Using My Right Brain
May 13, 2008 6:49 PM   Subscribe

How can I improve my art awareness (i.e paintings, sculpture, crafts, etc.)?

I missed out on art and art history during my uninspired college years many moons ago. I'd like to do something now to improve that situation. What should I look for online; what books can I read to get a feel for the masters, as well as contemporary artists? Then, once I understand a bit about what I'm looking for, where should I go (museums, galleries) to enjoy the work? I live in the U.S., so I'd probably want to start there, but I plan to travel internationally when I retire. I would like to make art a part of my discoveries. As always, thanks very much in advance for your suggestions and ideas.
posted by netbros to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Browse the collections of famous museums online, to get an idea of what you like. Then go from there.
posted by phunniemee at 7:03 PM on May 13, 2008

Major museums offer free docent tours (with admission) that will take you around to look at art. These docents are often passionate and informed. It's like a mini class. There will probably be a 'greatest hits' of the museum type of tour, along with other specialized topics, such as Impressionism, etc.

Going to the museum and looking at art is a good way to start, well, looking at art. A good exercise to teach yourself to look is to spend exactly 10 minutes in front of 1 art work. That's a long time. But you'll really get a feel for the piece. It's not like a movie that unfolds in front of you (unless it is an art film), so looking requires patience. Don't feel like the art or other art patrons are smarter than you for 'getting it'. Just use your senses to experience what the artist is offering you.

General art history books may march through time, as they say, and the info may not stick. Instead, after you visit the museum and find a work you really like, get a book about that artist or about their style of art making.

Another good way to get to know about art work is to try to sketch it. You'll come to learn how the composition works, how the figures are formed, and what the different types of marks and strokes mean.

Rent the PBS documentary series Art21 to learn about contemporary art. Each disc has about 4 segments, each 15 minutes, of a well-known artist talking about their art. No narrators or critics, just artists on their art. It's really wonderful
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 7:09 PM on May 13, 2008 [4 favorites]

Looking online can be helpful, but for me it would be a hinderance because I might see a photo of a painting online, think 'I don't like that', and never seek out what might be an amazing painting if seen in the flesh.

I never liked the impressionists (Monet, Manet, etc) or Picasso before I saw any of them in a gallery. Photos just cannot do them justice. So look around online, and if you see something that makes you want to look for more stuff like it, that's fantastic. But keep in mind that most artworks were never meant to be viewed in pixels on a small screen.

Also, art exists outside of galleries- look around where you live. Many cities have some incredible graffiti, and some graffiti artists (Banksy comes to mind) are thought of more as artists than vandals.
posted by twirlypen at 7:11 PM on May 13, 2008

Jason and Laszlo had a good suggestion: that PBS documentary series is excellent.
posted by phunniemee at 7:31 PM on May 13, 2008

Audio tours at a museum! Docents! These are great ideas. Museums are even better when you have an expert's point of view. Plus, you don't have to feel like you should see everything in the museum... a guided tour or docent-guided tour will help you focus instead of being overwhelmed. I guess if you can't get to a museum, read through some more focused books instead of a giant history of art tome. Sitting down with a heavy art history book is like when people try to read the Bible front to back.

Sketching is a great suggestion.

If you ever get the chance to see an artists home or studio, that can be a mind-opening experience. For example, visiting Frederic Church's home "Olana" on the Hudson River really helped me understand the Hudson River School painters of the 19th Century.

You should also know that it's okay to stop into a gallery and just look at the art. Even though art galleries are set up to sell the artworks, they usually don't mind if someone just comes in to admire the work. Sometimes galleries/neighborhoods (such as Old City in Philadelphia) have an evening each month when galleries stay open and you can meet the artists.

You asked about books... I'd recommend the "World of Art" series (here's an example of a book on Mayan art). Lots of good pictures and generally these are interesting and light reads.
posted by belau at 7:34 PM on May 13, 2008

Gardner's Art Through the Ages is one of the best. I own the 10th edition from 1996. There are older and newer editions. Depends how much you want to spend. It's a staple in schools. Later editions are multi-volume and more globally oriented.
posted by stbalbach at 7:56 PM on May 13, 2008

Having recently completed a course on "art appreciation" I would suggest reading a text book from a like course. You really get to know why art is art.

