How can I learn to enjoy art?
July 2, 2006 1:23 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn to enjoy art? Most of the fine arts do nothing for me. Maybe I've grown up trying to be too logical and scientific about everything. Any advice on how to "get" art, especially from people who used to be like me?
posted by lunchbox to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Study the history of art. By putting the pieces in context, it makes them much more interesting for me. See if there is a class at a local college, or just watch that Sister Wendy PBS series from some years ago. It's a bit light and fluffy, but it's a start, and easily accessible for the novice.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:44 PM on July 2, 2006

I definately recommend starting with the history of art. Not only will you understand the context in which different styles and schools of thought came to be, but you might just discover a style or artist that you love but never even knew existed. Take a few hours and sit in a customer-friendly bookstore and browse and browse and browse...
posted by catcatwomanman at 1:47 PM on July 2, 2006

I used to complain about not being able to enjoy art. I thought I was too technical, too, but realized that maybe I just don't enjoy some types of art. Nowadays I stick to the forms of art that seem to maintain my interest (music, painting, and photography) and I find myself staying much more interested and involved.

"Art" is a huge area. You don't have to enjoy or "get" all of it.
posted by yellowbkpk at 1:51 PM on July 2, 2006

I can't say I used to be like you -- I grew up around art (my dad's an artist) and now work in an art museum -- but I have noticed a few trends among friends of mine who don't "get" art. I think you're right that it may stem from being too logical and scientific; there seems to be (for my friends like this) an underlying assumption that all works of art must A) mean one specific thing, B) that specific meaning was "put there" by the artist, and C) the act of viewing art must therefore be to solve/decipher/discover this embedded meaning.*

If any of that rings a bell, I would suggest you to (try) to toss that straight out of the window. Instead of viewing art as a process of determining meaning (the way you might solve a crossword puzzle), I would suggest you try to look at it as an open-ended experience without a specfic answer. In other words, start from the point of seeing what a painting (or sculpture, or whatever) make you think about or feel. Forget worrying about what it means; do you like it for its subject matter, its color, its rhythm, its emotion?

Also, don't feel bad or stupid if you don't feel much of anything in front of some works of art. You don't have to like everything. Heck, I don't like everything, and I've spent most of my life around art.

*Interestingly, this is analogous to the mental process I discovered in my students when I used to teach freshman English who said they didn't like reading literature -- it turned out that what they didn't like was this notion that there was some sort of hidden meaning they were supposed to find. Once I said they could throw the idea of "hidden meaning" out the window, they found that reading became more pleasurable.
posted by scody at 1:55 PM on July 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

I don't think there's any trick. You just have to be open to looking/listening/reading/etc.

Fine Art (by that I mean paintings) didn't do a lot for me when I was younger. I didn't "get" it, I guess. Then, one day I was meeting a girl in a gallery and I walked into a room and the only painting there was Paterson Ewen's Northern Lights. (jpg is a joke--you've got to see it in person.)

I was awe-struck. It literally took my breath away and I had to sit down (I think this is a common reaction to seeing this piece in person as the only thing in the room with the painting was a bench). If I ever get rich beyond belief, that painting will be mine.

So I think it's basically just finding the artist(s) that click--for me that seems to be large abstracts and I now have a small but growing collection. (I just acquired this one! -- again, pic doesn't do it justice; it's stunning in person.)

I think this (finding the niche that appeals to you) applies to all art forms--if music doesn't move you, for instance, I think it's just because you haven't heard the right tune. If you're keen on changing that (and your question makes me think you are), then the only solution is to listen to everything you can. I bet when you find it you'll be floored!
posted by dobbs at 2:04 PM on July 2, 2006

In my experience, most people who don't get art have been brainwashed by school into thinking that paintings contain secret messages that they're supposed to decode (themes, social/political messages, etc.).

But most great art is SENSUAL. Try focusing on the colors and shapes. Is a canvas filled with sun-like reds? Does it make you feel hot? Is it blue and mysterious? Is it heavy with large, blocky forms? Does it feel crowded? Is it open and spacious. Are there people in it DOING something? Does it tell a story? Or is it a fun abstract pattern?

