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How Art Can Make You Happy

Updated: Nov 10, 2018

Grace Topete joined the 2018 Scholars in Santa Fe to lead a workshop on art

The Icebergs by Fredrick Edwin Church

I remember the first time I saw Fredrick Edwin Church’s The Icebergs at the DMA. I remember the vividness of that frozen expanse, the deafening silence of the world it imagines, and the intense, engulfing peace in the face of tragedy the painting presents. Church created an experience that still calls to me every time I step foot in the Museum.

Mrs. McDermott, an avid collector, loved her ‘pictures’. New classes of Scholars will never have the delight of knowing her in person, so it is incumbent on us, the alumni, to make sure that they know why art was so important to her (and to all of us). It was with this mission in mind that I led a workshop for the 2018s in Santa Fe using How Art Can Make You Happy, a phenomenal guide by Bridget Watson Payne (Many thanks to our Alumni Association for sponsoring the workshop by purchasing a copy of the book for each 2018 Scholar).

This short little book is a beginner’s guide to the art world, including how to recognize major names and styles, how to find your way around an art museum, how to figure out what you like, and even how to dress to look like you belong at a gallery opening. It can be an intimidating experience to be thrust into sudden membership in the art world (as we all were as freshmen Scholars), but it doesn’t take much to set someone on the path to art-induced joy. During my time with the ’18s, we talked about how art speaks to us about ourselves, about others, and about the world. We explored some of the themes they might encounter in art in Santa Fe, from the sacredness of nature to colonialism in the Southwest.

‘Good art’ creates intellectual and emotional reactions in its viewers, and the Scholars examined the way that notable works made them feel – the chaotic anxiety of Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, the dream-like peace of Monet’s Woman with a Parasol Facing Left, the drama and viscerality of Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath. The ’18s and I talked about how the kind of happiness art offers isn’t just a positive mood – it’s a richness of the inner life that can only come from submerging yourself in other peoples’ perspectives. In fact, enjoyment of art and appreciation of art might actually be two completely different things. Good art may dig up uncomfortable feelings of sadness, or anxiety, or anger, but it forces us into conversations with ideas that we might never have the chance to encounter in our everyday experience.

At the same time, it’s okay to have preferences – everyone has an artist they adore and artists they hate (sorry, Rothko) and it’s more important to figure out what makes you happy than to pretend to like all the “right ones”. Perhaps the most important things we learned together were how to look at art. The average gallery-goer looks at a single work for less than 7 seconds before moving on to the next one. Seven seconds! Not enough time to look at a work for sure. As with relationships or a good book, we need to give ourselves time to let great works of art seep into the corners of our souls, ask questions that words can’t quite grasp, and let us live for a few moments in somebody else’s mind.

We need to give ourselves time to decide whether it moves us, whether we enjoy it, and whether art can make us happy.

-- Grace Topete (’14)


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