Art: Fun for your Brain

I just returned from the beautiful city of Portland, Oregon, where I gave a presentation at the Mensa Annual Gathering entitled, Help Me, I’m Gifted!

As part of the presentation, I hoped to offer participants the opportunity to look at what might be considered serious art without all the trappings of art historical accuracy, museum settings, or the impending threat of a quiz.

The first painting I showed was by Pablo Picasso, a Spanish painter who produced this particular work in Paris in 1903. I provided a minimal amount of background information, similar in amount and style to what you see if you visit a museum and read the card accompanying a work of art: called The Old Guitarist in the United States, and on exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute, this painting is also commonly referred to as The Man with the Blue Guitar.

The Mensa audience quickly suspected the guitarist was blind. Why? Look at his eyes. They are closed tightly, in a sort of way that gives the impression of being permanent. And surely enough, Picasso originally called this painting Le Vieux Guitariste Aveugle. I don’t know why we dropped the word blind when we started calling it The Old Guitarist in English.

Participants in the Mensa group noticed one aspect of the painting after another: the tattered clothing, the odd position, the elongated limbs, the utter sadness portrayed, and — the fact that the only thing in the painting that is not painted blue is the guitar itself.

So why do people call this painting The Man with the Blue Guitar, I asked?

Because of the musical sounds that guitar would make. Because the whole feeling of the painting is so sad. Because Picasso was blue when he painted it. Because I’m blue looking at it.

They had fun with it. They didn’t behave as if there were a right answer, or a correct interpretation. Blue Period, Schmeriod. No one was judging.

The fact is that in the past, the only people who’ve pointed out to me that the guitar is not blue were children, who are generally better at pointing out the Emperor’s New Clothes than overeducated adults tend to be.

I showed another painting, a city scape by Giorgio de Chirico.

This painting evoked such good humored response that when the group felt finished with it, they asked me to show the third painting, which I had stated I’d leave out in the interest of time.

So I showed it at the end.



It was Banquet Still Life, an oil by Abraham van Beyeren, 1653-55. It hangs in the permanent collection of the Seattle Art Museum. Painted during the peak of Holland’s Golden Age, it shows the remains of some sort of a feast.

In a word: Pronk. This is a great Afrikaans word that means showing off.

The Mensa group had fun with this one, too. What is the curtain in the background? The artist is saying: Look what I can do! All the fancy surfaces and textures! The silver pot seems particularly well articulated. What is that stuff in the bowl in front of it?

The final slide was the capper: a close up of that silver pot. It shows a reflection of the artist himself. Pronk, indeed!

Have fun with art.

It teases your brain if you look at it freshly, barring any actual knowledge you may have about the painting, the content, the historical period, or the artist. Just let your mind wander. You will see things you’ve never seen before. And you know what? That’s perfectly wonderful.

We are taught to take art so seriously. The problem with that kind of thinking is that it creates haves and have nots, leaving out everyone who doesn’t study art history. It can make you feel as if you don’t have the right to an opinion or an impression, as in I don’t know anything about art. I’m here to tell you you don’t have to know anything about art in order to have an opinion, and to have fun with it. Even if you are encyclopedically informed, feel free to let your mind roam once in a while. Why hold back?

Do you honestly think the artist was thinking Serious Art and Art Criticism and This is My Ultra-Realistic Period when he pronked everyone by painting his own portrait into a commissioned work?

And who’s to say Picasso had enough money to buy other colors during his Blue Period? He was a poor artist. Maybe all he could afford was blue paint!

Posted in books & entertainment, Counseling in Challenging Times, other topics, Our Blog Circle.

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8 Responses

  1. Titirangi Storyteller Titirangi Storyteller says

    Great thoughts there. I’m finally ‘allowing’ myself to become, to be an artist now. I always have been in one way or another, but safe, practical ways – home decorating, costume making, cake making, sewing, short story writing, crafts of all sorts – just never really let myself run wild till now.
    The amazing thing is that all that creativity is as strong and vibrant as ever – and the most important ingredient is to have fun with it – laugh at it, play with it and make it without caring what other people will think…
    Do you ever present in New Zealand? Love to see you if you do…

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    • Seawriter Seawriter says

      Titirangi, it sounds as if you’ve hit an expansive phase of granting yourself permission. Kudos! Maybe some day I’ll come to New Zealand for a presentation. It certainly seems like a good idea to me! All the best, Sarah

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  2. DeborahLSJ DeborahLSJ says

    At a Picture-Book Worksop for illustrators, the speaker went through the book, “Where the Wild Things Are” doing the same thing with each picture…  I read tis to my children thousands of times, but never picked up on half of it… never thought to do that with children’s illustrations in picture books. At this point, the book means so much more to me than it ever did.  And I am going back into other picture books as well

    1 like

    • Seawriter Seawriter says

      Deborah, what fun it must have been to go through Where the Wild Things Are! Yes, I agree that children’s books are worth revisiting in this way. We lock ourselves into ‘adult minds’ and then we’re stuck being adults all the time, when we could be having great fun just looking at the world around us, including art. Best, Sarah

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      • DeborahLSJ DeborahLSJ says

        His name was Dr Dominic Catalano, and he referred to it as visual literacy, and that we should be doing this with our children from a very early age while reading picture books with them. Of course the problem is that most parents are not visually literate themselves!

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  3. Debi Drecksler Debi Drecksler says

    I think what you point out applies to life in general. I believe that we often dig too deep when the answers are right under our nose. I think children have the ability to see things the way they really are. They haven’t been programmed (yet) to analyze every little detail and rely more on their senses to assess a situation. 

    Great post!

    1 like

    • Seawriter Seawriter says

      Debi, I completely agree with you about the application of child’s eye to life in general. It’s the best possible antidote to boredom! Best, Sarah

      0 like

  4. watermusic watermusic says

    Have fun with it is really good advice for any creative act. I’m putting off doing some vocal warms and practicing my fiddle because while I sing well, I don’t play the fiddle nearly so well. Maybe if I have fun with it that’s all that matters. Thanks.

    FTR:I teach with a wonderful art teacher who manages to have children express the style of the art she teaches and have fun with it. At Christmas each grade makes a stocking done in a particular style. What amazes me is that every child is convinced they are an artists because she believes that.

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