Art History For Dummies
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Appreciating art is as easy as making a trip to your local museum where you can compare notes and make your own judgment about whether a work is any good or not. Art pieces recognized as great works today were produced by the up-and-coming artists of yesteryear, so it pays to keep an eye on today’s future classics.

Woman looking at paintings © Kevin Laminto /

How to visit an art museum

Even if you’re not a professional curator or art director, you can visit an art museum the ways the pros do. Just use the tips in the following list:

  • Get a postcard: Postcards are cheaper and are a whole lot easier to lug around than three-pound guide books. When you lose your way, simply flash a postcard of the art you’re looking for at a guard and get directions quickly.

  • Make a wish list: If you go in a small group, write down the three items you’d like to steal — that is, the three best works in the entire collection. It’s amusing to compare notes.

  • Look at what you don’t like: Go to the galleries containing materials you just know you don’t like. Also find out what section of the museum is the least visited and take a look. Wonderful finds may come out of that.

  • Become a member of the museum: Become a member of the museum even for a day’s visit: 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.

  • Listen to some music: Bring along a smart phone or mp3 player and some headphones so you can listen to classical music.

The greatest art works of Western civilization

Any compilation of the greatest art is sure to be subjective. But the works in the following list are the ones that made the cut for Thomas Hoving, former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and author of Art For Dummies. He looked upon these works as friends and found something new and inspirational in each every time he looked at them.

King Tut’s Golden Mask The Isenheim Altarpiece by Grünewald
The Sculptures of the Parthenon El Greco’s Burial of Count Orgaz
The Scythian Gold Pectoral Velázquez’s Las Meninas
Nicholas of Verdun’s Enameled Altar Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son
Giotto’s Arena Chapel Goya’s The Third of May, 1808
The Ghent Altarpiece by van Eyck Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party
da Vinci’s Mona Lisa Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Michelangelo’s David

Tips for appreciating and evaluating art

Art is for enjoyment, fun, and lifting your spirits. Looking at art should be a pleasurable, immediate experience. You can read about art, but looking at it is the only way to truly appreciate it. To enlarge your appreciation, follow these tips:

  • Look at ten works of art each day and your life will change for the better.

  • Art is not utilitarian.

  • Forget about art as an investment. Maybe in 50 years the prices of your works will be higher than when you bought them, but probably not.

  • Collect living artists. That way you’ll never buy a fake. You’ll also gain great satisfaction in knowing you’re supporting a cause not usually known for its economic well-being.

  • Every work of art, except for those finished yesterday, has changed from its original appearance.

  • A reproduction is always a pale reflection of the original.

  • Be sure to watch what kind of art your children are creating. One — or more — could have that super touch.

To judge whether a work of art is any good, ask the following questions about it to see how many can be answered yes:

  • 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?

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Jesse Bryant Wilder is the founder, publisher, and editor of NEXUS, a series of interdisciplinary textbooks used in high schools around the country. He has written several textbooks on art and art history and was an art critic for The Plain Dealer and

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