I have a confession. I know nothing of the world of art. Sure, I’ve been to museums, I’ve stared at the Sistine Chapel, reveled in rococo, adored abstractions, but what did I gain other than thoughts of ‘Damn, wish I could do that.’

So, in an effort to make the most of any upcoming museum trips, I decided to educate myself. Think of what follows as a brief foray into art history and a means to look into a distorted mirror to discover yourself.  Here’s how I learned to appreciate art on more than just a surface level.

Start with yourself

So, where to begin after you’ve scanned your ticket. Of course, you want to see a museum’s star attraction – the crowd gathering to see the Mona Lisa is as much a part of the museum as the masterpiece itself – but what about the thousands of other sketches, paintings, and sculptures that guide you along? It’s impossible to stop and appreciate them all, and while unique in their own right, not every piece will speak to you.

A painted woman hugs her reflection through a mirror

Instead of shuffling from frame to frame, look for art that evokes a response from you. Author, Tracy Chevalier, treats the experience in the same way one might enter a restaurant – you don’t order everything, you pick what catches your eye. And so it is with art: be picky, then fall down that rabbit hole. Let the mystery of that piece take you on a journey, question it, learn about it, allow one piece to unravel into a symposium of biography, art history, and appreciation; a pseudo-spiritual guide to draw out the emotions that bubble up when you see work that makes your jaw drop.

Dig deeper: art is history

There’s always more to the art you’ll stand in front of. It was shaped by its time, its creator, the people in their lives, as well as its place. It has context in the wider world. Take into account what art was like the decade before your work was created, how it influenced what came after, how it was received at the time, and how it became the new normal.

Every museum will tell a story of the human voyage, so look at the pieces in your chosen gallery and with each of your own movements look at the artistic movement too.

A cave painting transitions to Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

As you stare at one of Picasso’s cubist pieces think about the artists who paved the way for its creation. The Fauvists, Expressionists, Impressionists. The avant-garde is in a constant state of flux and what we accept now, once fanned the flames of outrage. It is the dialectical process art must undergo.

How did we get here?

Creation of Adam fresco in the style of Picasso

It’s one thing to create, it’s another to display. As you’re observing nonsensical splatters of paint, maybe even thinking ‘Pfft, I could’ve made that!’, consider how it got there. We’ve come a long way from the Salon standard and nationalistic pursuits to highlight a country’s achievements, to accepting and celebrating postmodern ideas. We went from showcasing cavalry charges, to displaying a urinal with a signature slapped onto it (thanks, Dadaism).

An argument could be made that the creative levee broke in 1863, when two-thirds of entrants to the Paris Salon were rejected. After an outcry, Emperor Napoleon III commissioned a second exhibition – The Salon des Refusés or The Exhibition of Rejects.  The decades following saw a period of uninhibited creativity for art, with the birth of Impressionism (the likes of Monet), the move to Expressionism (The Scream), and the birth of Cubism, de Stijl, and Surrealism.

What’s next?

So, what comes next. The only certainty is that technology continues to improve and it’s already being taken advantage of in some locations. While this increases interaction, it does raise the question of whether or not we cheapen the sacred value of cultural offerings in a museum?

Man wearing VR headset in art galllery

Looking ahead to 2040, Bice Curiger, Artistic Director of the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France hopes that ‘…the museum will survive as a place where things that have fallen out of time are allowed to slumber – to be woken one day with a kiss from some inspired princess or prince.’ 

Have you learned how to appreciate art in the past? What’s your go-to ritual when you assess a piece? We’d love to hear from you on our Instagram or Facebook pages.

Callum Tyler

Callum Tyler

Callum is the middle child in a family with nine children. Growing up he lost six imaginary siblings and uses writing as an outlet for his grief.
Callum Tyler