Try to respond to art the way you respond to music or food. It's input for your senses. When green enters your retina, what neurons get fired in your brain?

If you can't respond on this emotional level, you may just need more exposure. You may just be like someone who can't tell one wine from another and doesn't get why people make such a big deal out of wine in the first place. The cure for this is to drink lots of wine (over a long period of time). The cure for art-not-making-you-feel is to visit many museums, look at many art books, look at art websites, etc. (If you live near any museums, definitely visit them. Large-scale paintings can be awe-inspiring, like anything massive -- like a mountain or ocean; you can't get that effect looking at a small print in a book.)

It's possible that art already DOES make you feel, but you don't think "just" feeling is getting it. Others may violently disagree, but I think feeling is the main point of getting it. Yes, there are intellectual aspects to art; yes, one might choose to study the artist's biography, the art movement he was a part of; the cultural influences; etc. But all of that is gravy. The meat of art is how it makes you feel. Since emotions are devalued in academic settings, many educated people forget that paintings best attack the eye, the gut -- and sometimes the crotch. The intellect is not so important.

I once had a friend who liked figurative art, but he hated anything abstract. He would look at a Jackson Pollack and say, "What's the point?" I asked him if he liked abstract designs on clothes, wallpaper, dishes, etc. He said he did. So I suggested that he shouldn't have a problem with similar stuff on a museum wall. He said, "But I like designs on clothes because they are pretty. Surely paintings in a museum are supposed to be more important." There's an example of someone not letting himself just look and enjoy. School trained him that if something is in a museum, it MUST be there for some lofty reason. It can't just be pretty or fun or scary or ugly or beautiful. An abstract on a museum wall is the same as an abstract design on a t-shirt, except when it's on the wall, it's removed from any link to functionality. So you can just focus on the pattern and colors, without thinking about a shirt.

It's possible that you've been numbed by exposure to too much "loud" stimuli. We live in a world filled with giant loud speakers, deafening rock concerts, and movies with ultra-realistic explosions. Most paintings and sculptures work on a subtle level. If all you've ever had to drink is coke, it takes time to appreciate water with a slice of lemon in it. If you're used to getting your rush from roller-coasters and pyrotechnics, it may take a while before you can appreciate Monet's Water Lilies. Again, the secret is time and exposure.

If your mind is overly analytical, you might want to explore the science of art, which is pretty new. I'm talking about the Cognitive Science. Psychologists like V.S. Ramachandran are the pioneers. He's trying to figure out why people respond to art. Why they make art. Fascinating stuff.

There's also a lot of science in the craftsmanship. Study optics, perspective, the science of color, etc.

Good luck!
posted by grumblebee at 2:08 PM on July 2, 2006 [2 favorites]

Learn about it from a historical perspective (that is both internal to art and what was going on at the time in the world. Not necessarily how "art" effects "life").

Find things you just simply like because they're beautiful. You don't need to love every piece of art to be an art lover. You've got to be able to find one thing you really like. Learn more about that school, movement, aesthetic or artist.

Read philosophy of art / aesthetics. You'll probably enjoy the anglo-american thread more than the continental thread. (please, no lectures for this last one.)
posted by miniape at 2:10 PM on July 2, 2006

I don't know if anyone can teach you to enjoy art. I think you might have to 'need' it in someway. If what you have in your life now inspires you, helps you undersand the world, or makes you comfortable, and that is good enough for you, then stick with that.

You don't need the arts to be a well-rounded person, but I think it helps develop sympathy and respect for other people's perspectives. Pure logic and reason is sometimes about order in the status quo, and not how to change it or see potentials.

Also, I think most people are turned off by the corporate art world and the ridiculous sums of money these people throw around, and it really poisons the whole practice IMHO.
posted by lslelel at 2:11 PM on July 2, 2006

I wouldn't call myself knowledgeable about art in any way, shape, or form. I mostly enjoy art for the emotions it conjures. Whether it's a Rembrandt self-portrait or a Tori Amos song, I can appreciate the beauty, the genius, or the angst. I don't think about it too much.

