10 Rules for Appreciating Art by Sister Wendy Beckett (RIP), the Nun Who Unexpectedly Popularized Art History on TV

While life lasts, let us live it, not pass through as zom­bies, and let us find in art a glo­ri­ous pas­sage­way to a deep­er under­stand­ing of our essen­tial human­i­ty.

- Sis­ter Wendy Beck­ett (1930–2018)

Sis­ter Wendy, a clois­tered nun whose pas­sion for art led her to wan­der out into the world, where she became a star of glob­al pro­por­tions, enter­tained the tele­vi­sion mass­es with her frank human­ist assess­ments.

Unfazed by nudi­ty, car­nal­i­ty, and oth­er sen­su­al excess­es, she ini­tial­ly came across as a fun­ny-look­ing, grand­ma-aged vir­gin in an old-fash­ioned habit, lisp­ing rhap­sod­i­cal­ly about appendages and entan­gle­ments we expect most Brides of Christ to shy away from.

Attempts to spoof her fell flat.

Hav­ing beat­en the jok­ers to the punch, she took her rapt audi­ence along for the ride, barn­storm­ing across the con­ti­nent, eager to encounter works she knew only from the repro­duc­tions Church high­er ups gave her per­mis­sion to study in the 1980s.

She was grate­ful to the artists—1000s of them—for pro­vid­ing her such an excel­lent lens with which to con­tem­plate God’s cre­ations. Eroti­cism, greed, phys­i­cal love, hor­rif­ic violence—Sister Wendy nev­er flinched.

“Real art makes demands,” she told inter­view­er Bill Moy­ers, below, speak­ing approv­ing­ly of pho­tog­ra­ph­er Andres Serrano’s con­tro­ver­sial Piss Christ.

“Great art offers more than plea­sure; it offers the pain of spir­i­tu­al growth, draw­ing us into areas of our­selves that we may not wish to encounter. It will not leave us in our men­tal or moral lazi­ness,” she wrote in the fore­word to Sis­ter Wendy’s 1000 Mas­ter­pieces, her hand­picked selec­tion of the great­est paint­ings of West­ern art. (“A thou­sand sound­ed like so many until we got down to it and then began the anguish of choice,” she lat­er opined.)

A lover of col­or and tex­ture, she was unique in her abil­i­ty to appre­ci­ate shades of grey, delv­ing deeply into the psy­cho­log­i­cal moti­va­tions of both the sub­jects and the artists them­selves.

On Fran­cis Bacon’s Fig­ure with Meat (1954):

Here, he shows the pope, father of the Catholic Church, both enthroned and impris­oned by his posi­tion. Bacon’s rela­tion­ship with his own father was a very stormy one, and per­haps he has used some of that fear and hatred to con­jure up this ghost­ly vision of a scream­ing pope, his face frozen in a ric­tus of anguish.

On Hen­ri De Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Clown Chau-u-Kao (1895):

Toulouse-Lautrec, as the last descen­dant of an ancient French fam­i­ly, must have been bit­ter­ly con­scious of his own phys­i­cal defor­mi­ties and to many peo­ple he, too, was a fig­ure of fun…He shows us Chau-U-Kao prepar­ing for her act with dig­ni­ty and seren­i­ty, the great swirl of her frill seems to brack­et the clown so that we can tru­ly look at her, see the pathos of that blowzy and sag­ging flesh, and move on to the nobil­i­ty of the nose and the intense eyes. This is a degra­da­tion, but one that has been cho­sen by the per­former and redeemed by intel­li­gence and will pow­er.

On Nico­las Lancret’s The Four Times of the Day: Morn­ing (1739):

Morn­ing is filled with wit­ty obser­va­tion — a delight­ful young woman (who is clear­ly no bet­ter than she should be) is enter­tain­ing a young cler­ic, seem­ing­ly unaware of the temp­ta­tion offered by that casu­al­ly exposed bosom. He holds out his cup, but his eyes are fied, alas, on that region of the fem­i­nine anato­my that his pro­fes­sion for­bids him.

On François Clouet’s Diane De Poitiers (c. 1571)

The impli­ca­tion would seem to be that this shame­less beau­ty with her promi­nent nip­ples and over­flow­ing bowl of ripe fruit, is a woman of dubi­ous morals. Yet one can­not but feel that the artist admires the nat­ur­al free­dom of his sub­ject. Her chil­dren and her grin­ning wet-nurse are at her side, and, in the back­ground, the maid pre­pares hot water. /surely this domes­tic scene is no more than a sim­ple and endear­ing vignette. 

Her gen­er­ous takes on these and oth­er art­works are irre­sistible. How won­der­ful it would be to approach every piece of art with such thought and com­pas­sion.

For­tu­nate­ly, Sis­ter Wendy, who passed away last week at the age of 88, left behind a how-to of sorts in the form of her 2005 essay, “The Art of Look­ing at Art,” from which we have extract­ed the fol­low­ing 10 rules.

Sis­ter Wendy Beckett’s 10 Rules for Engag­ing with Art

Vis­it muse­ums

They are the prime locus where the unique­ness of an artist’s work can be encoun­tered.

Pri­or­i­tize qual­i­ty time over quan­ti­ty of works viewed

Soci­ol­o­gists, lurk­ing incon­spic­u­ous­ly with stop­watch­es, have dis­cov­ered the aver­age time muse­um vis­i­tors spend look­ing at a work of art: it is rough­ly two sec­onds. We walk all too casu­al­ly through muse­ums, pass­ing objects that will yield up their mean­ing and exert their pow­er only if they are seri­ous­ly con­tem­plat­ed in soli­tude.

