Why Learn About Art?

Ananda CoomaraswamyAnanda K. Coomaraswamy, former curator and Fellow for Research at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston wrote an essay entitled Why Exhibit Works of Art? Throughout my art history and teaching career, this essay has been pivotal in developing my own philosophy of art. His ideas go against much of what passes as art education particularly in k-12 schools. In the next few blogs I’d like to acquaint you with my philosophy by examining a bit of Coomaraswamy’s.

At the beginning of his essay he begins to answer his question:

“The educational ends that an exhibition can serve demand, accordingly, the services not of a Curator only, who prepares the exhibition, but of a Docent who explains the original patron’s needs and the original artists’ methods; for it is because of what these patrons and artists were that the works before us are what they are. If the exhibition is to be anything more than a show of curiosities and an entertaining spectacle it will not suffice to be satisfied with our own reactions to the objects; to know why they are what they are we must know the men that made them. It will not be ‘educational’ to interpret such objects by our likes or dislikes, or to assume that these men thought of art in our fashion, or that they had aesthetic motives, or were ‘expressing themselves.’ We must examine their theory of art, first of all in order to understand the things that they made by art, and secondly in order to ask whether their view of art, if it is found to differ from ours, may not have been a truer one.”

By “truer” I do not think that he means we should subjugate our ideas about art to other ethnic ideas simply because they are different or more exotic than our own. As he explains later in the essay he uses the word “true” in the same way that Plato did. In other words we may find in examining other cultures in other eras some truths that align better with cosmic or metaphysical truths than our own. This of course demands that we be familiar enough with the search for truth that we would recognize it when we see it.

But if we desire to teach our children “culture,” if we desire to grow in our children the desire for philosophical truths as a lab technician would grow a culture in a dish, then we must teach them art by studying the philosophical beliefs of the civilization that made it, not by simply exploring our own emotional responses to it.

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