The Power of Observation: From Art to Literature to Life

One of the great joys of the present school year has been the addition of an art appreciation class, taught by art enthusiast and VanDamme Academy teacher Luc Travers. Mr. Travers’ unique approach to analyzing a work of art has transformed my esthetic life, enhancing my enjoyment of art, of literature, and of life in general.

Among Mr. Travers’ principles for deeply grasping and relishing a work of art is the idea of “shuttling”—of moving back and forth cognitively from abstract conclusions about what is observed (e.g., strength, bravery, intelligence) to detailed perceptual observations that yield the abstractions (e.g., sinewy muscles, an erect stance, a furrowed brow) and back to a more refined abstract understanding. Since learning and practicing this technique, I have had the experience of standing before a sculpture that was initially unintelligible and valueless to me, and then going through the process of observing, integrating, observing, reintegrating—and having emerge before me an image that I understood and loved.

VanDamme Academy students have honed this skill of “shuttling,” moving from precise observations, to abstract generalizations, to observations, to still more precise abstractions about Michelangelo’s David, MacMonnies’ Nathan Hale, and Gerard’s Belisarius, among others.

In the junior high literature class, I am presently teaching the thrilling and beautiful adventure novel The Scarlet Pimpernel. Inspired by Mr. Travers’ analysis of art, I showed students how to practice this same skill in the analysis of a literary character. I helped them to observe subtleties of characterization—how a character moves, what he wears, the expression on his face, the tone of his voice—and to extrapolate from these details a generalized understanding of the character. Finely narrowing your focus, looking carefully at the precise details of characterization, is often very illuminating of the distinctive nature of a particular character.

The subject of our discussion on this particular day was Marguerite Blakeney, the beautiful socialite, the “cleverest woman in Europe,” the passionate lover of life. We discussed a scene at the opera, where four very distinct characters were present: the Prince of Wales, who moved from box to box, heedless of the music; Chauvelin, who was attentive to the music, but more sharply and maliciously focused on the audience; Suzanne de Tournay, who finds that her schoolgirl crush is absent and thereafter listens to the performance apathetically; and finally, Marguerite herself, who is “enraptured” by the music, and watches as the very “joy of life” radiates on her face. The Prince of Wales—a politician; Chauvelin—a man bent on evil designs; Suzanne—a shallow schoolgirl; and Marguerite—an impassioned lover of life.

We grasp the basic nature of the characters through their most significant words and actions, but it is the subtle details, the fine aspects of their life and expression and movement, that give us a full and animated understanding of their souls.

I then discussed how this skill gained in art appreciation and in the analysis of literary characters would benefit them in their own lives. The value was clear: this same “shuttling,” this same attentive process of observing, of generalizing, of making further detailed observations, and of refining their conclusions, would aid them in their analysis of actual souls. It would help them both in the practical skill of analyzing people critically and the invaluable skill of noticing their virtues gratefully.

This single literature class highlights the value of a VanDamme Academy education: the acquisition of a crucially valuable cognitive skill, the integration of that skill across disciplines, and the direct application of that skill to a fulfilled life.

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