There have been lots of posts on the internet of late (at least the dusty corners that I frequent) about the ‘right’ way to look at art. As an educator, I spend time thinking about ways to help people get the most out of their gallery experiences, and thinking about what makes these experiences the most interesting, meaningful and fun. But is there a ‘right’ way to do it?
The short answer: that depends.
It depends on many factors – who you are, why you are looking at art, what you want to get out of your experience of looking, what you knew before, what you want to know after, who you are with, and also what you are seeing.
The Washington Post, in an article titled “How to view Art: Be Dead Serious About it but Don’t Expect too Much” recommends seriousness, silence and homework. While this article may appeal to a certain audience seeking an educational and immersive experience, this smacks of museum as ivory tower – elite, aloof and exclusive.
Then there is the debate about museum selfies – On one hand, a Huffington Post article decries their intrusiveness and the self-centeredness of a generation that they are a symptom of – the writer asks why people can’t just enjoy the art? On the other hand, we see Museum Selfie Day, and institutions around the world embracing new visitors, new(ish) technologies and the socializing of the museum visit. (Google it – you’ll find droves of sites). Again, while I have felt the irritation of people in my line of sight, I am more interested in seeing a new audience engaging with art in their own way.
Dr. John Falk, a leading museum researcher, presents an interesting viewpoint to help us understand how and why people visit museums. His work focuses on identity and visitor motivations and offers a really interesting perspective if you are interested in such things. You can find a short synopsis here.
I sometimes find that if I know a bit about an artwork or artist, I like it a little more. For some artworks it is how it’s made or what it’s made of; for others it is about the context of the work; and in some cases it’s all about the feeling of seeing something amazing in a room full of amazing things. When I visited MoMA, I sat in the room with two huge water lily paintings and just soaked it all in. On that trip I also took several hundred photos to remind me of my experiences – though I did make time to see the work myself first, not just through the camera. On different occasions, I have fit into each of Falk’s audience types, and each time I get something different out of an experience.
Here’s what I think:
If you are looking at art, you are doing it right.
There are many resources, motivations and levels of experience available to you – use what feels right. And maybe you’ll want to try something else the next time. Just keep doing it.