I have recently come back from a life-changing trip to Rome and Florence. I've travelled a lot, but it was my first time in Italy. The journey only further solidified my suspicion that all my past lives took place in the mediterranean. I made the trip as a double whammy of art history learning expedition, and birthday celebration. I'm a happy introvert and love being alone, so this was mostly a solo trip.
I've never had any official art education outside of my school days, so I have found I increasingly want to learn and understand as much art history as possible. I very much enjoy learning about other artists, from any era. I think it helps me to understand my place as an artist myself. I like to understand the context of things as well as what people intended with their work; where the work came from. For years I have read the biographies and watched the documentaries of some of our most well-known Western artists.
But it's only been in the last six months that I learnt what terms like Etruscan, Classic, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo and Romantic meant. It is only in the last six months that I really learnt who Michelangelo was, and why we all know his name. It was only in this time that I learnt why his David sculpture is famous.
Seeing the David in real life for the first time was an interesting experience. I was struck by how non-human he looked. Not like Michelangelo's Christs in their various pietàs. I was also struck by the impressive size. But that was about it. I didn't get any feeling of passion for this work. I don't find it beautiful. It didn't aesthetically please me. It's not something I'd have in my home and it's not a sculpture I would make repeated visits to. And up until quite recently, I would have kept those thoughts to myself. I would have thought them ignorant, invalid.
Some months before my trip to Italy, I wanted to know why I knew about the existence of this sculpture. Why did I know about this, and about van Gogh, and about the Mona Lisa, etc? Why are these artists and their works ubiquitous in our cultural landscape? Why are they so beloved? Why am I supposed to appreciate them?
Maybe there is a contrarian part to my nature, but I find myself resenting the assumed implication that I must appreciate a masterpiece purely because that's what people say it is. I find it very difficult to appreciate a work of art unless it (a) simply aesthetically appeals to me or (b) I understand something of the purpose behind the work + the context in which it has been made.
To me, the Mona Lisa seems to be a nicely executed Renaissance portrait of a woman, with some interesting-for-the-time techniques, and that's about it. It's only on some cursory Wikipedia investigation that we find one of the main reasons for its fame: it was stolen by an Italian patriot a century ago. Another reason is, of course, her 'enigmatic smile'. I don't see this, I see the resting face of a woman. Personally, I think the Mona Lisa is perfect example of one of the phenomenona of art; it is often the viewer's reaction that makes it. The myth and hyperbole that has grown up around this portrait (and many other masterpieces of which we're all vaguely culturally aware) are what sustains it. I don't have to love it, or the David, or the Sunflowers. And neither do you.
Unless whatever masterpiece simply appeals to you, I'm not sure it's possible to appreciate without knowing as much of its purpose and context as possible. And whatever your initial thoughts are on seeing a so-called masterpiece, those thoughts are entirely reasonable.