Understanding what is in the cannon and why also provides perspective.
posted by jseven at 8:54 PM on May 13, 2008

Best answer: I second the notion of starting out in museums and galleries first (or at least not restricting yourself to books/online/documentaries) -- reproductions just don't do most works of art justice, and as an editor of art books, I can say this authoritatively! There's nothing wrong with reading about art and looking at reproductions, of course, but you don't "need" a formal background to start enjoying art immediately.

I've found that there's often an assumption among people who are just starting to view art (especially contemporary art) that there's a specific hidden "meaning" to each object that has A) been placed there by the artist, and B) you are required to figure out in order to "get" the painting (or sculpture, or collage, or whatever). I call this the crossword puzzle approach to art, and I say to you cheerfully: nonsense!

Yes, many artworks are embedded with meaning for the artists who made them (within a specific historical context), from abstract sculptures from the early 20th century to classical paintings of religious allegory from the Renaissance, to a million points in between. But while understanding an artist's motives, context, etc. are one aspect of deepening your appreciation of art, it isn't necessarily the starting point for the enjoyment of an artwork. A Rothko painting, for example, may truly be enjoyed simply on its own terms without knowing one scrap about Mark Rothko's personal life or the aims of abstract expressionism or the state of postwar American painting. (Rothko is a great example of an artist who must be seen to be truly experienced; I'd seen Rothko reproductions in books for years and didn't quite get the big deal about him... until the day I first visited the Museum of Modern Art, finally saw a Rothko in person, and literally gasped and staggered backward -- it was that immediately beautiful and intense.)

So start by looking. Don't try to "figure it out" -- just see if something resonates within you as you stand in an artwork's presence. Then use that as your guide for learning more -- taking a docent-guided tour of a specific exhibition or collection, seeking out a specific book or documentary, or even taking a class at a local college. You can be amazed at the web of connections that start popping up... say, for example, that you find that you really respond to the impressionists. Then you might pick up a book about Monet, and find that he was influenced by traditional Japanese art... and a new door opens up to you, both in terms of understanding impressionism in its context in 19th-century France, but also perhaps in being inspired to go to a different museum or gallery to look at traditional Japanese arts.

As for places to start in terms of museums: well, a trip to New York to hit a couple of the biggies would be high on my list of a wonderful introduction. The Metropolitan is the largest museum in the U.S. and truly among the world's finest, with everything from classical Greek sculpture to French painting. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has everything from Russian avant-garde movie posters of the 1920s to American documentary photography to some of the most influential paintings ever made (from Van Gogh to Picasso to Johns). The Whitney is one of the best places to get a sense of the sweep of American art over the past century. Those three museums alone could keep me occupied for a lifetime... maybe you could start with a long weekend or a week?

Above all, it should be fun. And also, keep in mind: you won't like everything. I literally grew up around art -- my dad is a painter, I'm an art book editor (and used to work in my parents' art gallery), and I visited some of the world's most important art museums before I got my driver's license -- and I promise you, there's plenty of stuff that I don't get or just plain old don't like. I think ancient Asian art is amazingly cool, while ancient pre-Columbian stuff leaves me totally cold. Some contemporary art is genius; some of it (including stuff valued in the tens of millions by the art market) is utter shit. Don't assume that prestige and/or price means that something is necessarily "good" -- it just means that there's a market for it, and there's a market for wonderful art just as there's a market for crap. Let your eyes and your gut be your guide.
posted by scody at 9:12 PM on May 13, 2008 [46 favorites]

IAAAHM [Iamanarthistorymajor]
Julian Bell has written a lovely new art history/visual culture survey book called Mirror of the World that I'm loving [to the point that I have recently been ignoring assigned readings for it. Bad!]. I would absolutely recommend it to someone interested in the field, you don't need any academic background to really get into it.

Also, have you looked into any classes available through your local college or university? There are often good survey classes available at night or on the weekend. Aim for the highest year level course that doesn't have prerequisites - first year art history can be a draag and most of what is covered is then redone later in depth.

Obviously museums [as everyone else suggests], but not everyone has regular access to decent collections.

Good luck, and welcome to the fold.
posted by rhinny at 12:31 AM on May 14, 2008

There are so many ways to introduce someone to art, it's hard to hit on one surefire method. I would definitely recommend an art history class. Especially one focusing on 20th century art. Even better would be one that begins with Expressionism and works through the mid 20th century.

