Joshua F. Drake explains why teaching art appreciation is not the same as teaching art.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Ask anyone involved in classical education about the importance of the arts and you will likely meet enthusiasm of a sort usually reserved for pep rallies. But then ask the same person which direction Vermeer’s Geographer is facing, whether or not we can see the face of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, to hum the subject of any of Bach’s fugues, or whether Mozart’s Figaro is a baritone or a tenor, and you’ll be left with silence. Almost everyone loves “the arts.” It’s actual art and music that freezes them up. We do not meet the same disparity in literature. Ask the same person to tell you who is dead at the end of Hamlet, and you’ll be met with mostly correct answers. There is a good reason to explain why educated people like both literature in general and actual books, but like only “the arts” and not actual art or music. At some point in his life, the educated person has been taught a Shakespeare play. It is unlikely that he has ever been taught, in the same sense of the word, any work of art or music. And this too can be explained.

Part of the reason stems from what C. S. Lewis would describe as too much Parthenon and not enough Optative. The opening of his essay is so clear that I repeat some of it here:

…I have tended to use the Parthenon and the Optative as the symbols of two types of education. The one begins with hard, dry things like grammar, and dates, and prosody; and it has at least the chance of ending in a real appreciation which is equally hard and firm though not equally dry. The other begins in ‘Appreciation’ and ends in gush. When the first fails it has, at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like. He may decide that he doesn’t care for knowledge; but he knows he doesn’t care for it, and he knows he hasn’t got it. But the other fails most disastrously when it most succeeds. It teaches a man to feel vaguely cultured while he remains in fact a dunce.

Unlike the study of classical literature, the study (as opposed to practice) of art and music was introduced to the litany of higher education at around the very time when the Parthenon was at its height and the Optative at its nadir— that is, in the mid-20th century. For three generations now, educated Americans have been subjected to a course that whirls them through the breadth of Western art and music. For students to succeed in this course, they learned to voice enthusiasm for the subject. In the process, they may even have become convinced of the value of “the arts” without learning much art or music. We all remember such courses.

Usually the content of these courses was filled up with history proper—that is, the life and times of the artists and musicians. Biographical and historical details would be affixed to particular works, but it was the biographical and historical details students were made to learn, not really the works themselves. A conviction about this deficiency coordinated with improved technology, and some teachers began testing students on the actual music by playing the first twenty seconds of a piece and expecting them to identify it, to which challenge students rose by learning the first twenty seconds of a dozen pieces of music. In art, the slide projector started showing up on test days as well as the other class days. But was this learning art and music? It mattered little, because even this approach was exceptional in “gen. ed.” classes. By in large one could generate biographical and historic facts, along with a properly articulated enthusiasm for the subject, and appreciation had been taught. But appreciation cannot be taught. It comes almost unbidden, when a malleable soul encounters greatness in a sustained way. If appreciation is to come,
it will only do so because the student has been put into unavoidable contact with greatness. If he can avoid contact with that greatness, by focusing on anything other than the art or music, his human nature will encourage him to do so. And just such an opportunity was given to practically every lettered person in America today through an appreciation class that focused on now the biographies of the artists, now the sociological conditions that produced their art.

Things were easier in literature in that a longstanding model was in place, predating even the days when English literature was something one could study formally. When tested on Virgil, one was given a set of quotations from the Aeneid (in Latin, of course) and asked to give the context of the passages, with explanation where necessary. Whether or not you liked those passages in the correct way was, for the examiner’s purposes, irrelevant. Whether you knew what Virgil was wearing, or what Augustus thought of the poem was likewise irrelevant. One needed a lot of the Optative, but very little Parthenon. Those who answered correctly had read the book carefully and knew Latin. Those who could not did not. On that model, even to this day, a teacher of Shakespeare will set a series of questions which will have the students demonstrate that they know the works in the traditional old-fashioned sense. His lectures may point out to those students the great things in the plays, but he will test them to make sure that they know the plays themselves.

Things in the arts were not so fortunate. With the dubious background he gained from his appreciation class at college, the high school teacher charged with teaching art or music as part of the rhetoric stage may feel ill-equipped at best and, at worst, may fall back on the model given him. The results will invariably be a group of students who, like their teachers, are enthusiastic about the arts but with little solid knowledge of any art or music. The easiest way to break this cycle is to teach music and art like we teach Virgil and Shakespeare.

But can art and music be taught in the same way as Virgil or Shakespeare? Most people are under the impression that art and music speak to us in some mystical way so that, I suppose, “the arts” are presumed to work like an opiate—magically to effect in us some emotional response. But art and music are explicable in some of the same ways as a poem or a play. They speak, not in English, but in the language of design (if Psalm 19 is to be understood, so do the stars). When they effect an emotional response, they do so in the same way as a sentence does: by presenting truth to us, to which we respond emotionally. Art and music have parts which relate to one another. Those relationships are interesting and set up expectations in us which are fulfilled or satisfactorily unfulfilled. Shape relates to shape. Tune relates to tune, color relates to color, key relates to key. And the combined whole of a work articulates its meaning—often a meaning not directly translatable into English—to the viewer. A teacher of art or music can teach those works in much the same way as the teacher of English can his play, by pointing out the ways by which the work speaks, expecting students to remember those things, and then testing them in ways that insure the students have learned the works.

