell, you know the 10 most important creators of that genre and even a few of their works, so you’re off to a hell of a start.
So make one of Monet’s Water Lilies your desktop. Order a cheap poster of Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night for your bedroom. Celebrate the paintings you recognize and learn who they’re by. Let the haters hate, and embrace the classics.