Take a look at Munch's, The Scream. How do you feel when you view this piece of art? How do you think the subject feels?

I mostly appreciate art for its beauty. Whether it's the blown glass flowers on the Bellagio ceiling, or Degas's ballerinas. I just like them. They make me happy.

I can also appreciate art for it's sheer genius. There are some works of art that seem utterly impossible for a human being to have created so magnificently. Michelangelo's statue of David and his paintings in the Sistine Chapel are a good example of this, in my opinion.

I am sure you have prints or paintings in your house that you bought just because they are attractive to you. It's as simple as that. If you like something, or it makes you feel or think a certain way, go with it.

I am sure others will have much more eloquent and intelligent posts (they already have), but my advice is to go with your feelings. It's a good thing if you can enjoy something for the way it makes you feel, or for its sheer beauty, but I don't think there is also nothing wrong with approaching a work of art with a scientific eye. You can probably appreciate the Golden Gate Bridge more than I, or the paintings on the dome of St. Paul's cathedral (how did the artists get up there? How did they manage to suspend themselves, and paint so beautifully, and to scale?) It's a different form of appreciation. I don't think that's a bad thing.
posted by LoriFLA at 2:28 PM on July 2, 2006

oops, meant to say:

but, I don't think there is anything wrong with....
posted by LoriFLA at 2:31 PM on July 2, 2006

drugs / alcohol. no really, seriously. you don't have to be on them all the time, just give them a try to kickstart the aesthetic side of your brain.
posted by randomstriker at 2:42 PM on July 2, 2006

Study art history sure, but make it a point to spend an afternoon in an art museum viewing and contemplating the art. If your entire conception of the masterworks of art are by viewing pictures in a book or on the internet I can see what the problem is. To get the full impact of a painting or sculpture, you have to be in front of it, looking at it from inches away and then from the middle of the gallery. You have to look at the paint strokes, lines and the colors.

Not every painting you see will make you gasp but at least look at them a little and determine what it is that makes you feel a certain way. Art is a language, so it will take some effort to learn. That's not to say that you have to become an expert on the differences between Fauvism and Impressionism but you need to get a feel for how all these paint daubs on canvas are arranged to tell you something. Magritte's painting, "This is not a pipe" is not a pipe otherwise you could smoke out of it. And that is part of the magic of even the most realistic art. Art is a representation of something filtered through the memory or emotions of the artist. Art will create a response in the viewer based on their memory and emotions which may vary from the artist's. So the biggest thing that is expected of you is to view the art and have a response, a thought, or a feeling.
posted by JJ86 at 2:45 PM on July 2, 2006

C's wife here again. Go to a good museum, and go through the rooms at your pace, or at least a lot more quickly than you feel you should, do not feel at all obliged to look at all the paintings, do not read any of the wall tags at all, go right up to whatever calls to you in that room, if nothing calls to you, go on to the next room. After you browse quickly through a whole museum this way, you will have more of a sense what you like, and then go back through and read the tags on the ones you liked, and then go to a great library and borrow a beautifully printed coffee table book of the artist. Do not read the book, just look at the pictures. Repeat at another museum.
posted by coevals at 2:57 PM on July 2, 2006

Lots of great advice here. Like randomstriker said, though, under the right circumstances the correct chemical can definitely kickstart something. A couple of glasses of red wine, for example, may allow emotions closer to the surface than you are used to.

Ever smoked pot? I rarely have, but I find it enormously useful for this in a quiet personal setting. I discovered this when one night I got mildly stoned by myself and sat and absorbed a book on decorative typography from cover to cover. Lines and shapes, colors and words-- they take on a special power when the mind is in this state. And as someone who is a great appreciator of art, I recognized this as merely an amplification of what I normally experience during a play or at a museum.

Most people associate marijuana with social settings, but the only way I can enjoy it is at home, blissfully rediscovering my music collection or my favorite books. May not be your thing, but it bears mention here.

