Gijs van Hensbergen’s “Training Our Muscles to Understand Art”

1. Introduction:

Gijs van Hensbergen's "Training Our Muscles to Understand Art" is an essay that appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of Harper's Magazine. In it, he makes a case for why we should all take the time to study and understand art, specifically Pablo Picasso's Guernica.

He begins by recounting a story from his childhood, when he and his friends were caught playing with a soccer ball in front of Picasso's Guernica at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid. A security guard scolded them and told them that they were "disrespecting" the painting. This incident made van Hensbergen realize that he didn't really know anything about the painting, and it inspired him to learn more about it.

2. Stepping back from Guernica:

In order to understand Guernica, van Hensbergen argues, we need to take a step back from it. He writes that "the task of understanding a work of art is not unlike the task of understanding another person." We need to look at the circumstances under which it was created, the life of the artist, and the cultural context in which it was produced. Only then can we truly appreciate it.

3. Other people's opinions:

Van Hensbergen also points out that our understanding of art is often shaped by what other people think about it. He gives the example of how our perception of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa has been influenced by the fact that it is one of the most famous paintings in the world. We tend to see it through the lens of its reputation, rather than looking at it objectively.

4. The work and the process:

In order to understand Guernica, van Hensbergen says, we need to look at both the painting itself and the process by which Picasso created it. He argues that we often forget about the hard work that goes into making a work of art, and we only think about the final product. But Picasso didn't just sit down and paint Guernica in one day – it took him months of planning and execution. By looking at both the painting and the process, we can gain a deeper understanding of it.

5. Conclusion:

In conclusion, van Hensbergen argues that we should all take the time to study and understand art. It is not enough to just look at a painting – we need to step back from it and consider all of the factors that went into its creation. Only then can we truly appreciate its beauty.


Training our muscles to understand art can help us to better appreciate and understand the message that the artist is trying to communicate. Additionally, it can help us to better connect with the artwork on an emotional level.

There are a few different ways that we can go about training our muscles to understand art. One way is to simply take some time to look at various pieces of art and try to identify what emotions they are conveying. Another way is to participate in workshops or classes where we can learn more about how to interpret artwork. And finally, we can also read books or articles that discuss how to decode the meaning behind different types of art.

All types of art can be beneficial for this type of training, but some may be more effective than others. For example, abstract paintings or sculptures may be particularly helpful in teaching us how to read between the lines and see the hidden meanings within a work of art.

There are no known risks associated with training our muscles to understand art. In fact, many people find that it enhances their enjoyment and understanding of both classic and contemporary works alike.

Anyone who enjoys looking at or interacting with artwork can benefit from this type of training – there are no prerequisites necessary!