How To Enjoy Looking At Art

I love art museums. I love every single exhibit, from Mesopotamian artifacts to Jacques-Louis David to Caillebotte to Lynda Benglis to Felix Gonzalez-Torres to Kara Walker and beyond. I’m the weirdo who gets to the museum first thing in the morning to be the first person there so that no one thinks sideways about me spending thirty minutes looking at one Rodin.

But I know this isn’t the case for everyone, because whenever I take other people to the Art Institute or the MCA, especially in groups, we tend to speed along, glancing at artworks, acknowledging them, and moving on without really sitting there and soaking them in and enjoying them. I sense that other people don’t experience the languid joy that I do, and don’t stop to enjoy art because, rather, not knowing what to think about it or how to judge it or, in some cases, why the artist even bothered making it in the first place, causes them anxiety

If you’re one of those people, here are a few suggestions to help you not just look at but really enjoy art:

Try making a commitment to look at an artwork for 10 minutes straight. You don’t have to know anything about the artwork, you just have to spend time looking at it really thoroughly. Notice the details. Notice the brushstrokes and try to see how the artist applied the paint to the canvas. Notice the textures of sculptures. Walk around the artwork and notice how it looks from different angles. Dig out the little details the artist obsessed over. Ask yourself: What does this remind me of? How does looking at this artwork make me feel emotionally? What’s the relationship between me and this object? Soon enough, your ten-minute alarm will be ringing.

Relate to artworks with your body. Since the 1960s especially, a lot of art has been “about” how the art object exists in relation to your body. This is a minimalist idea: They wanted you to consume art not just with your eyes, but with your whole self. If you’re in front of a contemporary sculpture (they tend to be big and sometimes very plain objects), think about its size in relation to you, and about how your body feels in the presence of the artwork. As in, what physical sensations do you feel? Do you feel intimidated? Do you want to touch it? (Don’t, but do you want to?) What does the object do to the room you’re in? How much space does it take up? Do you have to walk around it? This can also apply to paintings, especially monumental paintings or particularly small paintings, as well as to sculpture.

Seek out information about the artwork. Whether it’s wall text or a docent or a friend or a book, if an artwork strikes you but you don’t “get” it, ask about it! You’d be amazed what sorts of stories and ideas are behind even very plain-seeming artworks. Take, for example, the fact that Manet’s Luncheon in the Grass was a critique of the way art was traditionally judged and valued. It featured a woman who is pictured as being inexplicably nude amongst the other, male, luncheon guests, looking straight at the viewer, and Manet painted her in the studio so that the way she was lit would seem unnatural for the outdoor setting of the painting. It was basically Manet saying that he didn’t have damns to give about the way art was “supposed” to be made, and at the time, it was scandalous.

Keep an open mind to kinds of art that you aren’t drawn to. I didn’t start loving contemporary art until I took a course on it on a whim in my last few years of college. I went into it thinking, “OK, prove to me that this art is worthwhile,” and that art wound up changing my life! You might not have the sort of transformation I did, but if you keep an open mind about the stuff you don’t get, and if you let someone explain it to you to the best of their ability, you might find out that you can relate to or at least respect some of it.

Know that you can like art for whatever reason strikes you. If you like art that’s pretty because it’s pretty, that’s dope! If you like art that makes you feel something, that’s really cool too. If you like it for its theoretical background, or because the artist strikes you as a cool person, or because you agree with the political ideas that it expresses, that is all completely okey-doke. You get to have your taste, and you’re allowed to like something for reasons that are easy to express. You should be able to talk about why you like art without feeling like you have to say something “deep.” Here’s a secret: The weird art-speak that people in the art world do is basically all made-up words. It’s not always (or, in my opinion, even that often) all that meaningful, either.

And at the same time, know that it’s totally fine if you just don’t like some art. So, I lied: I don’t like every single exhibit. If you proposed to me that we go to a Jeff Koons exhibit, I would go, but I’d groan about it. The MoMA Bjork retrospective sounded kind of meh to me. I do not have the enthusiasm for architecture that some people do. The important thing, I think, is just to listen to what someone who really does like that particular kind of artwork has to say about it, consider it, and then make your decision about whether or not you really like it.

Image via Shutterstock

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