I recently wrote a column after the death of Thomas Kinkade in which I talked briefly about the importance of understanding what makes art good.
A new book by Maxwell Anderson delves deeply and broadly into that topic, taking a step-by-step approach that demystifies a lot of perceptions we have about art appreciation.
Anderson lives in the rarefied top tier of museum professionals. He began his career as an assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has since directed five museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and currently the Dallas Museum of Art. He has also been on the front lines of introducing new media technology that makes art appreciation more accessible to the public. He's well positioned to pass judgment on art and does so almost every day of his life.
In The Quality Instinct, Anderson wants to help everyone become a confident judge. His well-reasoned explanations bear witness to his vast experience and rigorous scholarship without being arcane or overly intellectual.
He lists five criteria he uses when looking at art: "originality in its approach, crafted with technical skill, confident in its theme, coherent in its composition and memorable for the viewer," devoting a chapter to each.
While this book is written for amateurs, the author doesn't gloss over the commitment needed to become a better-informed appreciator of art. He threads personal experiences into the discussion and acknowledges that he came from a privileged, though not wealthy, background that prepared him early and subliminally for a life studying and assessing visual objects: His father was a distinguished professor at Columbia University, and his grandfather, after whom he is named, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. He received a doctorate from Harvard and trained under some of the best experts in the world.
But Anderson uses accessible, even charming, examples as starting points for improving your eye, a "baseline for future quality inquiries."
He suggest that you "open your kitchen cabinets and scan the products arrayed before you. . . . Separate four or five cans or boxes on the counter and study their various attributes. . . . Is a consistent story being told through the design or does it read like the clumsy work of a committee?"
His dissection of a hotel room in which "the furniture, carpet, drapery, fixtures, decor and appliances have an instant story to tell" is a classic. He even uses a Maserati to get you started.
"Draw from the discipline you have in any life pursuit (such as cooking or gardening)," he writes, "and liken it to your quest for a quality instinct. . . . Picking out the best artwork on the wall demands the same attention to learning the rules, putting them in practice and honing your skills."
Most enlightening for readers probably will be his discussion of art of our time, which often causes "resentment at what is imagined to be 'pulling the wool' over the eyes of onlookers." Among the many examples of quality in modern and contemporary art are the paintings of Mark Rothko, especially the monochromatic ones that have elicited the tired and cliched responses claiming that anyone could do them. Using Anderson's five-point assessment, skeptics can begin to understand why they're important.
Anderson stresses throughout the book that the more high-quality art you see, the better your eye will become in determining the bad from the good and the good from the great. And that once we train our eyes, we will prefer the best.
As for collecting art, he said in a recent telephone interview that appreciating the best and buying what we can afford "are parallel tracks. You should buy what gives you pleasure. But you don't always need to own things to receive that pleasure."
In an ideal world, we all would have the time and money to visit the great art temples of the world repeatedly and acquire what Anderson calls "aesthetic muscle memory."
Few have the resources to make frequent visits to big international cities where so much art is concentrated. I can go only occasionally so don't meet Anderson's baseline. Still, in seeing plenty of good art just in our region, I have found that his premise bears out. My opinions and tastes have changed and grown over the years from taking close, long and hard looks, making comparisons and applying certain standards to what I see.
As Anderson asserts, appreciating art requires passion and commitment. It is neither casual nor easy. Nothing done well is.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.