Sandra Grindlay, an instructor at the Buckingham, Browne, and Nichols School in Cambridge, Mass., contends that art history is more than just an ''art for art's sake'' proposition. ''In an age which is as visually oriented as ours,'' she explains, ''it is essential to develop a discerning eye.''
Yet, in the eyes of Mrs. Grindlay, many people are ''visually illiterate.'' She explains that ''there is a syntax and a grammar to seeing just as there is to reading.'' In art, this visual language is composed of line, color, space, form, light. An artist uses these elements, in the same manner that a writer uses words, to create an image or establish a mood.
In her classes Mrs. Grindlay uses slides to illustrate how these principles have been applied by artists throughout history. Van Gogh's ''The Starry Night'' flashes on the screen, and the students immediately respond to the energized yellows and blues that engulf the canvas. The jarring color combinations create a strong emotional response in the viewer. She refers to Van Gogh's diary, in which he speaks of his ''sensitivity to color, and this particular language, the effect of complementary colors, of their contrasts and harmony.''
Mrs. Grindlay explains: ''Lines also give strong definition to art and architecture. Vertical lines, as evidenced in the procession of royal figures in the 'Justinian and Theodora' mosaic in Ravenna, Italy, lend a regal quality to the work. The series of horizontal lines in Ruisdael's Dutch-landscape 'View of Harlem' produces a calming effect on the eye. Yet the viewer is jarred by the short, staccato, diagonal lines in Marcel Duchamp's 'Nude Descending a Staircase.' ''
Mrs. Grindlay explains that a knowledge of these principles enhances one's appreciation of art and leads to a more logical interpretation of one's everyday visual perceptions.
Art can be a stimulating counterbalance for the political-science or business major. It is a particularly good elective, because one is also exposed to history, literature, and philosophy.
She goes on to say: ''Students learn that the Greeks' desire for order was not just confined to architecture and sculpture. It permeated every aspect of that society and set many precedents in the establishment of social and aesthetic standards which are observed today. Many of the principles which went into the designing of the Parthenon, for example, are found in the designs of Christopher Wren, Bulfinch, and Le Corbusier.''
In the words of Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, ''Painting is bound up with its time.'' So in studying, art students must be familiar with the cultural and social conditions of a particular period. The monumental quality of Michelangelo's works, for instance, reflects the enormous impact he and other Renaissance thinkers had on the world. And the age of the Gothic cathedrals evolved in the13th century, when the church played a predominant role in European life.
Mrs. Grindlay points out that there is a dialectic to art. ''Each new period evolves in the form of a reaction to the previous school of thought, or to circumstances surrounding the artists' life. As Parmigianino's 'Madonna With a Long Neck' illustrates, the Mannerists rebelled against the stability and perfection of the High Renaissance by creating absurdly distorted renderings of the human form. And Picasso painted 'Guernica' in a horrified response to the Germans' bombing of Spain in the Spanish Civil War.''
However, Mrs. Grindlay cautions students against the formulaic approach to art. ''The rules and historical patterns should serve as guidelines, but they should not inhibit the creative interpretation of art. Unlike mathematics, where there is only one answer to an equation, there can be any number of valid responses to a work of art,'' she says.
As a following Somerset Maugham anecdote indicates, sometimes the layman gets more out of a work of art than the connoisseur:
''I bought an abstract painting which Leger called 'Les Toits de Paris.' My friends mocked me and asked me why I bought that fantastic compositon. . . . I had a cook then, and I was surprised to see her constantly standing in front of the picture as though hypnotized, and one day I asked her what she saw in it that so affected her. She could not explain. The picture gave her a mysterious emotion which I, more sophisticated, could not experience.''
This anecdote alludes to the primal connection between art and man. The cave art of 20,000 years ago was perhaps an early means of visual communication. As some of the richly colored renderings of animals and hunters indicate, there was more than just the desire to convey an idea. There was the desire to create beauty. Two hundred centuries later, this basic objective endures. Post-modernist painter Mark Rothko says, ''Art should communicate abstract thought through the simple expression of form.''
Yet, in the final analysis, Mrs. Grindlay believes that the study of art is like everything else in life, you get what you pay for. You must put effort into it, otherwise a trip to the museum will be like a trip to the swimming pool for those who haven't learned to swim.