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How to Appreciate Art in a New Light

Let me be the first to tell you, the social signalling that so often occurs in the art community turns me off faster than you can say “pumpkin spice latte.” The Starbucks sipping, tight pants wearing, cool glasses wearing, Instagram posting… just typing that made me throw up a little in my mouth.

Okay, not actually. I’m being intentionally dramatic because, hey, that’s just good writing! But still, there is some truth to it. I am bothered by it, and I wholly sympathize with people who aren’t interested in art museums because of things like this. I personally know only a single person (Eric) who appreciates art in the way I’m about to discuss in this post despite how many people I know visit art museums. (More on Eric down below.)

I know that sounds very judgmental, and to an extent, it is. There are some people that visit art museums simply to get good “I’m a deep thinker” pics for their Instagram account. I saw PLENTY of those people last time I was at the Art Institute of Chicago. But I also believe that there are plenty of people, including myself, that go because they do genuinely want to feel some “transcendental” feeling that comes from appreciating art.

If you’re one of those people, welcome. This post is just for you.

(A little disclaimer: I’m NOT formally trained in any sort of art history or appreciation, so if you disagree with me on certain points, that’s okay. This post isn’t for you; it’s for the layperson like me.)

First, let’s talk about what art appreciation is not. Art appreciation is NOT examining the brush strokes, style of the time period, or whatever other fancy terms you hear tossed around. There’s nothing inherently bad about those things, and there may even be some beauty in understanding those things. But for the average joe like you and me, it’s like talking about the genome structure of a puppy or baby. The science-y stuff behind the scenes doesn’t do so much for you as that puppy dog licking your face. Plus, I think we all can agree that if you master the right brush strokes and can paint an exact replica of the Mona Lisa, we wouldn’t hardly call that replica “art”, right?

Back to my friend Eric. Before I learned to dismiss the general notion regarded above, he took me and a few other folks to an art museum, and I was terrified. Knowing he is sort of an art buff, I didn’t want to embarrass myself by not displaying any prowess in the science or history of art. Eric — being the caring person he is — turned us loose and told us to find one piece that “spoke to us” and share with the group why. He initiated, and what he did was not something I expected at all: He started talking about his own personal life and feelings. He shared that the particular painting we looked at reminded him of his family and his time in the military and his development through his faith.

Huh? What about the canvas selection? What about the color choice?

The following few hours were some of the most memorable in my life. Somebody would approach a work of art, share how it called out to their own personal life, and we would have a loving, fruitful discussion on how that person’s introspection invoked some sort of introspection in our own lives.

It was… healing.

Now, let’s step outside of the art museum for a second. Think about how a Starbucks is stylized as opposed to a Best Buy. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but there’s something about the stylization of each’s architecture that invokes certain feelings within us. Starbucks feels home-y. Best Buy feels… electronic? I would imagine that Starbucks’ business model wouldn’t do nearly as well if their interiors looked like Best Buy.

Okay, back to the art museum. If we understand that our visual sense invokes within us certain feelings, then we can begin to see the individual art pieces as a playground for the mind to explore those feelings. Why do I feel that way when seeing that statue? Why do I relate so much the way that man is posed in that painting? What is it about the “twinkle” in that painted woman’s eye that I find so alluring?

This introspection speaks to the soul.

And you don’t at all have to do this in a group setting. Eric lovingly led our group in healthy discussion, but it can turn toxic if somebody chooses to be “antagonistic” to the experience. By antagonistic, I don’t necessarily mean being rude. It can be that, but I also simply mean not present. If somebody is aloof or only interested in the superficial things listed at the top of this post, it can be off putting. Going alone is a totally viable option. Heck, I just did this myself about two months ago.

Here’s the kicker to it all. Once you start developing these “introspective muscles,” you begin to see that there is nothing confined within the walls of the art museum that you can’t experience outside of the art museum. To a lesser extent, you do this every day! We already talked about how you feel differently in a Starbucks as opposed to a Best Buy. An art museum helps to “unlock” this perception because we are pretty desensitized to our every day surroundings because, well, we see those surroundings every day. (Duh.) But if you take this seriously… you’ll see art everywhere. (This is why I go on walks all the time now, because nature speaks to me like no other these days.)

Anyway, I tried to make those post as LEAST pretentious as possible. I promise you, I’m not trying to isolate you or make you feel stupid. I truly hope you feel welcome and invited, and I hope this post adds value to your life like it has added value to mine. I’ll see you in the next post.

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