Art For Dummies

Art For Dummies



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780764551048
Publisher: Wiley
Publication date: 09/28/1999
Series: For Dummies Series
Pages: 408
Product dimensions: 7.40(w) x 9.26(h) x 0.89(d)

About the Author

Thomas Hoving is the former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the former editor of Connoisseur magazine, and the author of the New York Times bestseller, Making the Mummies Dance.

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Chapter One

What Is Art?

* * *

In This Chapter

• Defining art
• Recognizing different levels of art
• Realizing the constant in art
• Knowing good art

* * *

The definition of art has changed almost every day since the first artist created the first work at least fifty thousand years ago. In fact, the definition of art has to shift whenever an innovator appears. Definitions range across the full spectrum of humanity and are infinite in number. A classic sour one is that dreamed up by the Roman poet Horace: "He who knows a thousand works of art, knows a thousand frauds." Pretty and polite is that served up by the great 17th century French painter Nicholas Poussin, "The purpose of art is delectation."

Smug and proper is a Victorian definition, "Art is something made with form and beauty." A well-known contemporary assessment is, "Art is," which, oddly, although slightly bewildering, is probably closer to the mark than anything.

Toward a Definition of Art


The bottom line is that art can be almost anything. What is considered to be good art and bad art has also changed over the eons. I find it significant that with each change of definition, something considered non-art or bad art by a previous generation is suddenly acceptable. Because I am a medievalist (when every kind of art was as good as another and art was always part of daily life), I define all art —past, present, and future — in the broadest possible way. My definition is, "Art happens when anyone in the world takes any kind of material and fashions it into a deliberate statement."

All-encompassing? You bet. You'll say, but this definition includes popular art and crafts. Yes, it does. And why not? Folk art and especially crafts are as legitimate as so-called "high art" (and in 50 years or so may be thought of as far more legitimate than the somewhat off-putting contemporary "high art"). From the birth of modern art in 1907 (Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Picasso), art doesn't have to please as Poussin would have it or have beauty and form as the Victorians would insist. It can even be deliberately ugly and be profoundly satisfying. In fact, the only true enemy of art is taste. True art has no taste, good or bad. (Although it can be disgusting and tasteless.)

Think of it this way: does the explosive Last Judgment by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel have taste? (See Figure 1-1.) No. Or even the Sistine Chapel Ceiling itself? No, again. Is a penetrating late self-portrait by Rembrandt showing the artist as a bloated wreck in good taste? Of course not. Great works of art are beyond taste, fashion, and what's trendy.

Levels of art

Even if virtually anything can be art, there are levels of quality. I suppose a cute green clay frog or a sad circus clown painted on fuzzy black velvet can be a phenomenal work of art, but I doubt it. Yet, something created out of chopped up green-frog clay or the paint made by grinding up the tatters of paintings of oh-so-sad circus clowns can definitely be art and may even be great art, too.

The constant in art

The one constant thing about all art is that it is forever changing. There have been countless changes in the long history of art. The most significant have been brought about by the genius of a single artist. Some changes have come about through the invention of new media and new techniques — say, the birth of mosaic, manuscript illumination, oil paint, or perspective. Other changes have come about because a young artist threw aside all traditions and depicted his or her world in a fresh, different, and completely new way. Leonardo Da Vinci was one such revolutionary. So was Claude Monet. And Pablo Picasso, of course. (You can find all these artists described in this book.)

Each change was Initially looked upon with suspicion and skepticism as to its artistic worth, but in time, each was accepted. And the same will be true of all the "nutty" subjects, styles, and media that will show up in the future.

How to Recognize Good Art


How can you tell if a work of art is any good? That's simple.

* Does it express successfully what it's intending to express?

* Does it amaze you in a different way each time you look at it?

* Does it grow in stature?

* Does it continually mature?

* Does its visual impact of mysterious, pure power increase every day?

* Is it unforgettable?

If the answers are all Yes! then it's got a chance to be great. All great art will strongly affect the viewer in some way. Some great art is bothersome — for example, at times I find the paintings of the French Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne (described in Chapter 14) puzzlingly awkward, even inept, but I cannot keep my eyes off them nonetheless.

