Learning to Look / Learning to Ask

Author: Douglas H. Pressman, MBA, Ph.D.

Position: Sociology Instructor at UNYP

Nearly every time I see Chinese tourists in a Chinese restaurant in Europe or North America, they are eating dishes that are not on the menu. How does that happen? Obviously, they have asked the waiter for what they want. And the cook obliged them. Is there a possible lesson for university students in this? A story from my own student days comes to mind.

I spent my second year of undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago. One Friday evening in the cafeteria, a classmate told me that he was going into town next morning with Professor Joshua C. Taylor to visit a private gallery, and that I could come too if I wished. Professor Taylor was at the time chairman of the Art History Department at the University, and author of Learning to Look – the most widely used text in arts and humanities courses in America. Next day, a Saturday which was cold, damp and windy, three of us undergrad students met Dr. Taylor at the commuter train station in Hyde Park, headed up to the Loop, and walked a few blocks to an apartment building. A few flights up we came to a flat, that contrary to my expectations, had no sign on its door indicating it was a private art gallery. Once inside, the proprietor walked us into the next room where, nestled casually on a couch, were two paintings by the Italian Surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico, who was then entering the final decade of his long life. It surfaced that the apparent purpose of our visit was for Dr. Taylor to give the art dealer his estimate of the paintings’ value. Huge prices were discussed, sums for which one could buy several Ferraris – so much money that I was stunned.

We left the flat cum gallery after some twenty minutes, and Professor Taylor then led us to the Art Institute of Chicago, and walked us through the modern painting section, filled with marvelous works by every major name in modern art. Dr. Taylor spoke just a few words about the Chagalls, Monets, Matisses and Picassos in front of us: he clearly wanted us to experience the art ourselves, rather than via his definitive commentary. I asked Dr. Taylor how he had come to be an art history professor, and he told us that he had been an infantry soldier in the US Army during World War Two, fighting in Italy. Dr. Taylor had fallen in love with art in the middle of a war! Whenever his unit captured an Italian city that had been occupied by the German Wehrmacht, he asked the locals for directions to its art museum. Undoubtedly, Italian civilians found this an odd request, given the circumstances, but they happily obliged and oftentimes personally led Private Taylor to his destination. After the war, Taylor enrolled in Princeton University and obtained his doctorate in art history.

On the train ride back to the university, I learned how our excursion had come  about. My classmate was taking Dr. Taylor’s undergraduate course. At one point in a lecture, Dr. Taylor had said that the public sees only a portion of the world’s great art, because much of the best art is in private collections. My classmate had approached Dr. Taylor after class, and asked him whether it might be possible one day to view some of the hidden art treasures that Dr. Taylor had referred to. Before the end of the week, my classmate and two of his friends (me included) had been inducted into the hidden world of private galleries, and seen some spectacular de Chirico works that would never hang in a public museum.

At the time this story happened, I did not fully realize that Joshua Taylor was a giant in the world of art history. To me, he merely seemed to be a soft-spoken and modest man, comfortable with young students, and a respected professor at my university. A few months after our impromptu expedition to downtown Chicago, Dr. Taylor became director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, in Washington, D.C. He died in 1981 at the age of 64. According to the University of Chicago Press web site, his Learning to Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts has sold 300,000 copies, in two editions, and it remains a best seller.

How likely was it, you may wonder, that a famous scholar would take three young students under his wing in such a generous and kind way? The odds of that outcome were impossible to predict, until it happened. Yet it did.

Here’s what’s important: Being given a private tour of an exclusive and secretive art gallery in downtown Chicago by one of the world’s leading experts on modern art was not listed on the menu at the University of Chicago. In other words, it was not mentioned in the University catalog as an experience that one could sign up for, and purchase. Rather, that magical and unlikely day had come about simply because one 19-year-old student had asked. And, it was pure luck for me that I was friends with the student who had dared explore beyond the menu. I can add that from that day forward, art became important to me, and the chain of events that started that day led directly, many years later, to my founding a Prague-based arts vacation company (www.artbreak.org) and to being a consultant on bringing creativity into the management of businesses.  

Lesson: Most of life’s formal situations, whether they are restaurants or universities, have menus. It is possible to get a great meal at a restaurant with a mediocre menu, and it is similarly possible to get a great education anywhere you happen to be. The difference between having a bad experience versus a spectacular experience in life, oftentimes comes down to what you dare ask for. Remember this: All of life’s possibilities might not be on the menu, but they may be there for the asking.

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