It takes a certain amount of madness to create brilliant art, which usually hearkens to the viewer to meet the artist in the middle. This is just one way.
posted by hermitosis at 3:08 PM on July 2, 2006

By "getting" art, I assume you mean appreciate and or respect contemporary art on its own merit. Since contemporary art is often about subleties and abstraction, it can be overwhelming or easy to cast off as hype.

I have always found studying about the various movements and how the offshoots of those movements developed under a few artists' guidance, fascinating. It helps me to appreciate, and later be awe-inspired, by artists like Rothko or Basquiat. (Who both often get the "I could do that, why is that worth millions of dollars" comment.)

Then you can move to artists that are famous for reinventing their styles and are often difficult to understand since they don't subscribe to any particular school of thought. Some of my favorites include Richter, Cy Twombly, Hirst, Do Ho Suh

When you begin to understand the interrelationships of the artists, a new appreciation can be felt for what they accomplished.

To me that is "getting" art, and makes the pieces and artists monumental.
posted by Benway at 3:29 PM on July 2, 2006

I once hotly debated an art student about the specific value of various kinds of art. My view focused on content and raw emotional power over technique. His view side-stepped that in favor of the epistemology his professors favored. He would invariably defer opinion to the institution that created him -- an appreciation of the appreciators, and thorough scrutinizing of diplomas.

My father is a muralist and pen and ink artist of moderate fame in his circles. He went to school for art, and tries to do a similar art snob routine. He fails at it miserably, getting things wrong, and interjecting things awkwardly into conversations where they find no familiarity. He's also different from the art student I mentioned in that he has talent. He, like most actual artists I know, runs on instinct rather than lofty theory.

If these two people can occupy the same visual arts arena, and still have the praise of their peers, it tells me what I already know. That art, while technical and offering opportunities to add on to greater ideas started by other artists, or to endow a work with depth and abstracted meaning, is still something with one foot in the right brain, personal side of things. There is room for the individual view.

If you have any artists you enjoy, I suggest you look deeper there. If there are artists you don't like, feel free to dismiss them -- no one will stop you coming back to them later if you like. If you don't like any art, I suggest looking at a very technical, mathy artist like M.C. Escher.
posted by evil holiday magic at 3:49 PM on July 2, 2006

I agree that learning about art helps develop enjoyment of it. I don't think I'd be inspired to read about it if I weren't already drawn to it, though. So, as an alternate or additional way to learn about it, docent-led tours are offered by most big art museums, and they're often fascinating. I also confess that, when I see a group of school kids being led through a museum, I often eavesdrop on their instructor and their reactions, both of which can be enlightening.
posted by daisyace at 4:00 PM on July 2, 2006

Most people associate marijuana with social settings, but the only way I can enjoy it is at home, blissfully rediscovering my music collection or my favorite books. May not be your thing, but it bears mention here.

I enjoy it in other settings as well, but I agree about its benefits for appreciation.

I agree with people who are saying "forget the notion that art must have a single fixed meaning which the viewer must discern," but I would quickly qualify by saying that this doesn't mean one should not look for meanings in art. But keep in mind that good art can be something that asks questions but doesn't provide answers, or suggests multiple meanings but is not conclusive.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:02 PM on July 2, 2006

Many years ago, when my sons were growing up, I started making it a point to take them to art museums several times each summer. Typically, we'd have lunch, and spend an afternoon at MoMA, the Boston Museum, the National Gallery, or other big ticket institution, and try to catch one or more of that summer's major exhibits. Our rule was to just to go, and see what we saw, regardless of whether we thought in advance that we would like it. And while we were in the museum, we'd only speak of what we were seeing to one another, and how that directly related to our lives or other work we had seen together.

Over time, we became quite the art commentators and critics, to the point that, more than once, we "collected" little knots of people following along with us as we went through, trying to stay within earshot of our conversations. Occasionally, we'd get questions from others about work we were viewing, as if we were docents. It was fun, and we all came to value these afternoons highly. We speak of them sometimes, still, today.

