I have a love-hate relationship with art museums. With fine art in general.
It is a battle between inspiration and ignorance. I love how art inspires me, how it sets my mind on fire; I hate that I don’t know enough about the source of my inspiration to make sense out of why each piece impacts me as it does.
Somewhere along the line, because I love that feeling of being inspired by a piece of art, I developed a way of looking at art that helps me deal with what I lack in terms of my knowledge of art and my ability to articulate my physiological and emotional responses to art.
This is how I approach an art exhibit: I enter the exhibit hall and read the description of the exhibition. Then I stand in front of the first piece of art in the room. I stand far enough away to take the individual piece in as a whole. As I look, I silently ask myself questions: Do I find the piece (or the installation) visually pleasing or not? Does it make me uncomfortable or put me at ease? Do I have any idea what it is about?
With the answers to those questions in my head, I read the description next to the piece. Then, I reexamine the piece but this time in smaller segments. I look more carefully at the central subject, whether it is human or an object. I notice how the subject is positioned in relation to the frame of the work and to the other objects and people in close contact with the subject. I notice the details of the dress or decorative elements surrounding the subject.
The next thing I do is look beyond the subject. What’s happening in the background? How do these things impact the subject? What does their positioning and relationship to the other elements of the work say about these things?
Finally, I step back and look again at the painting as a whole. This is the first time in the process that I let myself indulge in judgment. Do I like the piece enough to wish I could display it in my home where I could see it regularly? Do I like it but not feel the need to ever see it again? Do I find it ugly or disturbing or so uninteresting that I hope I’ll never have to see it again? This judging gives me a chance to close the loop of the “looking at a piece of art” experience. I saw, I analyzed, I judged. Now I can move on.
The whole process (looking, analyzing, judging) can take as few as two minutes and as long as an hour. It usually takes about five minutes. After I’m done with one piece, I move on to the next and begin my process again.
What happens as I make my way through an exhibit is that I begin to pick and choose which pieces I am going to take past the looking stage. If at first glance, I don’t get at all wound up or inspired, I move on. I probably wouldn’t do this if I had all the time in the world, but looking at art is a luxury and time is of the essence.
Today, while viewing the Dutch painting exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I overheard an older woman explaining to her friend how she likes to spend her time at the museum and why.
“When I go to the museum, I only look at one exhibit. Even if I’m interested in several. After I’ve walked through the one exhibit, I find whoever I came with and we grab a bite to eat at the museum cafe. Then we leave. I get mentally exhausted after one exhibit, so it doesn’t make sense for me to try to enjoy a second one. I know that I won’t. So I save it for the next time I come.”
I heard this confession as I was nearing the final paintings in the Dutch exhibit. It was a moment when I had to hold my tongue. What I’d wanted to say was that I felt the exact same way, but she was speaking to her friend in confidence and I was eaves-dropping, so I decided against interfering.
Art sets me off-balance. It causes emotional reactions that I can’t explain. If I spend some time trying to understand the elements, I feel a little closer to understanding the artwork in its entirety. But, the process of trying to understand is mentally exhausting. At some point, I lose the ability to respond honestly to what I see.
Years ago, when I would reach that point, I’d berate myself and force myself to continue on to other exhibits. I only make it to the museum occasionally, so I wanted to get the most bang for my buck. But times have changed. I am older and wiser now (maybe.)
When we left the Dutch painting exhibit today, my daughter and I did not move on to view another exhibit. Instead, we took a detour through the Buddhist meditation room in the Asian arts area before finding our way to the museum cafe. Where we ate a lovely lunch and then headed out of the museum and onto our next destination.
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