How to Look at Art 101
Ok, show of hands. Who has ever walked into an art museum or gallery only to experience confusion, anxiety, or an overwhelming feeling of, “I just don’t get it”? Perhaps you’re even wondering why you let yourself be dragged there in the first place.
Well, you’re not alone. Sometimes art spaces can seem intimidating (or even boring) but I promise there is nothing to be afraid of. With a few simple tools in your back pocket, you can confidently stride into any museum or gallery and feel interested and empowered when looking at art. You just need a little strategy! Here’s a little 101 on how to look at (and approach) art.
- Think About It. First things first - before trying to dive deep and search for some euphoric “meaning” in the artwork in front of you, just get back to basics. What do you see? Take a deep breath and let it all soak in - try to identify shapes, colors, textures, or patterns. If there are audio components, what do you hear? Can you figure out what it “is?” Identify any animals, people, objects, locations, etc. that you see in the work to help you figure out what it’s all about.
Does it remind you of anything? Each and every viewer brings their own unique background and understanding with them to the museum. You have your own history and set of experiences that inform how you will interpret the art...embrace it! You might see something in this art that no one else around you does, and that doesn’t mean your reaction is wrong, it means that you are uniquely interacting with the work. (Let’s reiterate that - there is no right or wrong here, I promise) Don’t underestimate your emotional response, either. Before assigning meaning or a narrative to the visual material, I encourage you to think about themes the work evokes in you.
- Talk About It. Talk it out! If you are visiting with friends or family, or even standing near some friendly strangers or a docent, strike up a conversation. If something is interesting, curious, confusing, etc. to you, chances are someone else might feel the same way or might be able to offer more insight. Discussing art with others can help you see it in new ways and consider perspectives you had not thought of previously.
- Read About It. The labels (and other interpretive materials like videos, pamphlets, or interactive displays) are there for a reason, so read them! Especially when approaching something new or unfamiliar, the written materials that accompany an artwork can help you make sense of what you’re looking at, or at least give you some clues to use as a “jumping off point” to begin your own exploration. If you get the chance, it can also be helpful to do a little homework before you even set foot on site. If you know what exhibition(s) you’re going to see, take a peek at the institution’s website - chances are, you’ll find an overview and some helpful info that will help give you context and flesh out the backstory before you see the art face to face.
I think it’s safe to say that you are now well-equipped to take on the art world (or at least feel more comfortable and confident when approaching art). Now, get out there! You may even enjoy yourself.