Another thing I always recommend to anyone who is interested in modern art (especially abstract expressionism...which, for some reason, is the sort of painting many people picture in their heads when thinking about "modern" art) is to rent Ed Harris' movie Pollock. Stick with it, absorb what you can about the artist up until you get to the scene where he is about to start work on the murals for Peggy Guggenheim's apartment. Then just watch. I have rarely seen a better depiction of the power of pure creation and being lost in the act of creation. It truly helps people better understand the very personal nature of what they recognize as "modern" art which, in turn, helps them better understand and appreciate the works themselves.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:50 AM on May 14, 2008

Don't try to "figure it out" -- just see if something resonates within you as you stand in an artwork's presence.

I never really understood this. As if being in the mere precense of art there is some sub-conscious invisible effect that radiates forth into a passive vessel of a brain. If it "resonates" it does so for a reason, because of some pre-existing aesthetic or taste that was learned - we are not born with taste in art, it is culturally learned. If it was me I would study art history and learn how to appreciate art, be challenged and not be a mere consumer of the senses. If sensory stimulation is the goal than pornography and violence can't be beat, but it's not challenging or rewarding.
posted by stbalbach at 8:14 AM on May 14, 2008

As if being in the mere precense of art there is some sub-conscious invisible effect that radiates forth into a passive vessel of a brain.

Sorry, you're overthinking what I wrote. It's as simple as this: stand in front of a work of art and see if it strikes you in some way. Seriously: the starting point is actually that simple. The colors of an abstract painting, or the subject matter of a photograph, or the intricate craftsmanship of silver decorative object can all be immediately perceived and enjoyed.

Some works of art won't have this affect on a viewer. Some will. It's how I can happily stand in front of an El Lissitzky for hours and ignore the French rococo garden scene in an adjacent gallery, while my mom would have the exact opposite reaction.
posted by scody at 10:42 AM on May 14, 2008

Oh, and...

If sensory stimulation is the goal than pornography and violence can't be beat, but it's not challenging or rewarding.

...I never suggested that sensory stimulation is the "goal"; rather, that that sensory stimulation is is simply a starting point -- the initial experience that can trigger curiosity, and a more personally meaningful examination of art history than would be achieved simply by checking out a bunch of books from the library and attempting to "learn" about art before looking at it.

Art, for many people, has been mystified and intellectualized, as if you need a degree in order to be allowed past the front door of a museum. I know people who are intimidated to come to a museum because they don't think they're "smart enough" to enjoy a painting. Frankly, I find this tragic. Enjoying a painting and learning about art history are not the same thing. One can certainly complement the other -- the more one learns about art, the more one may enjoy and understand it -- but the latter is most certainly not a necessary precondition for the former.

It's like the students I had when I taught English in grad school who thought that they couldn't read Shakespeare unless they were English majors. But all it took was some enthusiasm and hearing some of the key scenes read outloud, and they started to get it.
posted by scody at 10:53 AM on May 14, 2008

If you're able to travel to Chicago, go to the Art Institute. It's one of the best art museums in the world. They have absolutely amazing collections. It's wonderful. I grew up near Chicago, and whenever I think about visiting the city, the Art Institute is the first place I want to go. They're having an exhibit called American Perspectives starting in September; that looks promising.

To second scody, and add my own two cents - I definitely think there's value in experiencing a work of art directly, and whenever possible in person. (Standing in the room is better than seeing on the web, as twirlypen said.) I think it's also really helpful to learn about the background of a work - particularly works you really like, and particularly works that do nothing for you. For me, some works welcome me right through the front door - I immediately sense their beauty or connect with them somehow. With other works, I may have to go through a side door - find some other way into the work - but once I do, I find myself falling in love with the work. That's a long way to say that both immediate impressions and learning background can be excellent ways into art, and they may serve you well for different works.
posted by kristi at 11:33 AM on May 14, 2008

kristi, that's Sept., 2007. but I'm sure the AIC has more exhibits lined up. agreed, great place.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 8:25 PM on May 14, 2008

The Shock of the New, by Robert Hughes, is immensely readable & gives a broad overview of the movements & personalities in modern art, from around the turn of the (19th-20th) century onwards.

