On the merits of art scholarship

Giovanni Bellini's Ecstasy of St Francis (The Frick Collection)

My conducting students at the Jacobs School of Music sometimes manifest (with varying degrees of unease) their ambivalence towards music scholarship. It is not always clear to them that more knowledge about the context, technique, structure and rhetoric of a composition will enhance their interpretation in the real time of performance.

You may surmise I believe it does, but the process is not necessarily direct. On the contrary, how an artist processes information and experience is akin to a mysterious alchemical process, notwithstanding recent scientific examinations of the creative process. The fascinating article below by James Elkins, a Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, gives us a glimpse of the twists and turns of the relationship between scholarship, creativity, and the pleasures of art observation.

Intriguingly, he makes the reader love the work. I quote a fragment for you. For the full article, please visit the link below, and do not miss the comments!

This month I am going to write about the painting that means the most to me, Giovanni Bellini’s Ecstasy of St. Francis in the Frick Collection in Manhattan. By a stroke of luck it is included in the Google Art Project, so I can reproduce it in detail.

When I was young–maybe from the age of ten or twelve–I was entranced by this painting. I used to love it (I was sort of obsessed by it), but now it is largely ruined for me, and the reason is that I have read too much about it. My own profession of art history has poisoned the painting for me, and there is no way to get back to it.

I put the blame for this squarely at the feet of my own field, art history. My attraction to this painting was undoubtedly one of the reasons I eventually went on to study art history, and in particular Renaissance art. But as I read more about Bellini, and about the painting, I lost track of what I had felt before.

Read more: The Most Beautiful Painting in the World (Huffington Post)


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