Fly solo

If Sis­ter Wendy could spend over four decades sequestered in a small mobile home on the grounds of Carmelite monastery in Nor­folk, sure­ly you can go alone. Do not com­pli­cate your con­tem­pla­tion by teth­er­ing your­self to a friend who can­not wait to exit through the gift shop.

Buy a post­card

…take it home for pro­longed and (more or less) dis­trac­tion­less con­tem­pla­tion. If we do not have access to a muse­um, we can still expe­ri­ence reproductions—books, post­cards, posters, tele­vi­sion, film—in soli­tude, though the work lacks imme­di­a­cy. We must, there­fore, make an imag­i­na­tive leap (visu­al­iz­ing tex­ture and dimen­sion) if repro­duc­tion is our only pos­si­ble access to art. What­ev­er the way in which we come into con­tact with art, the crux, as in all seri­ous mat­ters, is how much we want the expe­ri­ence. The encounter with art is pre­cious, and so it costs us in terms of time, effort, and focus.

Pull up a chair, when­ev­er pos­si­ble

It has been well said that the basic con­di­tion for art appre­ci­a­tion is a chair.

Don’t hate on your­self for being a philis­tine.

How­ev­er invi­o­late our self-esteem, most of us have felt a sink­ing of the spir­it before a work of art that, while high­ly praised by crit­ics, to us seems mean­ing­less. It is all too easy to con­clude, per­haps sub­con­scious­ly, that oth­ers have a nec­es­sary knowl­edge or acu­men that we lack.

Take respon­si­bil­i­ty for edu­cat­ing your­self…

Art is cre­at­ed by spe­cif­ic artists liv­ing in and fash­ioned by a spe­cif­ic cul­ture, and it helps to under­stand this cul­ture if we are to under­stand and appre­ci­ate the total­i­ty of the work. This involves some prepa­ra­tion. Whether we choose to “see” a totem pole, a ceram­ic bowl, a paint­ing, or a mask, we should come to it with an under­stand­ing of its iconog­ra­phy. We should know, for exam­ple, that a bat in Chi­nese art is a sym­bol for hap­pi­ness and a jaguar in Mesoamer­i­can art is an image of the super­nat­ur­al. If need be, we should have read the artist’s biog­ra­phy: the ready response to the paint­ing of Vin­cent van Gogh or Rem­brandt, or of Car­avag­gio or Michelan­ge­lo, comes part­ly from view­ers’ sym­pa­thy with the con­di­tions, both his­tor­i­cal and tem­pera­men­tal, from which these paint­ings came.

…but don’t be a pris­on­er to facts and expert opin­ions

A para­dox: we need to do some research, and then we need to for­get it…We have delim­it­ed a work if we judge it in advance. Faced with the work, we must try to dis­pel all the busy sug­ges­tions of the mind and sim­ply con­tem­plate the object in front of us. The mind and its facts come in lat­er, but the first, though pre­pared, expe­ri­ence should be as unde­fend­ed, as inno­cent, and as hum­ble as we can make it.

Cel­e­brate our com­mon human­i­ty

Art is our lega­cy, our means of shar­ing in the spir­i­tu­al great­ness of oth­er men and women—those who are known, as with most of the great Euro­pean painters and sculp­tors, and those who are unknown, as with many of the great carvers, pot­ters, sculp­tors, and painters from Africa, Asia, the Mid­dle East, and Latin Amer­i­ca. Art rep­re­sents a con­tin­u­um of human expe­ri­ence across all parts of the world and all peri­ods of his­to­ry.

Lis­ten to oth­ers but see with your own eyes

We should lis­ten to the appre­ci­a­tions of oth­ers, but then we should put them aside and advance toward a work of art in the lone­li­ness of our own truth.

Sis­ter Wendy’s tele­vi­sion shows can be found on PBS, the BBC, and as DVDs. Her books are well rep­re­sent­ed in libraries and from book­sellers like Ama­zon. (We have learned so much in the year her dic­tio­nary-sized 1000 Paint­ings has been parked next to our com­mode…)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

10 Rules for Stu­dents and Teach­ers Pop­u­lar­ized by John Cage

1.8 Mil­lion Free Works of Art from World-Class Muse­ums: A Meta List of Great Art Avail­able Online

The Art Insti­tute of Chica­go Puts 44,000+ Works of Art Online: View Them in High Res­o­lu­tion

Down­load 502 Free Art Books from The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City this Jan­u­ary as host of  The­ater of the Apes book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (3)
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  • Ronny says:

    I remem­ber watch­ing her on tv when I was much younger. Her enthu­si­asm taught me more about art appre­ci­a­tion than any text book could.

  • Rebecca says:

    When I learned that her pro­grams were unscript­ed — - that her insights, her lim­it­less depth of knowl­edge and pas­sion sim­ply flowed from her mind to ours in an effer­ves­cent foun­tain of joy — - well, I’ve nev­er got­ten over it.
    She changed every­thing. She made it accept­able to be real­ly, real­ly, real­ly smart and real­ly, real­ly, real­ly excit­ed about beau­ty and genius, to be unapolo­getic about both.

  • Eve Sefton Hinesley says:

    Good, infor­ma­tive, and live­ly obser­va­tions about Sis­ter Wendy by Ayun Halliday—Thanks!

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