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Mares: Just Looking

The late John Updike was a literary polymath who wrote novels, short stories, poetry - even children’s books. Over the holidays, I read his book about painting. In JUST LOOKING, Updike, a self-described "well-informed dabbler" takes the reader through various museums - his favorite being Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Albert Camus once defined an intellectual as: "someone whose mind watches itself" and it fits here. As we contemplate great paintings, Updike becomes our best and smartest friend. He wants to help us put on a new thinking cap and SEE . He uses big words and complex sentences with joy and accuracy, reminding the reader of Mark Twain's observation that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like that between lightning and the lightning bug. In return, the reader too must work a bit; Updike isn’t just tweeting his insights.

My favorite essay in the book is called “Writers and Artists” - both of whom have an "itch to make marks on white paper." Some doubly talented individuals - like Updike himself - included such luminaries as Pushkin, Kipling, Poe, Edward Lear, O. Henry, T.S. Eliot, and James Thurber.

Updike writes that the process of dipping into physical reality starts early. "The child discovers that a few dots and a curved line will do for a face, which smiles back at him. Something has been generated from nothing." He describes his own excitement, at the "glistening quick precision, the possibility of smudging, the tremor and swoop that impart life to the lines.”

My only quibble is that Updike doesn’t include any reference to Chinese calligraphy, arguably one of the greatest intellectual endeavors which combines artistic expression with verbal meaning. Coincidentally, the New York Times had a recent article about how visiting art museums can make us smarter. In Arkansas , students were selected by lottery to visit a museum. Researchers found these students later demonstrated stronger critical thinking skills, higher levels of social tolerance, greater historical empathy and a taste for more cultural institutions.
In my own modest teaching of art appreciation within a course on Western Civilization, I discovered that students preferred to be active, not passive observers. They found it easier to engage with single slides of works of art, than with video treatments – which they apparently found boring.
I also borrowed a four-step method for teaching how to just look from Burlington art teacher Maggie Conant that involved pieces of sculpture, some abstract, some representative. First, students had to describe what they thought the object was. Then they had to describe what it was made of and how it had been made. Third, they could speculate on what they thought the artist meant to say with the sculpture. Only then, could they decide whether they liked it or not, and why. Thus, three steps of objective analysis preceded the concluding emotional preference.
Such deferred judgment is definitely critical thinking, and, I believe, can be used profitably in many more activities than just art!

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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