One of the great joys of the present school year has been the addition of an art appreciation class, taught by art enthusiast and VanDamme Academy teacher Luc Travers. Mr. Travers' unique approach to analyzing a work of art has transformed my esthetic life, enhancing my enjoyment of art, of literature, and of life in general.
Among Mr. Travers' principles for deeply grasping and relishing a work of art is the idea of "shuttling"—of moving back and forth cognitively from abstract conclusions about what is observed (e.g., strength, bravery, intelligence) to detailed perceptual observations that yield the abstractions (e.g., sinewy muscles, an erect stance, a furrowed brow) and back to a more refined abstract understanding. Since learning and practicing this technique, I have had the experience of standing before a sculpture that was initially unintelligible and valueless to me, and then going through the process of observing, integrating, observing, reintegrating—and having emerge before me an image that I understood and loved.
VanDamme Academy students have honed this skill of "shuttling," moving from precise observations, to abstract generalizations, to observations, to still more precise abstractions about Michelangelo's David, MacMonnies' Nathan Hale, and Gerard's Belisarius, among others.
In the junior high literature class, I am presently teaching the thrilling and beautiful adventure novel The Scarlet Pimpernel. Inspired by Mr. Travers' analysis of art, I showed students how to practice this same skill in the analysis of a literary character. I helped them to observe subtleties of characterization—how a character moves, what he wears, the expression on his face, the tone of his voice—and to extrapolate from these details a generalized understanding of the character. Finely narrowing your focus, looking carefully at the precise details of characterization, is often very illuminating of the distinctive nature of a particular character. . . .