Essay: The Art of Looking at Art

Writing in The Washington Post (2014), art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott shares his thoughts on how to view art respectfully and seriously but without expecting too much. His advice can be distilled into 5 things: take time, seek silence, study up, engage memory, accept contradictions. Below are edited excerpts from his essay. Some questions to ponder: what is giving time and silence to art important to the experience of viewing art? Is there a difference between visiting an art museum versus a science and history museum? If so, what do the differences tell us about the nature of art?

TAKE TIME

The biggest challenge when visiting an art museum is to disengage from our distracted selves. The pervasive, relentless, all-consuming power of time is the enemy. If you are thinking about where you have to be next, what you have left undone, what you could be doing instead of standing in front of art, there is no hope that anything significant will happen. But to disengage from time has become extraordinarily complicated. We are addicted to devices that remind us of the presence of time, cell phones and watches among them, but cameras too because the camera has become a crutch to memory, and memory is our only defense against the loss of time. So leave all your devices behind. And never, ever make plans for what to do later in a museum. if you overhear people making plans for supper, drinks or when to relieve the baby sitter, give them a sharp, baleful look. If you have only an hour, visit only one room. Anything that makes you feel rushed or compelled to move quickly will reengage you with the sense of busy-ness that defines ordinary life.

SEEK SILENCE

Always avoid noise, because noise isn’t just distracting, it makes us hate other people. If you’re thinking about the mind-numbing banality of the person next to you, there’s little hope that you will be receptive to art. In a museum, imagine that you have a magnetic repulsion to everyone else. Move toward empty space. Indulge your misanthropy.

That’s not always easy. Too many museums have exceptionally noisy, and in some cases, that’s by design. When it comes to science and history museums, noise is often equated with visitor engagement, a sign that people are enjoying the experience. In art museums, noise isn’t just a question of bad manners but a result of the celebrity status of certain artworks, such as the Mona Lisa, which attracts vast and inevitably tumultuous throngs of visitors to the Louvre. But any picture that attracts hordes of people has long since died, a victim of its own renown, its aura dissipated, its meaning lost in heaps of platitudes and cant. Say a prayer for its soul and move on.

Seek some quiet corner of the museum full of things no one else seems to care about. Art that is generally regarded as insipid (19th-century American genre paintings) or hermetic (religious icons from the Byzantine world) is likely to feel very lonely, and its loneliness will make it generous. It may be poor, but it will offer you everything it has.

STUDY UP

One of the most deceptive promises made by our stewards of culture over the past half century is: you don’t need to know anything to enjoy art. This is true only in the most limited sense. Yes, art can speak to us even in our ignorance. But’s there’s a far more powerful truth: Our response to art is directly proportional to our knowledge of it.

So study up. Even 10 minutes on Wikipedia can help orient you and fundamentally transform the experience. Better yet, read the old cranks of art history, especially the ones who knew how to write and have now become unfashionable (Kenneth Clark, Ernst Gombrich). When visiting special exhibitions, always read the catalogue, or at least the main catalogue essay. If you can’t afford the catalogue, read it in the gift shop.

Rules for the gift shop: never buy anything that isn’t a book, never “save time” for the gift shop because this will make you think about time. Never take children, because they will associate art with commerce.

Many museums have public education programs, including tours through the galleries with trained docents. Always shadow a docent tour before joining one. If the guide spends all of his or her time asking questions (about what you are feeling and thinking) rather than explaining art and imparting knowledge, do not waste your time.

ENGAGE MEMORY

The experience of art is ephemeral, and on one level we have to accept that. But beyond the subjective experience, art is also something to be studied and debated. Unfortunately, unlike most things we study and debate, art is difficult to summarize and describe. Without a verbal description of what you have seen, you may feel as if nothing happened during your visit. You may even feel you can’t remember anything about it, as if it was just a wash of images with nothing to hold on to. Some museum educators will tell you that details like the name of the artist, the countries in which they work, the years they lived and were active and a host of other things doesn’t matter; they are lying. Always try to remember the names of and at least the work of an artist whom you didn’t know before walking into the museum. Make an effort to give yourself a verbal description of them. Perhaps write it in a notebook. The process of giving a verbal description will make details of the work more tangible, and will force you to look more deeply and confront your own entrenched blindness toward art. If your description feels cliched, then go back again and again until you have said something that seems more substantial. This can be exhausting. But that means you’re making progress in the fight against oblivion.

ACCEPT CONTRADICTIONS

Art must have some utopian mission, must seek to make the world better, must engage with injustice and misery. Art has no other mission than to express visual ideas in its own self-sufficient language. Which view is correct? Both are. As one art lover supposedly said to another: Monet, Manet, both are correct.

Susan Sontag once argued “against interpretation” and in favor of a more immediate, more sensual, more purely subjective response to art, but others argue that art is a part of culture and embodies a wide range of cultural meanings and that our job is to ferret them out. Again, both are correct.

The experience of art always enmires us in contradictions. I loathe figurative contemporary art except when I don’t; ditto with abstraction. When looking at a painting, it’s often useful to try believing two wildly contradictory things: that it is just an object, and an everyday sort of object, and that it is a phenomenally radical expression of human subjectivity. Both are correct.

I’ve come to accept that I believe wildly contradictory and incompatible things about art. By forcing us to confront contradictions, art makes us ridiculous, exposes our pathetic attempts to make sense of experience, reveals the fault lines of our incredibly faculty knowledge of ourselves and the world. It is nasty, dangerous stuff, and not to be trifled with.

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