US & World

USC Prof Studies How People Talk About Art

The search for the right thing to say about a work of art at a gallery goes back centuries. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez spoke with a Southland scholar who researched the topic for an academic conference later this week. The professor has written a paper called "Art Appreciation for Renaissance Dummies."

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Social anxiety is alive and well in the present day United States, says University of Southern California English professor Bruce Smith.

Bruce Smith: When I was teaching at Georgetown, there used to be a course, for example, to train people for the diplomatic corps, that would tell them how to distinguish between a vase from the early Greek period, and a vase from the late Greek period. or the things that you were supposed to say about Mozart versus Beethoven at a diplomatic cocktail party.

Guzman-Lopez: Teaching the graces of the upper classes to people without a social pedigree began in 16th century Renaissance Europe. Mostly in England, newly rich men began to rub elbows with the upper crust of society.

Smith: Hence the need for books that tell you what you need to know, what you need to say, what you need to see, what you need to believe, and what you need to feel in order to rise in the world.

Guzman-Lopez: Frenchman Pierre Lebrun wrote one of the best-known of these "conduct books." Think of it as the 1635 equivalent of Esquire magazine. Gazing and talking about an oil-on-canvas landscape, Professor Smith says, could potentially win you favor with the ladies and noblemen. Lebrun listed 11 smart things to say about art. Many readers used those comments as crib sheets.

Smith: Here's my favorite one. "See how these springs rise on the tops of the mountains and how the pencil of the painter makes these brooks to flow as good as well as nature could do. They pursue their course full of small ripples, so agreeable to those little, lively little fish that swim between the waves. Look at the ducks gliding among the herbs and see how they dive, and raising heaps of little threads or hairline lines of water, but you had better move back lest they sprinkle or splash you." Not a comment that you would hear at LACMA.

Guzman-Lopez: Indeed, it's the opposite of the cool, calculated detachment in vogue these days.

Bruce Smith dissects the aesthetic puzzle of Lebrun's word choices. It's an uncommon approach, he says, given the state of academic politics.

Smith: What really has dominated English departments for the past 25 years has been politically inspired criticism that really starts from the standpoint of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race and uses that as the entry point into works of art.

Guzman-Lopez: Smith was one of the standard bearers of that revolution. He wrote the 1991 book "Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England." It's still in print. He insists that his talk at the annual Modern Language Association conference in Chicago this week doesn't make him a counterrevolutionary.

Smith: There is a movement of wanting to take the political lessons of the past 25 years, but not throwing the aesthetic baby out with the bathwater.

Guzman-Lopez: Smith finds today's students open to this synthesis of old and new. He believes it's a sign that his field of study, like language itself, is willing to change with the times.