Does a Museum Visit Really Require Homework?

That's what The Washington Post recently advised in a long article that was supposed to take the anxiety out of art:

Our response to art is directly proportional to our knowledge of it. In this sense, art is the opposite of popular entertainment, which becomes more insipid with greater familiarity. So study up. Even 10 minutes on Wikipedia can help orient you and fundamentally transform the experience...When visiting special exhibitions, always read the catalogue, or at least the main catalogue essay. If you can't afford the catalogue, read it in the gift shop.

I think this is terrible and expensive advice. I've bought some exhibition catalogs over the years, but always after a show, and never for the information. I bought them as mementos of the exhibit, as a way of reliving the experience. Read the text? What for? (My apologies to the writers).

I was recently at the Art Institute of Chicago's superb Magritte exhibition and while I knew some of his paintings, I basically went in cold. I didn't rent the audio tour because I didn't want anyone telling me what to look at or look for. I'm not a robot. Instead, I did what I usually do: I let my curiosity take me wherever it led, reading the information on the walls, which was lively and informative. I had a blast, and so did my friends, who didn't do any research either.


I felt the same way in London this past summer at Tate Modern special exhibitions of Matisse, who I knew a little, and Malevich, whose work was a total blank to me. Both art shows were well-curated and left me high for days. There was more than enough information right there at both exhibitions to augment what I was seeing -- if I wanted to read it. But sometimes I didn't.


In a world drenched with 24/7 information, what's wrong with just experiencing art for yourself? Who says you have to "study up?" Museum exhibitions are designed to inform. You don't need to arm yourself in advance as if you're going into hazardous territory, you don't need to do homework. Going to a museum should not feel like work or an assignment. Unless, of course it is for a class. But if that's the case, you'll still have plenty of help when you get there.

So relax and enjoy. And don't feel obligated to do research. You'll be much more relaxed, and you'll see more than if you felt as if there was a quiz waiting for you at the end.


Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence and militarized police, and 24 other books in many genres.