To appreciate a work of art, is it okay to like what you like (and the heck with the art critics or experts)? Absolutely. Even ceramic green frogs? Yes. But to a point. For if you learn how to appreciate true art (explained immediately below), it is a given that you'll probably begin by loving a fairly primitive and unsophisticated kind of art, and you will soon elevate your sights and in time look to new heights.


As you climb the stairs of quality, you'll meet individual works that you'll need for the rest of your life, works that will thrill you, energize you, lift your soul, soothe you, make you smile, make you think about the fate of mankind and the universe, make you have to see them again and again for the good of your psyche, state of mind, and strength of heart.

Chapter Two

How to Appreciate Art Without
an Advanced Degree

* * *

In This Chapter

• Becoming a connoisseur
• Knowing what is good
• Going beyond book learning
• Remaining a connoisseur

* * *

There have been many gifted and sharp-eyed curators (keepers and protectors) in the 129-year history of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art — hundreds of them, expert in fields as diverse as ancient Egypt, Arms and Armor, and Prints, Drawing, and Photographs. Line up the letters designating the advanced degrees held by the curators who worked at the Metropolitan over the years — those MAs, MFAs, and Ph.D.s — and they'd stretch from Maine to Oregon. Yet the single most accomplished curator in the history of the grand institution had no advanced degree and was self-taught in art history. He was for most of his life a stockbroker. His name was William Ivins, and he was responsible for establishing the all-encompassing Prints collection. He was perhaps the most legendary "eye" or connoisseur in the history of the Metropolitan.

The Key to Being a Connoisseur

What is an "eye"? Simply, someone who can instantly spot quality in art in all its subtle gradations. How did Bill Ivins become such a special "eye"? First, he had the urge to know about art, and second, he possessed an inborn talent for appreciating art, which he may not have recognized for some years. But he needed more than that. He recognized he'd never be able to appreciate art in the right way if he didn't get saturated.

The bottom line of connoisseurship and art appreciation is saturation — seeing it all. Ivins immersed himself in prints, tens of thousands of them of all kinds and levels of quality. Soon he was cataloging in his keen mind every unique quality — the strokes of genius and the glitches, too. If you examine every one of thousands of existing prints of Rembrandt van Rijn, those in great condition, the messed up ones, the genuine articles, the copies and fakes, in a shorter time than you think, you'll be able to recognize quality. Ivins did. Just by opening his eyes and looking.

Distinguishing the good from the bad

If you keenly examine every painting, sketch, or drawing by that grand Flemish master of the 17th century, Peter Paul Rubens — there are hundreds — you'll be able to distinguish yards away which one is real and which questionable. If you saturate yourself in absolutely everything Claude Monet ever painted, no matter if that painting is hanging in the Music d'Orsay in Paris, in the Getty in Los Angeles, or in the bedroom of some wealthy private collector on Park Avenue, you'll become an expert in Monet. After a total immersion, you'll be able to spot a top piece — or a phony — a hundred feet away.


You don't have to start at such heights. If you saturate yourself starting with those ceramic green frogs or clowns on black velvet, you'll soon gravitate to something better and better, and before you know it, you'll be blissfully soaking up Rembrandt prints, or Monet paintings, or drawings by Peter Paul Rubens. Gravitating upwards is the normal process — it's all but automatic with the passage of time.

Examining the real thing

Book learning and attending countless lectures by the best art professors and scholars may help sharpen your eye. But they won't equal a gradual and complete saturation. After I had secured my Ph.D. in art history and archaeology and joined the staff of the Met (on the lowest rung of the curatorial ladder), I found to my dismay I had to work hard to get over my enslavement to art theories that came hand in hand with the doctorate. I had to start looking at works of art in the flesh. No more black-and-white photographs. Or the printed word.

Early on in my career, I had the good fortune to work with a young German super-curator who came to New York for a year on a special fellowship and was assigned to my department, Medieval Art. After hours, together we opened every glass case in the galleries. Over the months, I took in my hands thousands of works — manuscripts, sculptures, bejeweled reliquaries, ivories, enamels, and silver and gold. Seeing these marvelous things very close to, from all angles, feeling their heft and weight, studying with a pocket magnifying glass and a spotlight the tiniest bumps and knocks of time, and figuring out the almost-secret way they were made was a revelation. In time, I devoured in the same way the works of virtually every department in the Met.