Take a kid, and ask them what they see. Tell them what you see. Eventually, you'll "get" art.
posted by paulsc at 4:23 PM on July 2, 2006

I would suggest a different approach. Take an art class. Not art history but create your own art. I also recommend reading 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!' which a very entertaining book by the Nobel prize winning physicist where he describes an experience much like yours. He grew up thinking much of humanities was garbage but by learning to draw himself he learned to appreciate art.
posted by Crunchy at 5:02 PM on July 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

My husband agrees wholeheartedly!
posted by nimsey lou at 6:16 PM on July 2, 2006

As an engineer and a scientist, I can completely relate to being too logical and calculated when it comes to art. I look at sculptures and wonder about the support structures, not the work that went into making them and the subtle nuances the artist added. I look at a painting and try to figure out what it is supposed to be, not what it is supposed to mean. I can honestly say that to a large extent, I don't 'get' art. But, here's the thing; I'm resolved to that and understand that it's part of how I see things as a scientist. I love art, that is to say, I know what I like and can greatly appreciate music, paintings, written words, etcetera that comply with my tastes. Art should be about what you like and what adds something to your life. Art shouldn't be about memorizing periods or styles or knowing about subtle effects; art is an extension of you and how you see yourself, and good art is something that you simply enjoy for no reason other than you enjoy it. While learning more about art through classes and the like is always a good idea for increasing your knowledge on a topic, know that there isn't really anything wrong with your situation. Not everyone 'gets' art or appreciates it in the same ways. Examine yourself and find out what types of art you do like, and start there. Your tastes will expand and grow as you encounter more information, and you might just 'get' a small subset of what you actually like and are interested in 'getting'. Best of luck.
posted by galimatias at 6:52 PM on July 2, 2006

Good engineering and good science share a lot with good art; creativity, honesty, and a search for truth.

Do you see any aesthetic beauty in the work you do? A well engineered bridge can be the most beautiful art. Start with an appreciation of the aesthetic features of what you do, and work out from there.
posted by extrabox at 7:54 PM on July 2, 2006

Here's my suggestion. Start at the beginning, or as close to it as you can get. Art is a fundamental part of being human.

Try this: go to New York and visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When you enter, make a hard right and go into the Egyptian exhibit. Take your time. Look, explore, give yourself time to think. Think about how long ago these things were made, and realize that it's nowhere near as far back as you need to go. Get some perspective.

And if you say, "gee, I'm not having fun, don't find this interesting", look somewhere else. You have all of human history to explore.
posted by cptnrandy at 6:12 AM on July 3, 2006

I believe art is a kind of communication which is much more immediate than spoken or written language. I think of it as much "higher bandwidth" because you can get a lot of information at one time;.

In a song, you get not only the words (if there are words), you get pitch, pitch differences, relationships of pitches in a single chord, tempo, change in tempo over time, timbre (tone quality), change in timbre over time, instrument choice, number of instruments, change in volume over time -- all of this information going on simultaneously at each instant of a song.

With visual art, it's similar - colors, relationship of colors to each other, line, shapes, positive/negative space, texture, and probably a lot of other things I don't know about.

It's probably impossible to be consciously aware of all these different factors at once, but they can all affect your experience if you let them. All of these factors are part of a communication between the artist and you. How do you understand the communication, though? I think that probably one of the best ways is to be able to imagine what the artist was feeling when he created the work. That's why, I believe, experience creating art yourself so enriches the enjoyment of others' art - we know what it feels like to paint a big red stripe or to play a pianissimo phrase right after a march-like verse.

There are feelings that are nearly impossible to put into words, and the act of putting them into words renders the experience banal and frustrating. Art is the big alternative, but the language is more chancy. However, if you can find a good artist whose language you understand, or if you can learn the language of a good artist who can speak to you, art can remind you of these feelings, a sense of living more intensely, and maybe it will be worth it.
posted by amtho at 6:51 AM on July 3, 2006

I think knowing about the people who made the art and why they created it really helped me get into art. The more I know about the background of the work, the easier it is to see why the artist reacted the way he/she did.

