From Tyler Cowen, on his maxim “context is that which is scarce”:
Ever wonder about the vast universe of critically acclaimed aesthetic masterworks, most of which you do not really fathom? If you dismiss them, and mistrust the critics, odds are that you are wrong and they are right. You do not have the context to appreciate those works. That is fine, but no reason to dismiss that which you do not understand. The better you understand context, the more likely you will see how easily you can be missing out on it.
I remember a 7th grade trip to D.C. We visited lots of museums of course, and many were easily enjoyed without much prior knowledge. I can still visualize Natural History’s dioramas of primitive humans, American History’s (now removed, 😟) Foucault pendulum, and the Star Spangled Banner (although more context would clearly have led to a deeper appreciation).
But the art museums were borderline impenetrable and deathly boring. On one of these visits we joined a small group being led by a tour guide, and having a knowledgable person give just a big of background was a revelation that opened so many new lines of inquiry. What made this piece unique? How did it differ from the artist’s other work? What new techniques did it use? How did it reflect what was happening in the world at that time? How do we see it differently hundreds of years later? Context transformed the dull into the transfixing.
I was all of twelve, three decades later I don’t remember the details, and I’m sure in retrospect that my appreciation was cursory at best. But I did retain a valuable life lesson: if you’re looking at an acclaimed aesthetic masterwork but don’t understand it, take a tour.