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April 22, 2014

Picasso what?

Art appreciation need not be based in raw emotion.

As can be expected from somebody who goes to a school with the catchphrase “Life of the Mind,” I try really damn hard to be an intellectual. I do my readings, I write thoughtful papers, I listen to classical music, and I take my Omega-3 pills. Sometimes I even have dreams about the content of my political science classes. They range from vivid (Japanese people crying to me because they don’t have lots of weapons of mass destruction) to extremely vivid (Professor Mearsheimer repeatedly yelling at me about how much faster the U.S. got to Khuzestan than the USSR). Other times I’ll call my parents to debate with them something I recently learned (I still can’t speak up in discussion sections, though). But, for some unknown reason, one specific pillar of intellect has never been erected for me: art appreciation.

I should clarify: when I say “art,” I mean visual art. I mean paintings of landscapes, and portraits, sculptures, pottery, whatever. I mean Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” every single Degas painting of a dancer, and the tortured works of van Gogh. This kind of art is considered breathtaking—an unreal physical representation of the genius and talent that, somehow, was contained in a single human. Its depiction and color and undertones are heartbreakingly moving—it simultaneously makes the soul ache and sing. I know all of this, but only because I know it’s what I’m supposed to know.

I don’t actually feel any of that. I’ve been to countless museums, seen countless works of art, and spent countless hours trying so, so damn hard to get it. I am ashamed to admit that I have stood before “The Starry Night” and felt nothing. I am more ashamed to admit that I have stood before “Ugolino and His Sons,” and, despite understanding the meaning of the sculpture, felt no panging of the heart, no singing of the soul.

It seems, then, that I have equated appreciation with being moved. Given a Hemingway passage, I will assume the fetal position and rock back and forth at the beauty of his simplicity. All Salinger short stories leave me feeling heavy and empty. Even the Harry Potter books have me marveling at their creativity. Any Debussy song will make me cry; “La Plus Que Lente” will rip me apart. T. S. Eliot makes me collapse, watching dance builds me back up. More movies than I can count have left me with a fuller heart.

Unless I feel as though I have taken something away from a work of art, I don’t believe that I truly understand or appreciate it. I have made myself believe that there is a specific standard that I must reach in order to be an art-appreciating intellectual. Because the most I’ve ever felt for visual art has been a simple note on its impressiveness, because I have never cried while looking at a painting, I have let myself believe that understanding art is a crumbling pillar that will never be restored in my Pantheon of UChicago Intellect—and that, because of this, I will never really be a part of the Life of the Mind. This kind of mindset has convinced me that if I can’t feel the things for art that others can, I must be less thoughtful and intelligent. If I can’t appreciate art the way that everyone else seems to, I must be missing something.

But perhaps this is not the case. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is OK to not be reduced to tears at every portrait of a sad man, just as it is okay to not be enthralled by every lecture of every class. It does not make me any less intellectual to not have been moved by “The Starry Night”; in fact, the idea that such a subjective measure is the basis for appreciation seems to be contrary to intellect. It is unreasonable to establish that one appreciates art only if she is made to cry or scream or laugh, as it is unreasonable to assume that one really understood a thinker’s argument only if she was pushed to an extreme emotion by the words.

Perhaps what should really constitute “appreciation” is simply just appreciation—a note of how much work a choreographer, painter, musician, or director put into the artwork, how nice it is to look at, how funny or sad it could be. Perhaps the mere agreement that something is, indeed, impressive is enough. Perhaps I can embody the Life of the Mind without having to be inspired by everything I see. It’s reassuring that, actually, I don’t have to try so damn hard to be an intellectual.

Jenny Lee is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.

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