Students in the rhetoric stage are more capable of this than we give them credit. If they can process Herodotus and Livy, they can process Botticelli and Haydn. And just as many classical schoolteachers who hadn’t learned Herodotus or Livy until they were assigned them for class nevertheless teach them with success, so too can classical schoolteachers have success with art and music regardless of background. All they need to do is look and listen.

For instance, a class on Botticelli’s Pallas and the Centaur, might begin by explaining the allegorical nature of the painting—of wisdom bridling lust. And this is where many appreciation classes would stop. But had Botticelli cared only to say “wisdom bridles lust” he could have given us a sentence instead of a painting. He wishes to say more, however. One way he does so is by contrasting the figures of the centaur and Pallas. The centaur is nude. His torso is athletic and idealized, but it intersects vividly with the horse body to make the creature’s bestial nature all the more apparent. His curling horsehair is even echoed in his beard and chestnut locks. The animal nature is not just in the centaur’s body but in his head as well. And his face bears the exaggerated grief, through a furrowed and contracted brow, that comes to a man who cannot control himself. By contrast, Pallas is rendered like a classical statue. She has as neutral an expression as one could imagine. She is not only clothed, but clothed in a highly ornate garment decorated with a device that shows three intertwined rings—surely suggestive of numeric perfection. She stands on an elevated plane from the centaur. Her background is an idyllic landscape while his is a rocky cliff face. Even their weapons articulate the difference between wisdom and lust. The centaur’s bow—aptly recurved—is contrasted by Pallas’s halberd, the shaft of which is arrow strait and cuts through the foreground closest to the viewer. Indeed, it nearly threatens us through its dominant position. And perhaps this is part of Botticelli’s point, that we too must master lust with wisdom.

To insure students learned this work, one would need to make sure that they could recognize its parts and know how they related to one another visually. One could present students with the following details: And then have the student place them within the following chart (top right): A student who can place those details in that chart knows the image tolerably well.

Notice that the classroom discussion will prepare the student for this kind of questioning, even as it models for him appreciation of the solid sort. Many of the details excerpted above are ones mentioned in the analysis. A student who has paid attention during the analysis will be more likely to remember the image itself. The same process can be applied to teaching music.
A class on Viennese classicism might rightly focus on one of the symphonies of Joseph Haydn. Each movement could be taught in turn, but here I will use as an example the last movement of Haydn’s so-called “Surprise” symphony (Symphony no. 94). This movement takes the form of a rondo. The rondo form involves a reprise: a short, self-contained bit of music that returns periodically. Only, you have no real idea when it is going to come back. It is the musical equivalent of peek-a-boo. Haydn thinks this uncertainty a very funny thing and uses it against his listeners almost to the point of absurdity.

The reprise is the first thing Haydn gives us, in bars 1-38 (the first thirty seconds or so of any recording of the piece). This reprise, like most, has two halves, with the first half repeated and then reformed to round off the second half. No sooner than we finish the reprise, we are launched into a rather disorienting section of fragmentary snatches of the reprise melody. We mill about for a while until, after a pause (in bar 74 or a little over a minute in) we get a new melody that is firmly in a new key. Now, one might demonstrate the similarities between this new melody and the reprise, and one could with some efforts show this similarity to students of all ages, but the point is that we are not hearing the reprise and we’ve lost our home key. Where have they gone? Haydn evidently wonders too. So, with comically poor tact, he plops us back into the home key by means of lumbering chords (in bars 95-103, note that they are just elongated versions of the staccato notes in the reprise itself). Once there, we fall back into the reprise as if to ignore what had been going on for the past thirty seconds. “Never mind all that,” we think, “so long as we have our reprise and home key.” Only we are given merely the first half of the reprise, which spits us back out, so to speak, into more of the sort of music we were given at our first point of departure. Again a flirtatious gesture (at bar 141, or around two minutes in) prepares us for another reprise, which again turns out to be only the first half. So much for a “bit of music that returns periodically.” Yet, we haven’t much longer to wait before it makes its final—and actual—return. In bar 181 (or around two and a half minutes in) it appears in its entirety. But whatever happened to that second theme which we first met in a key opposed to the home key? Peek-a-boo. It appears just as the reprise finishes (in bar 210 or about 2’ 50’’ in most recordings). Only now it returns in the home key instead of the new key in which it first appeared. In this gesture Haydn evokes the best of the sonata allegro form—the most prevalent musical form of his day and the form of the first movement of this symphony.

Were one to test on the symphony, one could play students excerpts from each movement and then ask them to identify excerpts by movement as well as place each within the movement’s form. An easy question for this last movement would involve playing an excerpt and then asking students whether or not they were hearing the reprise, and if so, whether the reprise appears in part or in whole. Alternatively one could play an excerpt involving that second theme (at bars 74 and 210) and then ask them to identify it too. Students who could do this can be said, in a meaningful sense, to know the piece. That they will find it funny, one may hope and pray. But we can be sure that they will not likely find it in any way at all if we do not show it to them.