What it takes to really get into history are the same qualities it takes to get into art. This is not a coincidence.
At some point early in every semester I have a conversation with my students about what’s required to be successful in a history course. I suspect they anticipate things like read your books, study hard, show up to class, take notes. Those things are necessary, yes, and if they do those things there’s a good chance that they’ll pass the class. But I told them that to be truly successful in it, to get something really meaningful out of it, you need two things: imagination and curiosity. That’s not what they expect to hear.
In order to really feel history requires a profound act of imagination. My students have to be able to mentally get out of their desks, out of the classroom, out of the narrow confines of the 21st-century and experience the past as a witness or even participant. You have to imagine Frederick Douglass trying desperately to open the eyes of his countrymen; you have to sense the uncertainty as people sign their names to the Declaration of Independence; you have to feel the anxiety as the Lusitania closes in on the Irish coast on a placid sea that may be filled with U-boats. To feel what’s at stake at every stage of history you have to imagine yourself as being as much in the dark about the future as the people you’re reading about.
I also tell them In order to want to learn you have to let your natural curiosity lead you. You have to indulge that inner human desire to know something new. And I believe it IS human, and I believe everyone has it. I also believe unfortunately that much in our culture crushes it out of us like juice from a grape.
In the same way these two elements open the door to a deeper interaction with history, they open the door to deeper appreciation of art.
If you don’t quite understand a painting you’re looking at, remember that at some point it was a blank canvas confronting an artist and imagine yourself to be the artist in front of it. What would you have to be thinking or feeling or wanting to convey to have it come out like it did? Why did the artist choose to stop when he or she did and pronounce it finished? This is an exercise in imagination that will take you out of yourself.
One can let oneself be curious about jazz, impressionist paintings or Shakespeare’s history plays, and in each case it can open the door to a whole new world. I’ve said many times that curiosity is all that’s needed to get you into new art. Historian Richard Brookhiser recently commented that “discoveries are never boring.”
As you nurture it and let it guide you, your curiosity may not lead to you to like the paintings of Andy Warhol, the music of Dave Brubeck or the plays of Henrik Ibsen, but at least you’ll want to give them a chance and experience them. And that’s how the arts broaden all of our horizons.