Beyond the Canvas: How Artists Can Better Appreciate Art


Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

I recall back in college the number of music majors who thought about their trade and only their trade.  Their conversations would only be about opera.  Their friends would only be music majors.  Their newsfeeds would only pertain to music.  I recall some of them not wanting to take a general education class unless there was a music major friend with them.  As peculiar as it may seem, for these individuals, their passion really is their life.

To an extent, I think that’s rather wonderful.  It’s difficult seeing someone struggle through life, not knowing what their gift is or how they can nurture it.  I’m happy for those who know what they’re passionate about.  But to extend to the other extreme, living in a bubble that only nurtures one facet of life is not only a shame, but rather contradictory for an artist.

As coined by Bennett Peji, form follows culture.  Art is formed and inspired by the culture the artist lives on.  (Feel free to read some examples on the related linked blog.)  That said, studying music is more than teaching oneself how to have proper intonation.  It’s more than listening to the classics and contemporaries.  It’s more than spending ungodly hours in the basement honing your craft.  While that’s all important, art has always been about expression.  Sometimes that expression is in response to something happening externally to us as a people.  If we neglect to open our doors to the rest of the world and study what’s happening socially, politically, and spiritually—both in the past and present—then how can we fully appreciate others’ art?  Or worse yet, if others follow the pattern of staying in an isolated bubble, who would care to understand our art a generation later?


Take this painting, “David with the Head of Goliath” (c. 1609),  by Michelangelo Mersi da Caravaggio.  At first sight, it looks like a grotesque painting about a story from the Bible.  If an artist were to merely conclude the obvious and compliment Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro, they would miss the point entirely.  This was one of Caravaggio’s last paintings.  Near the end of his life, he was accused of killing a man in a brawl, forcing him to flee from his home.  As penitence, Caravaggio created this painting to show his remorse to the Pope.  He conveys that by actually painting his face into Goliath—the antagonist of this legendary story.  Unfortunately, while his paintings were on the boat headed to the Pope, Caravaggio was mysteriously killed before the ship set sail.

This story is something you can’t get from the piece of art itself.  You might be able to receive bits, but without context of the whole story, the full meaning and expression Caravaggio intended in this painting is lost in history.

It is our job as artists to search past the beauties and pains that exist merely on the surface of art, and to dig deeper into the story of the artist’s expression.  To do that requires something uncomfortable to some: to exist outside the music building.  To live outside the art building.  To have friends past the literature department.  As much as some of us would rather work on our art and close the doors to the wars across the seas, broken Congress, and “non-artists,” these outside events and people are the key to grasping the deeper story.  They shape the very art we are trying to create.

About Jonathan Seligman

Jon is the Co-Founder and Executive Editor of NWYT. While his main profession is in education/music/history, he has a deep passion for philosophy, theology, ice cream, and everything else that life has to offer. See All of Jon's Posts

Share Your Thoughts