The Story of Art

When I was in college, I spent the summer at the Yale Center for British Art in London. I had a wonderful experience exploring the Art and Architecture of England. While I was there, I learned about the book The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich. 

Gombrich, begins with the line, “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.” Before reading it, I’d assumed that Art was an obscure mystical entity that only an oracle could understand. But that’s not what art is really about. Gombrich writes, “Art with a capital A has come to be something of a bogey and a fetish.”

These words empowered me, not just as a member of the audience but as a writer. I’d thought that there was a “one true art” that emerged from nature. But even the most emblematic art pieces weren’t Art when they were painted. Monet and the impressionists were ridiculed as impetuous and lacking detail. Before Claude Lorraine, the “picturesque” rolling landscapes and Roman ruins he created weren’t seen as scenes worth painting. The same goes for Jan van Goyen’s Dutch windmills.

Art isn’t about perfection. The greatest masters often moved away from the perfect to create better art. Leonardo gives the Mona Lisa her ambiguous smile through a technique he created called sfumato leaving the mouth and eyes unfinished. And Rembrandt infuriated critics when he stopped painting “when the painting had achieved its purpose” as he did with the portrait of Jan Six.

Art is never perfect. The Story of Art is about leaning into these imperfections and realizing that critics on the sidelines (including those in my own head) are rarely comfortable with the new and the different. As I sit down to write, The Story of Art helps free me of the shackles of perfection, let’s me try something new, and allows me to express myself and make art.

Here are some of my favorite parts.

Art is for everyone. Teens deserve to appreciate art as much as the most art educated snobs.

In planning and writing it I thought first and foremost of readers in their teens who had just discovered the world of art for themselves. But I have never believed that books for young people should differ from books for adults except for the fact that they must reckon with the most exacting class of critics, critics who are quick to detect and resent any trace of pretentious jargon or bogus sentiment. I know from experience that these are the vices which may render people suspicious of all writings on art for the rest of their lives. I have striven sincerely to avoid these pitfalls and to use plain language even at the risk of sounding casual or unprofessional. Difficulties of thought, on the other hand, I have not avoided, and so I hope that no reader will attribute my decision to get along with a minimum of the art historian’s conventional terms to any desire on my part of ‘talking down’ to him. For is it not rather those who misuse ‘scientific’ language, not to enlighten but to impress the reader, who are ‘talking down’ to us—from the clouds.

Art is about appreciation. You should try hard to find pleasure in art wherever you can. Gombrich says that there’s no bad reason for liking art; however, there are bad reasons for disliking art. When I think about it now, I’ve realized that trying to appreciate the goodness in thngs is a very worthwhile endeavor.

There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists. Once these were men who took colored earth and roughed out the forms of a bison on the wall of a cave; today they buy their paints, and design posters for the Underground; they did many things in between. There is no harm in calling all these activities art as long as we keep in mind that such a word may mean very different things in different times and places, and as long as we realize that Art with a capital A has no existence. For Art with a capital A has come to be something of a bogey and a fetish. You may crush an artist by telling him that what he has just done may be quite good in its own way, only it is not ‘Art’. And you may confound anyone enjoying a picture by declaring that what he liked in it was not the Art but something different. Actually I do not think that there are any wrong reasons for liking a statue or a picture. Someone may like a landscape painting because it reminds him of home, or a portrait because it reminds him of a friend. There is nothing wrong with that. All of us, when we see a painting, are bound to be reminded of a hundred-and-one things which influence our likes and dislikes. As long as these memories help us to enjoy what we see, we need not worry. It is only when some irrelevant memory-makes us prejudiced, when we instinctively turn away from a magnificent picture of an alpine scene because we dislike climbing, that we should search our mind for the reason of the aversion which spoils a pleasure we might otherwise have had. There are wrong reasons for disliking a work of art.