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‘I Want to Open People’s Eyes’: Tips From an Art Historian

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Pace University professor Janetta Rebold Benton ’67 wrote the book—literally—on how to understand art

By Beth Saulnier

AAP grad Janetta Rebold Benton ’67 has spent decades teaching art history, both to university students and to visitors at such venues as the Smithsonian, the Met in NYC, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

A portrait of Janetta Rebold Benton
Benton, who holds a doctorate in art history from Brown, has lectured around the world. (Photo provided)

Last fall, the London-based publisher Thames & Hudson released How to Understand Art, in which Benton covers the fundamentals of the visual arts—with a focus on painting and sculpture from Western Europe and North America, but with examples from around the globe—and offers insights into how to think critically about artworks.

Boasting some 100 images, the guide has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, Latvian, and Chinese. “My intent was to enhance, elevate, and expand people's ability to understand art, no matter their background or initial level of interest,” Benton says. “I want to open people's eyes.”

A specialist in the medieval period, the BFA alum is a distinguished professor of art history at Pace University; she has also taught in France and (as a Fulbright Scholar) in Russia and China. Her tenth book, The History of Western Art, comes out in fall 2022.

One of the questions you ponder is “what is art?” So, what is it?

There's no universally accepted definition, but I love Andy Warhol’s: “Art is what you can get away with.” It's personal and individual. The expression “I don't know much about art—but I know what I like” is very valid.

"The Bedroom" painting by van Gogh
The Bedroom by Vincent van Gogh, painted in Arles, France, in fall 1888. (Photo provided)

To approach the question a different way: what does a work need to do to be considered art?

One idea is that it should have a degree of beauty and aesthetic appeal. It should give you pleasure, make you feel good. As Matisse said: “Art should be like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue.”

Another idea is that it should produce an emotional response in the viewer. For example, Donatello’s sculpture of Mary Magdalene depicts her after fasting in the desert—she's an emaciated, desiccated, old woman. She is not pretty by any modern standards, but she evokes emotion. Even if you know nothing about the religious subject, it's so moving, you can’t look away.

The statue "Penitent Magdalene" by Donatello
A detail of Donatello's Penitent Magdalene, a wooden sculpture carved in the 1450s. (Photo provided)

If the title of the book is “How to Understand Art,” how do we begin that process?

Be as open minded as possible; just doing that is a major accomplishment. Try to look at works without any preconceived notions about what you might like.

But aren’t certain kinds of art an acquired taste?

Without a doubt, some things are easier than others. Impressionism is one of the most popular styles of all time; it’s easy to identify with, the colors are light and bright, the events are pleasant.

In Renoir’s paintings, the men are handsome, the women are pretty, and the weather is almost always good. It's the idea of art as an escape. Abstract, non-representational, non-figurative art—that's a little tougher to identify with.

Can you give an example of when you’ve changed your mind about a work or artist?

I'm a medievalist, and I used to think that the work of [abstract expressionist painter] Jackson Pollock did not qualify as art in the usual sense. Then I visited his home and looked at many of his paintings. After learning about him as a person, I have come to maybe not love Pollock, but at least to appreciate what he did.

The renoir painting "two sisters"
Appealing Impressionist works like Renoir's 1881 oil painting Two Sisters (On the Terrace) satisfy Matisse's dictum that art should be like "a good armchair." (Photo provided)

Is art—like beauty—truly in the eye of the beholder? What if we’re talking about a “velvet Elvis” painting, or a print of dogs playing poker?

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It's a different form of art, but that doesn't rule it out. If it gives you pleasure and you want to hang it on your wall, I see nothing wrong with it. It's a matter of personal taste.

Your book offers a primer on art’s building blocks—the use of color, line, texture, etc. How does knowing those fundamentals enhance art appreciation?

I think it’s crucial, because you need to know what can be done. What are the possibilities? What does the artist have to work with? A point I make in the book is that every artist has those same tools, those basic elements—though they’re not obligated to use all of them.

the cover of "how to understand art"

Does knowing about an artist’s life enrich understanding of their work?

Absolutely, and I would like to see even greater emphasis on this. How do you feel about Vincent van Gogh's paintings if you’ve never read his writings or heard his life story, which is so gripping? If you don't know about his [psychological] condition, you don't understand them—that brushwork, the emotion, his choice of colors. If you ignore the artist, you're shortchanging yourself.

To fully comprehend a work of art, do you have to revisit it over time?

I do think it improves understanding to see something with fresh eyes—like when I write something, if I put it aside and come back to it a few days later, it's almost like getting an outside reader.

An excellent way of evaluating a work of art is whether you want to come back to it—or are you done with it the first time you glance at it? If it's at some level intriguing, I think that gives it high marks.

In the book, you recall overhearing a boy in a fine arts museum asking his father if they were in church. Do museums tend to have that sort of—as you describe it—“holier-than-thou” atmosphere?

They do. I hate to say this, but many museums are pompous. They are pretentious, and intentionally so.

If you ignore the artist, you're shortchanging yourself.

How can you assure the museum-going public that they shouldn't be intimidated?

If you learn something about the artists, you realize these are real people. Art doesn't just pop into view—it doesn’t just appear in someone's fabulous collection, get sold at Christie's or Sotheby's, or materialize on the walls of a museum. There are people behind these things, with real stories.

A painting of dogs playing poker
Is it art? Perhaps that's up to you. (Photo provided)

What artist do you love most—or in your line of work, are you not allowed to play favorites?

My all-time favorite is Leonardo da Vinci, because his work is so diverse and because he amalgamated science and art. If I could meet one artist, that's who it would be. I’d love to get to know him.

Lastly: if you could abscond with one work from any museum without fear of prosecution, what would it be?

My first answer would be the Mona Lisa, for her fame and because I want to be able to look at her, contemplate her expression, and try to figure out what she was thinking. But no—what I really want is Leonardo's Last Supper for my dining room.

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University.

Published April 5, 2022


  1. John Winters, Class of 1964

    Art is objective. It is not subjective. The artist creates a work of art that comes into existence separate from the existence of the artist. That is, you do not need to know the background of the artist. The work of art alone communicates symbols of emotion for you to observe through your senses, but your subjective senses in no way add to the objective essence of the work of art.

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