If you’ve traveled abroad, you’ve probably read a guidebook or two before your trip in hopes of a perfectly planned journey. Museums are often included on a must-see list of places to visit in a new city. But many visitors at world-renowned art museums are far from art lovers. The many tourists eagerly snapping photographs in front of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night at New York’s MoMA may not know much about the artist’s compassionate and tortured personality, or his capacity to convey profound emotion through color and line. So, why are art museums and the art within them so revered? Certainly they provide viewers with large doses of culture, allowing them to witness thousands of years of visual expressions. But the knowledge offered by museums is often lost on photography-snapping viewers, who are more interested showing off their photographs and claiming, “I was there. I saw that” than actually taking time to understand the art.
True art appreciation demands much more than gawking. It is easy to look at a piece of art without really seeing it. Sure, Starry Night depicts, well, a starry night, with lots of houses and a very tall (cypress) tree below, but what does it mean? And perhaps more importantly, how does it make you feel? Does the undulating sky—which is almost palpable due to the artist’s quick, short, and purposeful brushstrokes—help you sense van Gogh’s mental unease and intense sensitivity? Van Gogh completed the painting while at a sanitarium in Saint-Rémy, France, in June 1889. It was inspired by the view from the window in his room in the sanitarium, though he painted it from memory and imagination. He observed his surroundings, while also recalling the landscape of his childhood in the Netherlands (he inserted a Dutch church in the small village), and creating a sky that evokes his emotions and nervous mind. Understanding the story behind the painting adds an entirely new meaning to the piece that you certainly could not see or know from quickly stopping in front of the painting during a visit.
Dare to appreciate art by taking the time to get to know art. Do more than look at the art when passing through a gallery. Feel the work of art by taking the time to develop your own ideas about the piece. Finally, explore the work of art by reading about the artist and the intent of the artist.
- Visit a nearby museum. It’s likely that your own city boasts a wonderful collection of art.
- Sanction Time. Carve out at least two hours in your day to spend with the art. This will allow you enough time to engage with the images and let them speak to you.
- Discern your favorites. Toward the end of your visit, go back to look at the three works of art that most intrigued you during your visit. Rely on the visual characteristics of the works to teach you about their meaning, and then, once home, resolve to understand them further by continuing your researchthrough books or online resources.