Museum Day Around the World

May 18 is International Museum Day so visit one if you can and don't be put off by pedants who say you need to do "homework" beforehand.

That's what The Washington Post 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 catalog, or at least the main catalog essay. If you can't afford the catalogue, read it in the gift shop.

That's lousy, 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 exhibit souvenirs, 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 specifically 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, only when I felt like it. I had a blast, and so did my friends from Milwaukee (Hey guys!), who didn't do any research either.


I felt the same way in London last summer at the Tate Modern special exhibitions of Matisse, who I knew a little, and of Russian artist Malevich, whose work was a total blank to me. Both 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. I just let the art speak for itself.


In a world drenched with 24/7 information, what's wrong with just experiencing art? Who says you have to "study up?" Going to a museum shouldn't 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 because exhibitions are designed with more than enough information on the walls.

So let go and enjoy. Don't feel obligated to do research. You'll be much more relaxed, and you'll see more than if you felt there was a quiz waiting for you at the end instead of that gift shop.


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.