Art appreciation

Masterpiece Theatre: A Tale of Dueling Children’s Art Books

A second new art book spanning the centuries, “What adults don’t know about art”, is aimed at a more mature readership (8 to 12 years old). Curiously, it bears no trace of the identity of an author, as if to suggest that it was composed by a pool of experts pursuing an ideal of objectivity. Indeed, the book is the work of the School of Life, a London-based educational society founded and chaired by Alain de Botton, the famous essayist and self-proclaimed philosopher. It creates the expectation that “What Adults Don’t Know About Art” will contain at least some interesting insights.

But the content is surprisingly childish and self-aggrandizing. The book immediately announces that its anonymous author has something to tell us which promises to be revealing, and which has long eluded grown-ups. No other book than this, we are told, can unravel “The Big Question Nobody Answers (So Far),” to borrow a chapter title.

And what is this ostensibly essential knowledge?

The thesis of the book argues that the Masterpieces of the World are the high-end equivalent of the posters and photographs with which children decorate their rooms. “The works of art are really just particular posters that other people have wanted to put in their rooms,” the author asserts without irony. “And your bedroom is really a private version of a gallery.” In a typically twisted analysis, Anthony Van Dyck’s radiant canvas ‘Charles I with M. de Saint-Antoine’, in which the King of England is depicted on horseback, green draperies billowing behind him, is described thus: This painting was a poster for the king’s bedroom.

What? A poster is decidedly not a painting, and most children are able to understand the difference between them.

Instead of clarifying the language of art, this book carelessly obscures it and argues, in a tone reminiscent of the aristocrats of the ancien regime, that the appreciation of art is rooted in the primitive satisfactions of property. and private delight.

Another shortcoming is that the book seems to be aimed at privileged children and fails to acknowledge that very few children are lucky enough to fall asleep every night in a bedroom full of attractive objects.

The ability to see and look deeply is a learned skill, and this book does little to encourage it. In truth, a masterpiece is the opposite of the posters and photographs that adorn the walls of a child’s room. A lasting work of art has the power to speak to people who may have nothing in common and who together speak a hundred different languages. And when we stand before a Vermeer or a Goya at the Met or the Louvre or the Prado, we are charged with knowing that we are adding our gaze to the collective sum of curious gazes that have searched the same surface over time.