For example, learning that the Impressionists, who are on everything from stamps to mousepads today, were initially rejected from the official exhibitions of the time made me appreciate what I had previously seen as wispy, la-di-dah pictures of haystacks as something more...revolutionary. Why was it important to give color primacy over line? How did the advent of photography affect how people saw the world? And why was there an official way of endorsing or rejecting art in the first place? Seeing these questions answered visually is, for me, thrilling.

Context helps too - visiting a bunch of Jacques-Louis David's works on a trip to Paris last winter, after years of appreciation in classes and books, made the experience of visiting the neoclassical sites of Paris that much more exciting. Seeing the tombs of French heroes in the Pantheon and then seeing the Oath of the Horatii the same day made the whole scene come together for me.
posted by mdonley at 7:03 AM on July 3, 2006

Everyone above has good answers, but if I were you I'd try and work *with* your logical and scientific nature in order to appreciate art. Maybe the real problem is with your definition of "appreciate" rather than being able to enjoy various works of art in the first place.
I've never been able to appreciate "pretty" pictures myself, unless they engaged me in some additional way. Creating a work of art is just another form of creative problem solving. Puzzling out the solution/s, understanding the rhythms, and tracing back the physical and cerebral trail of choices made by the producer is what I find most fascinating. The "whys" and "hows" are as important as the primary reaction upon first view. If the "whys" and "hows" appear to be too weak or obvious, I lose interest quickly.
I guess I'm trying to say that there's no "right" way to appreciate art. You might find some art theory of a more scientific sort helpful, so perhaps reading up on perception theories such as V. S. Ramachandran's Synesthesia and the Universal Principles of Art would be useful.
posted by stagewhisper at 8:28 AM on July 3, 2006

(damn, I do love me some "quotation marks" this morning.)
posted by stagewhisper at 8:29 AM on July 3, 2006


"Art" is a big word, like law, science, math, writing, music.

Getting it, IMO, means getting part of it. You may always appreciate one part and never even get close to understanding another.

I often feel like you, but less so as I do more art (stone sculpture in my case). The more I do, the more I appreciate what others have done. Also, my chosen field of amateur passion peaked 100 years ago or more, depending on who you choose to put at the pinnacle.

Like what you like. Try and figure out why. Read simple and good critiques. Find out what separates art from craft from industry. Read books artists read, like Vasari's "Lives of the artists". Specialize in one or two acknowledged greats (Michelangelo, Bernini, and Brancusi for me!) and look at their body of work. See how it changes.

Find an artist and take him out to lunch for a chat. Invite two over for dinner and pick their brains.

Read "Art and Fear", David Bayles,Ted Orland. My favorite book on making it. Lovely little tome. Email me and I'll send you a copy.

Recognize that art, like speaking, is one of the things humans do to communicate. Sometimes, it's clearer than the spoken word, sometimes more subtle, sometimes misunderstood, sometimes muttered.

Most of all, don't think you are unlike anyone else.
posted by FauxScot at 10:52 AM on July 3, 2006

As an artist (and occasional art student) myself, I repeatedly get called upon to defend the "value" of arts. I could go into a long and impassioned speech on the value of joy, emotion, contemplation and reflection, but the best advice I can offer in a short time, is to go do art. See what it's about. Take a class with clay or paint, and then the next time you encounter a work in your chosen medium, you'll have more of an understanding of what goes into producing it. I once silenced a critic of Pollock by challenging him to duplicate one of his paintings. There's more to it than there appears, but you won't know until you try.

All the theory in the world just doesn't hold a candle to the sheer joy of creating and improving your technique. One of the best things about art, in my opinion, is the sheer number of people and works from prehistoric times to the present you can compare yourself to.

You can wade through the critical b.s. later, just learn to enjoy the work on a logical level first.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 1:00 PM on July 3, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers, everyone. This was really valuable advice.
posted by lunchbox at 8:04 AM on July 5, 2006

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