How to Enjoy Art by Ben Street – 50 Years in 50 Books

How to Enjoy Art: A Guide for Everyone by Ben Street first came out in 2021, and has now been released in paperback. In this book, Ben Street provides the tools to understand and enjoy works of art. Debunking the pervasive idea that specialist knowledge is required to understand and appreciate art, How to Enjoy Art focuses on experience and pleasure, demonstrating how anyone can find value and enjoyment in art. Examples from around the world and throughout art history are used to demonstrate how a handful of core strategies and skills can help enhance the experience of viewing art works. With these skills, anyone can encounter any work of art – regardless of media, artist or period – and find some resonance with their own experiences. How to Enjoy Art encourages us to rediscover the fundamental pleasure in viewing art.

In this blogpost, part of our 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Ben reflects on what compelled him to write the book and the importance of viewing art with pleasure in mind – not just historical analysis.

Article by Ben Street

How to Enjoy Art is, in a way, the product of a long-held frustration about art books. What I felt was missing in these books, and what I hoped my book might be able to provide, was a sense of the live, present tense encounter with works of art, and how the uniqueness of that experience might be brought to our understanding of their meanings. What’s often said about the moment you first see, face-to-face, that painting you’d only ever known from an image in a book or on a screen is how unexpectedly small it is; or big; or dark, or bright. Sometimes those experiences are disheartening or disappointing ones. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, they’re unexpectedly enlightening, even thrilling. But I didn’t feel that the art books I’d read, even the ones I’ve always loved, really took account of those experiences. Something was missing. It was as though the reproduction on the page, the one hovering next to the text, was the artwork. As though the image on the screen, in the lecture theatre, or in the classroom, was somehow a sufficient substitute for the object itself. It seemed to me that there were whole levels of engagement – size, scale, colour, surface, even placement – that seemed at once absolutely central to any given art experience and strangely absent from the way we tend to write and think about it. My book, then, set out to write and think about it.

Berthe Morisot, Woman at her Toilette c1875

The challenge in writing How to Enjoy Art was in staying true to the present tense encounter with art. Once I’d decided that the book would entirely focus on how any given viewer, from any background or level of knowledge, might be able to get something from the encounter with an artwork, it followed that reams of art-historical information, artists’ biographies and lists of art movements would be pretty much superfluous. I wanted to treat these objects in the same way you might treat a piece of music you know nothing about: as immediate, sensory experiences that anyone willing to spend the time might find exciting, intriguing, compelling or even moving. We’ve all had that experience with music; art can do the same thing. And from the beginning of the process of researching and writing the book, I was determined to maintain a global focus, and to disregard chronologies of art history or hierarchies of material. I think the book largely achieves that. My intention throughout was to demonstrate, through the pacing of the writing itself, how one might activate one’s own sensory experience of the world in the face of an object you know nothing about. It helped that I chose some objects I knew nothing about. Ignorance can be a wonderful tool in enhancing our encounters with art.

I’m an art historian myself, and so am all too used to information-drenched prose – both reading it and writing it. But there’s a problem with the text-first approach to art, which is that it prioritises bodies of art-historical knowledge above the material, technical and conceptual knowledge of art making. Because artworks are by and large mute, they come to us swaddled in explicatory language, be that via the wall of a museum, a press release in a gallery, or a gesticulating enthusiast on TV. We can start to imagine that this is just the way it is – that artworks need to be coated in a thick sauce of words before we can begin to sample them. But we need to remember, and my book tries to encourage this, that the artwork always comes first, and the words used to describe it come later – often much later. What we sometimes take as natural – from an object’s title to its home in a museum – is usually artificial, like a polar bear in a zoo. In reversing the usual order of things (art first, art history later) I try to provide an entry point for anyone interested in giving their precious time to the art encounter. I’m a believer in what Marcel Duchamp (and Lawrence Sterne, and so many others) said about art: that all artworks are unfinished and can only be completed in the mind of an observer. That makes art a conversation rather than a lecture. It’s only in bringing your own experiences and memories to that conversation that it can become a fulfilling one. And fulfilment – enjoyment – is what any artwork might provide its viewers.

Rembrandt, The Three Trees, 1643

Why ‘enjoy’? I think we as art historians underestimate the pleasures art provides. These pleasures are complicated things, not easily discussed in the analytical language of academic art history. But the enjoyment art can supply can often seem elusive. It may be that we more readily turn to music or TV for that. The fact is that we no longer live in a culture, any of us, where fine art is the prime creative expression. Consequently, our abilities to access the joys it contains are not now what they perhaps once were. And yet in developing certain skills of looking – of honing or sharpening our attention – those pleasures can be ours again. How to Enjoy Art is a kind of toolkit for accessing the enjoyment of the art encounter through this sharpened attention. The rewards are very great, and they’re anyone’s to have.

Read a free extract from How to Enjoy Art:

About the author:

Ben Street is an art historian and writer. He has worked as an art history lecturer and educator at a wide variety of institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and Tate and The National Gallery, London. He is author of a number of books on art, for both children and adult audiences.

About the book:

How to Enjoy Art
A Guide for Everyone

Ben Street

An entertaining and lively guide to rediscovering the pleasure in art

Find out more

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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