My German "teacher" guided me every step of the way and urged me to grill the works of art as though they were living human beings. Ask questions! Why is something this way, and something else that way? I remember him seizing a beautiful German Gothic medieval reliquary, a silver finger in the shape of an actual index finger set on three delicate feet, embellished with a splendid ring decorated with a huge emerald. Devour this! he urged. Peel it like an onion with your eyes! Interrogate it.

The piece had been given to the museum in the early 1930s by a wealthy industrialist who'd specialized in collecting medieval reliquaries. Finger reliquaries are the rarest of the rare — and ones embellished with emeralds were unique. This object was stunning and very costly, but it was not 13th century my "teacher" warned. It's a fraud. To find out, he demanded that I ask the reliquary some questions.

* Why can't the emerald ring be removed? That was a bad sign, for no genuine finger reliquary would ever be adorned, when it was made, with such a secular ornament. Rings were always added later in homage to the saint whose finger bone was preserved in the finger.

* Why were there three small silver hallmarks on one of the feet? The problem was that they were typical export marks only applied to gold, not silver, and during the 18th, not the 13th, century, in France, not Germany.

* Why was the black material making up the inscription (which happened to be unreadable, by the way) actually made of common tar (my "teacher" had easily picked out a tiny hunk and actually tasted it)? The material should be a hard jet-black enamel (called niello).

The problematical answers to the questions all summed up to the reliquary being a fake, made, no doubt, to trap the rich collector who had to pay dearly because, naturally, the emerald was real. In time, through saturation, I was able to conduct my own interrogations and find on my own whatever inconsistencies existed. I could never have learned how to do this by reading books or attending seminars. I became a connoisseur only by saturation, which allowed me to react at once to any work I spotted from then on. I could see at once how it stacked up in quality — good, better, or best. I could determine quickly if I should buy it or pass on it.

Keeping your eye in tune

It doesn't matter how you go about gorging yourself. To see originals is vital, but photographs can keep your eye constantly trained. One of the keenest great, late art dealers never went to sleep without poring through dozens of photographs of a wide variety of works. Keeping his eye in tune.

Saturation means not only examining all the originals of the artist or period. It also means a judicial reading of the scholarly literature and picking through specialist magazines. But the bottom line is looking, looking, and more looking. Looking will transform a totally untrained person with a keen mind and good vision (for it helps a lot to have great eyesight or polished glasses) into a superior art expert. And the beauty is that anyone can do it with a little obsession and a little time.


The bottom line is never pass up the opportunity to look hard at any work of art (even those frogs), and pass your fingers over its surface (if you're allowed), and ask a bunch of sharp questions. I never fail to do so, and I find that no matter what the art is, I invariably learn something revealing and profound.

Chapter Three

How to Visit a Museum the Way
the Pros Do

* * *

In This Chapter

• Getting a postcard
• Making a wish list
• Looking at what you don't like
• Becoming a museum member
• Avoiding guides
• Listening to same music

* * *

The best way to go is to be already a highly placed member of the curatorial staff of an American museum, especially one that happens to hand out large grants. Or be a museum director as I once was. Then you'll have no trouble getting around, even after hours!

Doing What the Pros Do

For those of you who are not professional curators or directors or don't have the good luck to be armed with the likes of Jackie Onassis (check out the sidebar, "It pays to go with a famous person — the likes of Jackie Onassis"), visit any museum you've never been to before the ways the pros do.

Get a postcard

Go first to the postcard shop. There's always one. Even in tiny, out-of-the-way museums in the outback of Turkey, there will be a postcard shop. And as you may expect, the pride of the museum's holdings will be sitting there ready for you to purchase. So in an instant, you can assess the strengths of the place without getting embroiled in what can be frustratingly uninformative conversations in Turkish or Korean or whatever. Virtually every museum in the world publishes a color postcard of the hottest material.

I buy what I want to see in the galleries — I always find several works that I had no idea were there. Postcards are cheaper and are a whole lot easier to lug around than three-pound guidebooks (which most museums don't have anyway and if they do are in Azerbajianian or something). I proceed to the entrance, flash the card of the painting I want to see, and the guard motions me to it. I never get lost, or feel trapped, or silly. When I lose my way, I simply flash another postcard at a guard deep in the bowels of the museum and get further directions quickly. I also obtain solid information, for invariably the description of the work is crisper on postcards than the labels or catalogs and is in English to boot.

