After reading art critic Philip Kennicott's article in the Washington Post this weekend, I felt like I was being punked (does that still happen?) Someone is actually telling people how to view art? And chastising them for incorrect behavior like making plans in museum walls? As a museum educator and consultant that teaches other educators how to listen to visitors and interact with art in different ways, imagine my shock at this antiquated judgmental piece. Now, Hyperallergic beat me to a delightfully snarky response, so I present five (snark-light) counterpoints to Kennicott's 'how to.'
1. Take the time you have
Museums are exhausting. I'm a museum person and the stimulation tires me out. So take the time you have and spend time with the works that you like. Viewing art should be a fun experience -- not a sprint to see every Picasso, Monet and Degas until your eyes bleed.
Do you have an hour? Great. Take advantage of a pay-what-you-can day and spend some time in one collection. Or even one gallery. Engage with the art in the way you want to engage. That means if you want to take a photo, take it. Take a selfie (if the museum allows it) or photo bomb the work.
If you want to tweet, hashtag #ITweetMuseums and someone might strike up a conversation with you about the artwork. Take the time you have.
And don't wander around, waiting for something to hit you. Do you wait in a coffee shop for true love to come through the door, walk up and propose? Nope. Art is similar -- you won't get 'struck' by something that shakes you to the core by racing around seeing every work you can. Take it easy, date art as slowly as you would date people. True love might be out there.
2. Seek your space
Find those dark corners away from Starry Night. Don't just see the highlights -- see the side galleries. Did you know the Met Museum has an incredible visible storage in the American Wing? Or the Guggenheim has a basement with a theatre that often shows video pertaining to the current exhibition? Investigate the map; see what looks interesting to you and head there.
Or stand in front of Starry Night. You shouldn't avoid a popular work because it is popular -- even if you've seen it before. Watching people interact with artwork is possibly one of the greatest sociology experiments. I was at LACMA on business and I watched a family staring at a Rothko, trying to make sense of the color fields. The older male said, "It looks like it's vibrating" while his wife (?) said, "it looks more like it's swinging." The key is finding the space that works for you and your art viewing, even if it's the loudest corner of the museum.
3. Just do you
Some people respond to art with knowledge. Some people respond to art by looking. Some people respond by moving, listening to music, sketching. You know what kind of learner you are. And if you don't, try things. Pose like the sculpture or move like the shapes. Just stop and look. Wiki the work, read the museum label or online catalogue, listen to the audio guide or sketch a detail. Just do you.
If you decide you are an interpersonal learner and want to interact with others, take a museum tour. Those questions the educator is asking? Chances are they 1) Want to see where you are at in 'understanding' the art 2) Want to see what you are interested in 3) Want to show that everyone can have an opinion about art, and yours matters as much as the curators.
See the common theme? You.
Museum education programs care about the visitor. What is the art if you aren't there? A historical thing on the wall. As a museum educator, we don't think learning from authority is oppressive. We DO think that all opinions are equally valid, as long as they are backed up with thought. I've had many people tell me contemporary art is crap. "Great," I respond, "Why do you think that?" Silence. Then, "well I could do it." My response? "Ok you need art to show skill, let me show you x later, they were classically trained..."
See what happened? It goes back to the YOU. What you think and feel about art IS important, because without, the museum is just a place with a bunch of things on the walls.
4. Remember in your own way
This ties very much into my previous point. Remember what appeals to you. If you'll remember your experience with the artwork by the date, fantastic. If you aren't a number person (like me), exactly what will the date do for you? Or the name of the artist?
Take in what affects you. Is it the brush strokes? The color? The connection of the figures? If you are dealing with an artwork you actually like, creating a mental image, sketching, acting out the piece will be fun. So will Instagramming it. Museums do not have to be like school -- you don't have to cram in facts regarding the artists or movements shown in exhibitions. You definitely can, but again, you do you.
5. Ignore everything I said
How to really view art? Ignore everything I just said, except for the title of point three. Just do you. Don't listen to me, don't listen to Kennicott -- listen to yourself. If you are bored, take a break. If you are interested in a work, investigate further. If you want to move, listen to music, sketch, get a coffee, tweet, laugh, cry -- whatever. Interact with art in any way YOU want to.
A few years ago at a conference, David Carr said to a group of museum educators "Museums aren't for everyone. But they should be for anyone." Never had a truer statement been said regarding museum -- they should be for anyone, even if you use it as a backdrop for a date, air conditioning on a hot day, a library, a school or a place to center yourself. Without you, museums are giant holding centers for bits of human history.
So just do you.