Don't Be Intimidated

Kyle Smith

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When it comes to art, do “old things” intimidate you? Do the classic works of painting, literature, sculpture, music, or even movies scare you a bit? (A “classic” work is anything that’s been proven to be important in its field over time.)

If so, you’re not alone. Most people feel a little intimidated by the towering giants of art such as Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and Beethoven. It’s also easy to be intimidated by more recent creative minds like Hitchcock or Hemingway.

Let me put your fears to rest. You can understand and enjoy the great works of art and history. When you encounter them for yourself, you’ll be inspired to do your own best work.

In his introduction to the spiritual classic On the Incarnation by Athanasius, C. S. Lewis speaks about the importance of experiencing the “old books” for yourself:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. . . . The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him.[i]

Lewis’ words apply not only to books, but to all types of creative work. When we think of a work as one of the “greats,” we tend to build it up in our minds as a towering accomplishment that only geniuses can understand. But most of the time, those works are great not because they’re complicated, but because they’re simple.

It’s not enough to read about great art second-hand. You should experience it for yourself as much as possible.

But where do you start? It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of great art available. So just pick one thing and dive in.

If you like painting, visit a museum in your area.

If you like music, listen to a recording of Beethoven, Mozart, or modern greats like Miles Davis or the Beatles. Listen to it in one sitting for the best experience.

If you like architecture, visit a local cathedral or an important historic site.

If you like to read, pick up one of Shakespeare’s plays or Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey.

If you like movies, watch one of the classics like Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights or David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.

If you want to grow in your creative life, you have to stay curious. You must always be seeking out new things to learn and new artists to explore.

One of the best biographies I’ve read recently is Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. The book mentions several times that Jobs was a huge fan of Bob Dylan.[ii] I didn’t know much of Dylan’s music, so I decided to educate myself.

I listened to several of his albums online, including Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan, and Modern Times. I loved the power and simplicity of his music and wondered why I hadn’t been listening to Bob Dylan my whole life!

When you read, watch, or listen to something new, it can often lead you to something else you’ll enjoy. Every work of art is like a map that leads to more treasures.

So take a little time to visit an art museum, pull a classic work of literature off the shelf, sample a bit of older music, or get lost in a classic film. You’ll find that ironically, the things of old will inspire you in ways that are fresh and new.

Questions for Reflection

1. Why do we tend to assume that the “classics” are harder to understand than contemporary works?

2. Is there a classic book you’ve started but didn’t finish? Why not? What’s stopping you?

3. Have you ever visited an art museum? What was your impression? (If you haven’t, how could you arrange a trip in the next month?)

4. What do you think makes a work of art “classic”?

5. Do you think we have a bias against older art in modern culture? Why or why not?

[i] Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012), 3.

[ii] Walter Isaaacson, Steve Jobs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 25-26, 207-208, 415-416.

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St. Louis, MO
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