Make a "wish list"

The pros do several other tricks that I'd recommend. If they go in pairs or a small group and tour the galleries alone, they write down the three items they'd steal — that is, the three best works in the entire collection. Almost always they select the same ones as their colleagues. It's amusing to compare notes. This happens virtually the same with people who aren't postgraduately trained, too.

Look at what you don't like

Another trick is to deliberately go to the galleries containing materials you just know you don't like. For me it's 18th-century porcelains, especially Sèvres. Know what? I usually find something that surprises me by its elegance and power, something often that's as good as anything the museum puts in their top 10 pieces. I also will ask the information desk what section of the museum is the least visited and take a look, for wonderful finds may come out of that, too.

Become a member of the museum

I have also become a member of the museum, even for a day's visit. Most European museums have a common membership for a number of museums in the same city — the government owns them all — and the benefits come right away. I have, on occasion, even asked the hotel concierge to call the curator of a department I want to see seeking an appointment and have always been pleasantly surprised at how hospitably I'm received (and in these cases, I didn't identify myself as a former director). I also haunt the information desks and courtesy booths in whatever museum has one.


I never hire a guide inside or outside the place, especially in Egypt or the Middle East, unless, of course, I feel in the need of a few belly laughs. What I have heard over the years from expert guides is a constant fountain of joy to dispel momentary downers.


It pays to go with a famous person —
the likes of Jackie Onassis

I recall fondly during my tenure as director of the Metropolitan those special entrees into storerooms that few outsiders had ever been allowed in. Once the soviets threw the visitors out when I arrived — nothing could change their minds. It's also handy to go with a famous professional.

In the Hermitage, one was never taken to storerooms. Once I had total run of the most secret one. The reason was that I had a secret weapon — in Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was editing the catalogue of the Russian costume show at the Met. Jackie kept badgering the soviet cultural nabobs to send just one item from the clothing of Czar Nicholas and his Czarina Alexandra. They refused. The explanation we got was that the killings of the Czar, his wife, and the children was Lenin's only sin, and to send a dress or a military costume would remind the world of that sin. Jackie shot back that she'd feel better if we could have for the show the marvelous winter sledding cape of Princess Elizabeth. Sorry, it had vanished. She insisted it was still around — she knew. No, it's disappeared. Jackie turned on the right pout. My Russian colleagues cringed, and I knew they had to do something big in exchange for the turn-downs.

A few days later in the Hermitage, we were taken by the Costumes curator and the Communist Party representative of the museum to "someplace where no one has been very often." When we got to a massive door in the middle of a gallery, he said to Jackie and me, "For security reasons, we beg you to close your eyes and we shall lead you."

We did. After a trip down a small flight of stairs and through another door, we were halted in a place, told to open our eyes, and there we were in Stygian blackness. Suddenly, an array of spotlights was illuminated, and there was a steel sled of wondrous Baroque design — as large as a Volkswagen Beetle — upholstered in beautiful green velvet with a luxurious green cape in silks and satins edged in ermine laying over its front seat.

It was Princess Elizabeth's sled. She had the habit of flooding the halls of the Hermitage during the winter and opening the windows so she could skate and sled. Our Russian colleagues told us that they had "found" the missing cape as well as the sled and assured us that we could have both for the costume show — and that they were far better than anything Nicholas or Alexandra ever owned.

I never listen to the recorded guide machines unless they are the ones designed to give you a mini-lecture within a short distance of the work of art you choose or those set up so that you can go where you want rather than being forced through the galleries the way the tape or CD demands.

Listen to some music

What many professionals do when they are solo is to bring along a portable CD or tape player and listen to classical music. From years of experience, here are a few of my choices.


Sound and light at Giza

To be very, very specific now, I find that the long, boring, but visually exciting sound and light at the Pyramid at Giza (forget the sound, for this is the one that starts off pompously with, "Man fears time, time fears the Pyramids") is energized by Richard Strauss' opera Aegyptische Helena, or Helen of Troy in Egypt (from any handy portable CD or tape player). For the sound and light at Karnack, I always go on Arabic night when the full mystery of the gigantic temple complex is enhanced by a marvelous voice intoning in this entrancing language, not a word of which I understand, but that's what makes it better.

