Art and Context, Postman and Monet

art and context postman and monetI like understanding things. This is why I hated for so long those parts of the art museum labelled “modern” or “contemporary.” I didn’t understand the things I saw in there, so I’d go check my phone for what I could understand: pictures on Instagram, maybe news articles on the BBC app. Glorious discontinuity. No context needed. But those paintings? “My kindergartner could do this,” I’d mutter to myself, and I don’t even have a kindergartner.

This initial reaction of mine was a result of my being accustomed to the discontinuities that are present “in so much that passes for public discourse.”[1] On Facebook, a picture of what my friend’s mom had for lunch precedes a video of Trump saying something scandalous at a recent rally of his. This video is, of course, followed by a Buzzfeed quiz that promises to assess exactly how much of an expert on the wizarding world of Harry Potter I really am. Even on news-specific apps (BBC, USA Today, you name it), every article is written to stand alone. Headlines all in a row read: “Cologne sex attackers ‘may not be caught’” and “Migrants stuck at Greek border crossing” and “Boston robot fights back against bully.” We have been made numb to the jarring discontinuity of such things.

Postman says that the “inevitable result” of experiencing this sort of disjointedness is that we are deprived “of a coherent, contextual understanding of [our] world.”[2] Regularly handling almost any sort of Internet exposure at all conditions us to expect—and to demand—products that are understandable with as little outside information as possible. This world is “a world of fragments, where events stand alone, stripped of any connection to the past, or to the future, or to other events,” and so “the fundamental assumption of [this] world is not coherence but discontinuity.”[3]

We are deluded, however, if we think we can approach anything—including art—without context. Claude Monet taught this when said he wished he’d been born blind and only later acquired the ability to see.[4] Concerned above all with color in his paintings, he wished he didn’t know that a tree was a tree or that a building was a building. He wanted to be able to recognize and articulate colors without lifelong knowledge of space and forms getting in his way. If we listen to Monet, we learn that nothing in art contains all of the context necessary to “understand” it. Even the most straightforward, most realistic painting—photograph, even—cannot be understood without context.  I don’t know that the photo of a tree with blue sky overhead is a photo of a tree with a blue sky overhead unless I know what a tree is and what the sky is and what blue looks like. If I don’t have prior, outside knowledge of what these things are, all I see are colors arranged next to each other, like Monet would have if he’d been born blind.

When I walk into the modern art museum not at all understanding that the squares of color on a white canvas are part of the same artistic conversation of which Monet was a part, demanding every artwork to provide its own context to me, expecting to be able to move quickly from one piece to the next—when I do this, I am expecting the paintings in the art museum to take after my Twitter feed. “We are losing our sense of what it means to be well-informed,”[5] Postman says. We think it’s possible without context; “all assumptions of coherence have vanished.”[6]

We learn this new definition of being well-learned from the Internet, from social media, from the society that is formed by these media. Social media is not a sufficient education—not in the information it provides, nor in how it teaches its users to approach other sources of information. When we read the Bible, for example, we do so as if all its narratives were separate from one another and from us. We don’t think the New Testament needs the context of the Old—at least, not enough to read it. This is a failure on our part to understand the necessity of context to our very understanding. In regards to art, we not only fail to understand the larger story at work when we visit art museums; we fail to understand that there is a larger story at work there at all.

The museums themselves are realizing this. Many have conducted studies focused on attendance (which is generally declining).[7] The Dallas Museum of Art (DMA), in particular, conducted a seven-year study on its visitors’ engagement with the art.[8] In 2013 it launched DMA Friends, a platform that “encourages repeat visitation and long-term relationship building.” DMA Friends allows visitors to earn points for their interactions with the art: “Simple visits to Museum galleries are worth 100 points, while more in-depth interactions are worth up to five times as many points.” Earning enough points yields benefits such as free parking.[9] Our society has reached the point that art museums feel compelled to model themselves after Chuck E. Cheese in order to prompt us to engage with art properly.

If you go to the art museum because you wish “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if [you] could not learn what it had to teach,”[10] then you have to go about engaging art seriously. Serious engagement of art requires two things: first, to be aware that there is a larger artistic conversation, and second, to learn about that conversation. Awareness of the grand artistic conversation helps one to appreciate all artists’ place in that conversation. My preference for Monet’s work does not mean I can’t learn from what Piet Mondrian has to say. Learning about the larger conversation, on the other hand, helps one to appreciate those artists’ works, even if they are not the sort one would choose to hang in his or her living room. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has a fantastic website stocked with videos, Word documents, and PowerPoints intended to teach about different kinds of art and how they interact with one another.[11] There are too many other relevant learning resources to list here, but the point is to go about learning what art has to say.

Frederick Buechner says that “the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot.”[12] If the nature of new media is to train us to decontextualize, the nature of artwork is to train us to stop, to slow down, to pay more attention to what’s going on, to look to context for understanding, to synthesize. The nature of art is not disjointed, and if we look close enough, we might find that the nature of events in the news isn’t either—so long as we don’t approach them as we would our Instagram feed.

Awareness and knowledge of context helps us to learn better, helps us “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”[13] Let us choose to learn from a medium that doesn’t so easily lend to the fragmentation of its information. Let us learn how to engage art rightly and from this learn our lesson on how the information that life presents ought to be encountered—humbly, openly, thoroughly.

[1] Postman, Neil. “’Now . . . This’” in Amusing Ourselves to Death. (New York: Penguin Group, 1986), 99.

[2] Ibid., 107.

[3] Ibid., 110.

[4] Nochlin, Linda. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism 1874-1904; Sources and Documents. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996).

[5] Postman, Neil. “’Now . . . This’” in Amusing Ourselves to Death. (New York: Penguin Group, 1986), 107-108.

[6] Ibid., 110.

[7] Sutton, Benjamin. “US Arts Attendance on a Downward Trend, NEA Studies Find.” Hyperallergic RSS. 2015. Accessed April 22, 2016. http:/

[8] “Seeing the Forest and the Trees: How Engagement Analytics Can Help Museums Connect to Audiences at Scale.” MW2014 Museums and the Web 2014. Accessed April 22, 2016.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Thoreau, Henry David, and Bradford Torrey. Walden. (Boston: Mifflin and Houghton, 1897).

[11] “MoMA Learning.” Museum of Modern Art. Accessed May 23, 2016.

[12] Frederick Buechner. Listening to Your Life. (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992), 51.

[13] Thoreau, Henry David, and Bradford Torrey. Walden. (Boston: Mifflin and Houghton, 1897).

Other articles

Support Second Nature

Second Nature depends on the generous donations of readers like you.

Second Nature is published by the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity (IISTC), a 501(c)3 non-profit dedicated to studying technology in light of the Christian tradition.

Your generous contributions make this work possible. Please consider donating today to help us continue this important work.

About the Contributor

Laura Howard

Laura Howard
Laura Howard is a student at Wheaton College. When she is not studying, Laura is likely reading, writing, making art, spending time with friends, and/or questioning her decision to be a philosophy major. 


  1. McLuhan contrasted concept and definition with percept. Concept isolates a figure from its ground – like pinning a dead butterfly on a board, or taking a single bible verse out of context. Percept starts with a whole sensation or experience, and then lets you question the situation (the figure) to find out what in the ground is influencing it. As art reflects culture, there is always much to be discovered, always another question to ask.

Speak Your Mind


Support Second Nature

If you find value in the work we do at Second Nature, please consider making a modest donation. Every donation, no matter how small, is a huge encouragement to us in our work.