A huge sign of a thriving culture is evidence of a robust art scene. Yet, art can sometimes be confusing and lifeless to the untrained eye. Understanding art is a skill that is learned and practiced with an open mind. The works of art hanging on the museum walls are up there for a reason, chosen by curators with extensive knowledge and understanding of the Art world. I know art can sometimes feel inaccessible but do not lose hope, with these tips you can start understanding art and feeling its impact.
1. Look up the museum beforehand
Research the museum you want to visit before you go. Look at the different exhibits and choose a couple that seem the most interesting to you. Many museums have extensive art collections and it can be overwhelming to tackle it all in one day. My advice would be to not try and do that unless you plan on spending the whole day there. You want quality time with the art rather than quantity.
2. Understand the Context
Once choosing what you are going to see, investigate the context of the work. When was the art made? What was happening in the world at that time? Who is the artist? Many works were revolutionary in their time because of what was happening in the world (or art world) at that time. Having this background knowledge will help you understand the true gravity of the art.
3. Go to the Front Desk
The people that work at the museum are very informed so don’t be afraid, to talk to them! That is what they are there for! Grab a map, so you know where you are going, and ask for what you shouldn’t miss!
4. Be strategic with your time
Before you go in, decide about how much time you want to spend in the museum. Then divide up your time, between exhibits, rooms and then specific works. The average museum-goer spends between 15-30 seconds in front of each piece. This really is a tragedy because these people receive only a tiny sliver of what they could. Give a large portion of your time to individual works.
5. Walk. Read. Sit.
There isn’t really a wrong or right way to walk through an exhibit but I am going to share with you how I usually do it. First, I do a general sweep of the room or section. I look at each piece and get a feel for the work. Then I read the artists statement, exhibition plaque or whatever info is given to the viewers. Then I go over it again letting the new knowledge inform the works, trying to connect what I know to what I am seeing. Then I pick one or two pieces that I sit with for as long as I can and interpret/evaluate it.
There are a couple of ways this can be done. Externally with friends or internally if you are solo. I am naturally an external processor so if I am alone I will bring my journal or a note pad! Start by describing it’s elements- line movement, texture, space, light, color. Then describe the subject matter- Who is there? What is happening? What is the relation to one another and space? Now asses what is happening internally. What does it remind you of? How does the piece relate to its original context? How does it make you feel? Come with an open mind wanted to receive. C.S. Lewis puts it perfectly:
We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way (there is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out. – C.S. Lewis
Now go look at some art! And come back tell me how it went 🙂