We made Picasso-inspired sock puppets in the gifted class I got pulled into in first grade. I thought that was rad. I didn’t grow up looking at art or talking about it much, but I enjoyed making things at home (sand art and collages). I’ve never been all that talented or dedicated to visual art, but I’ve discovered that I like being around it.
My first art museum experience was when I was in college. I don’t remember much about that first trip to the Dallas Museum of Art besides feeling happy to be there and like I wanted to come back every day, even though I didn’t know what to do. There were so many rooms and exhibits. I tried to see everything. When I left everything I saw was a blur.
In the following ten years, I’ve visited more art museums, in addition to galleries and art shows. It’s my favorite thing to do (besides eat) when I visit a new city. Over time, I’ve figured out what I like to do in museums and how to make the most of my visit. I try to avoid visual overload by going straight to things I love, picking a few pieces to spend a long time thinking about. And no pictures unless I’m in the picture. Can’t do nothing with a grainy picture of a Van Gogh. Done.
I don’t think my approach to looking at art is unique but I do think it is superior to two things: trying to see everything in a museum (like turning art into an Instagram feed—you'll remember none of it), and never spending time around art.
Anyone without much knowledge of art history or aesthetics goes into this experience just guessing at how to behave. It’s a real bummer that most people go their whole lives not looking at art because they feel awkward or uninformed. It’s not as hard or as pretentious as it seems. Anyone with time, the gift of sight, ten bucks, and the capacity to feel, can and should create experiences with art. If you go to a museum or gallery, chances are that most people feel as uninformed and awkward as you. Leave your self-doubt at coat check and just go in curious and earnest.
Here are things I’ve noticed that we do when we view art:
- Scan the room for the most “interesting” piece of art and mosey over to it, pretending to care about the other paintings/sculptures/photographs along the way.
- Take in the full image quickly, then read the card.
- Try to notice new things about the image based on what the card said.
- Notice details.
- Watch other people and think about how they’re dressed and how they’re acting around the art. Find the couple who are wearing identical outfits. They are always there. See the college kids on dates, group of three professors, and the woman slyly breastfeeding her toddler (that’s me).
- Take pictures of the art to show others or to remind ourselves. (Do less of this.)
- Try to make eye contact with the guards so they don’t hate you.
- Feel terror shoot through your head to the soles of your feet when the guard says “Step back, sir!” Then feel relief when you realize they weren’t talking to you.
- Spend a long time with a few pieces or a short time with many. Or a short time with a few (because I’m hungry!)
- Feel things. Feel impressed, inspired, feel in awe. Feel emotions: sad, elated, anxious, bored, underwhelmed, peaceful. Feel like you have done nothing with your life or feel like you could have painted that... if you didn’t have a job or kids or limited time and resources and maybe had gone to art school or maybe have spent every night drawing instead of watching sitcoms for the last twelve years. Huh. I guess that’s why there are professional artists.
Go with a goal in mind, even if that goal is to find one piece that you like or that makes you feel something the most. Maybe that’s awe. Maybe it’s disgust (hello, MoMA). It’s entirely up to you. Think about the last beautiful thing you saw. Remember how your mind went blank and the beauty was all that existed for a second. Maybe it was a sunset. Maybe it was a bride or a kitchen or a horse in full sprint. Now, realize that at any moment you could open yourself up to that feeling again. Or other true feelings! Spend time with art.
Not everyone is an artist, but art is for everybody, and you don’t need to know anything special to know that.