“Mikala will be so jealous,” my daughter Maya says as she Snapchats a photo to her friend.
We’re on our fifth day visiting New York City. By the enthusiasm exhibited by my 15-year-old, you’d think we’re in front of a famous site – the Statue of Liberty, perhaps, or the Empire State Building. Or that she just snagged a photo with a celebrity and that’s why her friends back in British Columbia, Canada, will bubble with envy.
But no, the photo isn’t of her and a superstar – at least not flesh and blood. And while we are in a world-recognized locale, that’s not the focus. My daughter and I are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Maya has just sent off a photo of herself, beaming with excitement, beside a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh.
While I’m delighted for her and proud of her cultural eagerness, I’m also intrigued. Why would a teen and her friends care about century-old art?
Classroom concepts come to life
When I think teen, I think smartphones and YouTube. I rarely think of oil paintings in gilt frames – apart from school field trips or the occasional family outing. But when I ask my daughter why she loves Van Gogh in particular, all I get is a shrug and an unwillingness to analyze her motives: “It will feel too much like schoolwork.”
Yet that link to school may actually be one of the reasons. Darcy-Tell Morales is the associate educator of teen programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, commonly known as the Met. She says, “I’ve personally heard teens say things like, ‘Wow! It’s so cool to see something in person that I learned about in art history!’” Seeing the art face to face, “provides context in a way that seeing a picture of it in a book or online does not.”
After all, kids in our society often grow up with these works. In elementary school, they may recreate Claude Monet’s water lilies in tissue paper or reproduce Van Gogh’s "The Starry Night" in plasticine. The importance of this art is embedded in them, so it’s no wonder an up-close encounter will produce a sense of awe.
An encounter with fame
Even if a teen doesn’t have a tissue-paper history with an influential work of art, he or she is mostly likely familiar with it anyways. Once upon a time, one would have to visit a museum or be invited to a private collection to see paintings like these. Now they’re readily available online.
The more we see something, the more we like it, at least according to a 60s study. (And the more we like it, the more we see it.) Take Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which didn’t become famous until it was stolen in 1911 and the story of its theft was disseminated around the world. Or Van Gogh, who was just starting to gain recognition when he died – and then shot up in popularity when his sister-in-law published the letters he wrote to his brother, which illuminated his difficult life. According to the website of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, “Van Gogh’s fascinating life story is one of the reasons why his work gradually took the whole world by storm.”
The art, of course, has to be of a certain quality for its popularity to endure, according to a 2013 study. But assuming it hits an acceptable degree of craftsmanship, a Van Gogh painting of sunflowers or a coy Mona Lisa will remain famous – and fame is always thrilling to be around.
Learning from the best
But why do we care about fame? It comes down to how we learn. As a social species, we traditionally learn from others. This means we’ve evolved to pay attention to those who have made noticeable achievements. While these days celebrities’ claims to fame may be fleeting and superficial, artistic masters have skills we want to emulate.
For teens with a keen interest in art, being able to see what they can’t see in a photograph – actual size, true color, individual brushstrokes, a lumpy texture – is a reason to get excited. It’s also a reason behind the demand for art museums’ teen-focused programs.
“We are happy to welcome a lot of teens in our museum,” says Sarah Broekhoven, education curator at the Van Gogh Museum. “Most of them come in school groups or with their families.” Like many museums, this one offers guided tours and special activities for school groups. Others go even further: the Met, for example, offers Teens Take the Met! nights, a blog with teen-written posts, a teen internship program, teen-only workshops, and more.
A rebel with a brush
Teens also connect with the rebellious stories behind these works and their artists. While it seems strange to consider these now-iconic paintings as radical, they often were.
At Canada’s Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Patricia Boyer is the educational programs officer for schools and families, and helps host tens of thousands of high school students each year. “Teens often find the art pretty intense,” she says. “We will talk about the courage that these artists had, how they were kind of rebels in a way, in their society – even Monet, whose paintings seem very pretty and easy to like.”
What was radical about Monet and his cohorts? First their style, which was loose and quick compared to the hyper-realist artists who were the rage at the time. Also their content, which shifted from stiff indoor portraitures and still lives to outdoor impressions of everyday people and places. Even the size of their paintings changed – instead of being huge works fit for castles and churches, they were often made smaller to fit in normal homes. These weren’t paintings for the rich. They were paintings for the average person.
“This was shocking at the time,” Boyer says. Teens identify with this urge to push against the norm. “They understand that sometimes we have to stick to our ideals, even if it’s not the easy way to go. And they can relate to this idea.”
The list of reasons to love masterpieces goes on: teens can learn about history, link what happened in the past to current events, ponder what life’s about, be inspired to apply creative ideas to their own lives.
It’s no surprise, then, that my daughter Maya clicked selfies before the Met’s various Van Goghs. (“Eighteen!” she counted.) That on this one international vacation, we visited the Met, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where we wandered an exhibition on the colourful, music-infused art of Marc Chagall. That in past trips, we’ve targeted Paris’s Louvre and Centre Pompidou museums. That her next top vacation wish is to go to Amsterdam, specifically to visit the Van Gogh Museum.
And who am I to wonder why this art excites? For when Maya was done with the Van Goghs, I had her snap my photo beside my own favourite piece: the sweet bronze statue of Edgar Degas’ 14-year-old dancer. It was, I admit, a thrill.