A Dilettante’s Guide to Art

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

Screenhunter_03_aug_22_1152The amazing thing about 1001 Paintings is thus the breeziness of it all. It is a dilettante’s book. Its intended reader is surely someone like the woman pictured on the cover, standing with her back to us, wearing a tasteful black dress and expensive, though not gaudy, earrings. She went to Brown, I think, where she studied English literature and wrote a thesis on Wordsworth. She still loves reading Keats when she gets the chance but her career in financial services and her role as board member for several non-profits prevents her from dedicating as much time to art and literature as she would like.

Yet, mock her as we might, our woman in black from Brown is right, because the dilettantes are always right, because paintings are for looking at, and because every claim about what painting “should be” gets shriveled and old and academic even before the canvas does. The dilettante doesn’t care much about what painting “should be,” only about what it is and has been. And the thing that keeps this standpoint from being utterly trivial is the hint of melancholy in it. The dilettante is interested in all things equally because in the long eye of time all things are equally transient. Looking can become delightful again from that perspective, but it is tinged with the mark of death. The dilettante acknowledges this mark, and then goes about the business of living.

Thus the title, 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. Acknowledge death, move on. The answer that the book thus gives to the question “What is Painting?” is simple and clear. The answer is “Who cares?” More pertinent to this book is the question “What’s the next painting I should see?” I want to stress again that this is a remarkable question and, I think, an inherently good one. It is a question that completely ignores the “What Is?” style of inquiry and gets right to the looking. And that is a bold and liberating thing to do.

More here.