The book is adapted from a tv series of the same name, which you might be able to find.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:43 PM on May 14, 2008

I have no book to recomend but you should read about art history. It helps tremendously to apreciate older paintings. You don't need anything "deep" at first but you should know when were the big revolutions in art history were. That way you can apreciate a classic as well as the thing that went right after it and broke every single rule.
If you look at an impressionist painting without knowing what the fuss was all about at the time you're missing a lot.
You might like it on a pure esthetical basis but there's also a context that brings a lot to the picture.
For instance if you look at a mandala without knowing nothing about it, it's just pretty colored geometric shapes, if you know it's supposed to be a reprensentation of the cosmos it brings a whole new level of apreciation.
posted by SageLeVoid at 10:26 PM on May 14, 2008

two things: Coudal's Museum of Online Museums, and John Berger's Ways of Seeing.
posted by progosk at 10:02 AM on May 15, 2008

The books and TV work of Sister Wendy Beckett are an excellent beginner's guide.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:47 AM on May 15, 2008

I would watch the Sister Wendy series' and Robert Hughes' "Shock of the New" to get an overview. Both presenters are so enthusiasic. This may give you a starting point - i.e.,going to Madrid to visit the Prado.

Also, a couple of years ago I got in the habit of looking at art online, and saving a different painting every few days as my wallpaper. I went through a Velasquez stage and a Goya stage.. I felt at home with them. The next time I saw works by these artists at the Art Institute, I saw them a bit differently.

This sounds like fun, Enjoy!
posted by readery at 9:11 PM on May 15, 2008

What has been said above is all good. The key important idea is that art is personal. Nobody will come to an artwork with your experiences and expectations but you yourself. You are entitled to your reaction, and that can be anything from joy to disgust. Don't feel forced into some kind of studied awe of genius, because art is hardly ever about realizing that the artist is smarter than you are. And look at the totality of the work: not just what it represents, but the materials, the techniques, even the placement. The foolish TV cliche of the pretentious art critic does not entirely have no basis, but most people who look at art look at it in ways that are not exclusive and would love a chance to tell you what moves them about something. It is more likely that the person acting pretentious about art is covering a lack of experience or knowledge. With modern art in particular there can be ideological or theoretical motivations surrounding a work, but it shouldn't be necessary to know these, only to acknowledge them.

One possible starting point is Wikipedia's featured article on Las Meninas. You might see this in a museum (if you went to the Prado ...) and think it's a pretty painting but also pretty ordinary. In fact, it's a highly ambiguous and complex work, and it's 450 years old.

Alternatively, look at a major project such as the restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the varied reactions to it. Spend some time understanding the processes that were used both to create and to restore the frescoes and why each was done that way.

Try to experience some really good public art. This often is designed to encourage a more participatory experience and reaction, taken out of the formal context of a museum or gallery. Look at something close up; then far away. Approach it from different angles. Sit on it (maybe). Try it at different times of the day, or in different seasons.

Above all, enjoy yourself. Like wine, art is in the enjoyment. If you aren't having fun, what's the point?
posted by dhartung at 11:46 PM on May 15, 2008

Personally, I wasn't interested in 'fine art' at all until I could put it in some historical context. This was provided by two fantastic documentary series, Simon Schama's Power of Art and The Private Life of a Masterpiece.
posted by Chuckles at 7:45 PM on May 16, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for the wonderful responses. This will help me get off to a great start.
posted by netbros at 6:16 AM on May 17, 2008

If you find a style of art or an artist that appeals to you, reading up on the basics of that artist helps immensely. I always enjoyed impressionism because it looks pretty, but once I started understanding basic info about the artists I enjoyed museums much more.

For instance: Degas often draws racehorses and ballerinas. Think about the similarities he brings to these subjects (nervous energy, somewhat awkward grace). He also likes to draw them before or after the dance or race; he likes to capture the informality of preparation rather then the big, energetic scene that is the performance. He also cuts off the scene, as if he were taking a picture (again - he wanted to capture real, casual moments.)

See? You don't even have to know very much, but that small amount of information will make Degas paintings much more interesting to you. You don't need to know their entire biography.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:41 PM on May 17, 2008

The most important question to ask about art (and most things in life) is WHY?. Don't get hung up on the whos and whats and hows; of course those questions are all crucial, but they must always be followed by a why. In art, as with murder, motive is everything.

Be that insatiably curious four-year-old: Ask WHY until the answers run out.

Most of the answers, incidentally, are on Wikipedia. It's great for learning, on-the-fly, about stuff like historical/biblical/mythological figures depicted in art, the historical context in which works of art were produced, artists' bios, and so on.

If there's an art school or a university with an art department nearby, you could audit some intro Art History courses (highly recommended for anyone with the time), but at the very least you should check out (so to speak) their library.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:09 PM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

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