Is this scene all too familiar? By now it should be no secret that I am gaga over art, but museums are daunting. They are tiring. They can be boring. Many visitors confess to dragging themselves around for hours just to feel like they are getting their money’s worth or, in the case of the free Smithsonian museums, visitors feel guilty if a day’s visit to a museum fails to produce swollen ankles and blisters on their feet.
Pulitzer prize-winning art critic Philip Kennicott wrote a very useful and quite hilarious article in the Washington Post’s museum arts section entitled HOW TO VIEW ART. I have provided the link to the article, but most people would rather have the abbreviated Cliff Notes of the five pointers Kennicott outlines. So here goes:
1. Take time
Obvious, right? But Kennicott points out that looking at art while distracted by our ubiquitous digital devices or thinking about competing demands on our time makes the museum visit a lost cause. As he puts it, “there is no hope that anything significant will happen.” In other words, don’t even bother.
2. Seek Silence
You’ll get a lot more out of those quiet rooms hiding forgotten gems than you will crowding around the most famous artworks that have become a parody of themselves. Kennicott also warns of another danger in following the crowd: “Always avoid noise, because noise isn’t just distracting, it makes us hate other people”.
3. Study up
What? He wants us to do our homework? Shouldn’t we just lazily sweep the walls and pedestals till our eye alights – for a fleeting moment – upon a work of art that ‘speaks’ to us? No, says Kennicott. The more you know, the more you will enjoy. I couldn’t agree more. I always try to time my visits with a tour and invariably learn interesting tidbits of information that heighten my enjoyment of the art.
4. Engage memory
Here Kennicott wants us to engage in mental exercises. He suggests that we try to remember a fact, or two, or three, about a particular work (artist’s name, year created, etc.) so that it will have some lasting power. Try this: observe a work of art, turn away from it and try to describe it in your head. Kennicott makes no bones about how he feels about those museum educators who dismiss the importance of remembering such details: “They are lying.”
5. Accept contradiction
Even the so-called experts flip-flop about how they feel about art. One can’t generalize or have just one response. “Art is inspiring and depressing, it excites and enervates us, it makes us more generous and more selfish.” And this is just as it should be. In fact, don’t expect a museum visit to cure the blues. Kennicott concludes that “If you feel better about yourself when you leave a museum, you’re probably doing it all wrong.”