* For the Golden Age of the 17th century, Ludwig von Beethoven — anything except the opera Fidelio, which gets in the way.

* For the 18th century, Mozart, naturally.

* For Impressionism, Saint-Saens.

* When poking through Italian Renaissance delights, I try Puccini and Verdi.

* Telemann is super for the academic artists of the 19th century.

* Albinoni is invigorating for classical art of all kinds.

* Bach, Chant, and anything by the genius Hildegard of Bingen (c. 1100) is perfect for medieval art.

Dress code

Be practical. In general, walking shoes are the best. Abroad, be sure that shorts as well as short sleeves are acceptable. At the entrance to St. Peter's in the Vatican, for example, "dress-code" watchers turn away people wearing shorts. Of course, at any Islamic site, be sure to wear discreet, respectful clothing.

A final plea

In conclusion, a plea and an exhortation: the best way to see any museum in the United States is to become a member of the institution first or a member of the American Association of Museums, for freebies, discounts at the gift shops, and for the warm feeling you'll get when you know you've become a lifelong supporter of a place that honors beauty, artistic excellence, and the truth.

Table of Contents



PART I: Appreciating Art.

Chapter 1: What Is Art?

Chapter 2: How to Appreciate Art Without an Advanced Degree.

Chapter 3: How to Visit a Museum the Way the Pros Do.

PART II: Art through the Ages.

Chapter 4: Prehistoric Art (More Sophisticated Than You Would Believe).

Chapter 5: The Ancient World: Still the Most Exciting.

Chapter 6: Medieval Art (Definitely Not the Dark Ages).

Chapter 7: The Renaissance and Revivals.

Chapter 8: The Northern European "Renaissance".

Chapter 9: Mannerism: Sensuality and the Bizarre.

Chapter 10: The Baroque: The True Golden Age.

Chapter 11: The Sparkling 18th Century.

Chapter 12: Neoclassicism and the Romantic Twinge.

Chapter 13: Impressionism (The Poetry of the Land and Mankind).

Chapter 14: Post-Impressionism (Or Better, Pre-Modern).

Chapter 15: Modern Art: The Bold, the Beautiful, and the Not-So-Beautiful.

Chapter 16: Contemporary Art and Its "ISMs" (Not Always So Nice, but Ever Exciting).

Chapter 17: A Look at Art Beyond the Western World.

PART III: Beginning Your Own Collection.

Chapter 18: Getting Ready to Collect.

Chapter 19: How to Play the Buying Game.

PART IV: The Part of Tens.

Chapter 20: The Greatest Works of Western Civilization.

Chapter 21: The Ten Most Interesting Artists (And Why).

Chapter 22: Ten Artists Worth Watching.

Chapter 23: How to Tell if Your Child Has Artistic Genius and Then What to Do.

PART V: Appendixes.

Appendix A: Artspeak Unmasked.

Appendix B: The Professional's Checklist on How to Buy Art.

Appendix C: Art Chronology.

The Essential Guide to the World's Top Art Cities and Centers.

The Awesome Americas.

Europe (All That's Worth a Detour).

Non-Western Destinations.



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Art For Dummies 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
And here I thought art was supposed to lead to transcendence, not frustration. Reading 'Art for Dummies' was an exciting experience but also so frustrating that on occasion I almost sent the book flying towards the wall. On the plus side: chronological layout, even-handed treatment of different periods and techniques, and Mr. Hoving's obvious and infectious love of art. Which leads us into the central irony of the book. Mr. Hoving describes many art works much better than we can see them. Nothing is so frustrating as to have him rhapsodize about an art work which is rendered in postage-stamp-sized black and white in the book, its salient features almost invisible, even under my Bausch & Lomb magnifying glass. This happened far more than it ought to (once would have been too much, of course). The book was limited in its use of color plates and the black-and-white reproductions tended to be small, small, small. The 'For Dummies' folks should have upped the retail price another ten bucks and put in some serious color plating or perhaps done a multi-volume work: 'Impressionism for Dummies,' 'Modern Art for Dummies,' you get the idea.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author wrote this book so he could brag about himself and put others down. My physical copy went in the trash for that is all it was worth. Fortunity there are many other books out there on the subject.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago