Episode 0: Art! What is it good for?
VOICE 1: Art is not generally usually my thing I guess but, um, I like to visit museums, you know? To be cultured, I guess. To see what’s, I mean, I do enjoy certain types of art.
VOICE 2: I came today with my family even though they’re not with me, um, this was sort of like us being like “oh we want to do another thing on the weekend.”
Going to an art museum is a really good thing in terms of wanting to do something live, like there’s something about seeing a painting and seeing the texture of the brush, how the light reflects off of it, that you can’t see online. I definitely came here and felt like, if I’m going to go and do something in person, you know I can watch a movie online blah blah blah… this seems like a worthwhile activity.
TAMAR: I mean, did you study art at all?
VOICE 3: No, never. In fact it was, I had to take it in order to graduate. And it was one of the hardest things that I had to do because I couldn’t express myself, um, in an artistic manner. Still can’t. [laughs]
VOICE 4: I think for people like me, who don’t really understand art very much, or like the history of art, I think that’s a little hard to get into.
VOICE 5: I was coming in and I was like “Oh my god I’m scared, like I don’t know if I’m going to like do it right, I don’t know if I’m going to like spend the right amount of time like looking at the painting.”
VOICE 6: I think that’s one of the biggest problems, people think a museum is just for like, really smart people or like artists, but
VOICE 5: Yeah.
VOICE 6: so I think a lot of people never come to the museum because they think it’s not for them.
VOICE 7: There’s a certain kind of modern art that I don’t exactly understand.
VOICE 8: I think a lot of the stuff they do is just kind of like “why are you doin’ it?” like you’ll find a piece and it’ll be this elaborate sculpture and it’ll be just like, it’ll be like a toilet or something like really out there…
VOICE 7: [laughs]
VOICE 8: And you’re like “Why am I looking at this? Why aren’t I looking at a Monet?”
VOICE 9: I do like Monet is nice, I really like landscapes and things, I’m less interested in things with people, for whatever reason, I don’t really know.
VOICE 2: Just paintings like that where there’s a lot more going on, a lot more to look at I tend to find more interesting than just like a person, sitting there, in old Victorian clothing.
VOICE 7: I don’t get it, it’s just lines. I did a project in kindergarten and all of our pieces looked like Mondrians, to me at least.
VOICE 11: I like to go to museums because, I, I like feel I discover a different part of myself when I go, amongst art, and uh, I feel very… almost like a different person when I’m in, in a museum surrounded by the beauty of art.
I kind of become absorbed in the art and it’s almost as if it’s talking to you, or you see something beyond, kind of a spiritual connection if you will, beyond just the senses. Beyond, uh, sight, and sound, er, they’re really communicative, I find that art work is very communicative.
VOICE 12: It turns out it’s like weirdly more accessible than you think it is.
I think definitely something that’s shaping our experience right now is that we are pretty, like, this is not our realm or whatever, this is like not a space we’re necessarily comfortable in, we’re not uncomfortable here but we’re not, we’re like definitely ready to be like “Yeah, we don’t know anything.”
VOICE 13: Give me more.
VOICE 12: Yeah.
So I work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston giving monthly lectures. And a little while back I had an interesting experience. I usually spend my time parked in front of my painting of the day, trying to corral an audience for the next hour’s talk, but this time I abandoned my post and wandered through the galleries, eavesdropping. I’m in it, and I’m close to it and so I’m always curious as to how this whole operation is going over for the general public. I walked past a small Cezanne still life where a small group had huddled. “Oh, I love Cezanne” a woman said. This perked me up – there’s a small group of people in this world who love Cezanne, and an even smaller group willing to admit it, and she, in her windbreaker and her Crocs, didn’t look like one of them. So I bust in.
“Hi. I’m curious,” I asked, as genially I could. “Why do you love Cezanne?”
Immediately she turned red. I’ll admit, my staff badge acts as both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it gives me the authority to walk up and interrupt any conversation I want, but then it stops that conversation dead in its tracks. No one is willing to sound dumb next to someone they think is an expert.
“Oh,” she said, stammering and staring at her shoes. “I don’t know. I certainly couldn't tell you why in any fancy way.”
The fancy way, that’s how she said it, fancy. the academic language spoken in quiet museum whispers, the fear of being wrong, the belief that art museums are a secret club and that only a blessed few know the special knock, is, to me, the death of art history. It sucks all the fun out of museums. It makes them boring, and pretentious, and out of reach. And that’s insane. Cezanne didn't have a secret knock. He just looked.
I’ve been teaching art history for almost a decade, I have a master’s degree in the stuff, and honestly, I can tell you with the authority of an expert, that you – yes, YOU – are not meant to be shut out. In fact, you’re exactly who they’re after. Ask an artist in any profession if they want fewer fans. It doesn't work for Beyoncé, and it doesn't work for Van Gogh.
If art was only meant to stay in the hands of people with graduate degrees, and if art historians were the only ones who were supposed to feel welcomed into art museums, then you wouldn't have Monica Lewinsky as the Mona Lisa on magazine covers. You wouldn't be competing with everyone else’s elbows and iPhones when you try to see the real thing at the Louvre. Art is everywhere. Famous paintings are referenced all the time. They’re sold at Christie’s for millions. And seeing a famous artwork is like meeting a celebrity – they’re always smaller than you think they are, and steeped in the aura of something really powerful. And like with celebrities, even if you’re not that impressed in person, you get to be part of history by making its acquaintance.
So. Let’s introduce ourselves. Let’s squint and see the object underneath the celebrity and the fancy words. Let’s understand why it’s worth caring about in the first place.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret about looking at art: what you see is what you're supposed to see. I know that seems simplistic, and I promise I’m not insulting your intelligence. But you would be amazed at how tripped up people get. They start to question their own eyes. And when we’re looking together, they think that they’re looking at the same painting as me, but that I must be seeing something different, something correct. I’m not. I see the same brushstrokes, the same figures, the same blue square floating in space. The only difference is that I have a little more background in the history. And soon you will too.
Let’s start. And let’s ease this process along by introducing 4 tips that are almost entirely universal when it comes to looking at art:
1: Art is an interactive experience. You and I are looking at something that someone created to be seen, presented in an environment — the museum, the gallery, someone’s living room — that someone else created, in order to facilitate that looking. That’s pretty much the whole story. And like any story you’ve got key characters. Here you’ve got four key figures in play: the artist, the viewer, the object itself, and most often, the curator. Note that three of these four are subjective human beings who, like all human beings, bring their own baggage to anything they experience.
As a viewer, looking at art is always colored by where we are, and how we view. Where we are: museums can be eerily quiet and expectant places that always make you feel like you always need to avoid your teacher’s eye, or, quite honestly, they can be bliss. And sometimes they can be both in one day. And how we view – we can be alone and bored, or with a guide and fascinated, with a guide and bored, or with your high school crush who you’re trying to impress by rattling off some bullet points about Monet. In other words, not only will you and I will never experience the same object quite the same way, but you might not even experience it the same way each time you see it. Like a relationship with anything, it’s a dynamic process.
2: The artists themselves often have an idea of what they’re trying to accomplish, but sometimes they don’t. They are, however, almost always responding to the world around them, to their training, to the old masters of the Renaissance, who themselves were looking at the old masters of ancient Greece, and they’re responding to the movement that immediately preceded them, which they especially care about, because they’re almost always trying to do the exact opposite.
Imagine art history like a giant pendulum swinging back and forth.
Think of the artists who make their way into textbooks as basically giant teenagers, not necessarily in temperament (although sometimes), but always in a state of rebellion. As soon as one colors inside the lines, the next generation colors outside them, prompting the next to pull back into them, and so on and so forth, from tidy high classicism to the raw emotion of Hellenistic Greece, from overwhelming Gothic cathedrals to elegant Renaissance architecture, from messy Abstract Expressionism to restrained Minimalism. Action, reaction. The pendulum swinging back and forth.
Now, this is all, of course, organized looking backwards with a tidy art historian’s lens. And sometimes, especially as we come to the Modernist period, roughly 1850-19500 — my favorite— artists are just experimenting with different styles, throwing colors and textures and various ways of looking and describing the process of looking against the wall and seeing what sticks. Sometimes paintings are just byproducts of big ideas, expressed with varying degrees of success. And sometimes, going back to tip 1, we look at a painting and project everything we know about the artist onto it and actually give it a lot more meaning than it even had. The truth is, artists don't always have intentions.
But curators always do. That’s tip 3. Every time you walk through a gallery, every step has been thought through ahead of you, from the painting height to the lighting design to the wall color to the text font. I guarantee you, that painting you’re looking at now, the little explanatory card next to it, an educator and curator exchanged about 100 heated emails about what information should go into it. Most of the time, the curator has done an excellent job creating a space and situating the object in that space to provide the clearest and most thoughtful interpretation for your, the visitor. But it’s always their interpretation. And it’s one you can agree with and get behind. And it’s one you can also disagree with. Don't forget…you’re all looking at the same object. They create a story about that object for you to follow to make sense of it. And it’s probably a very good story. But it’s just one point of entry out of many.
4: All art has been contemporary. It’s a cheeky little truism, but it is indeed true. The art that we see was intended for its own audience. Every single time. And just because a bunch of art historians came along and organized it into a canon doesn’t mean that these artists were necessarily gunning for their tidy spot in the ages. So even though we approach these objects with the benefit of hindsight, of a linear trajectory that helps us understand them – this led to this led to this—try to think about how the intended audience might have viewed them. All of these paintings benefit from being approached, and judged, on their own terms. Imagine you’d never seen a painter show his brushstrokes before; imagine the pearls you’d have clutched.
And in the same vein, all critics have been contemporary too. Remember also that, by and large, most movements were named by critics, often as an insult, and those artists stuck a middle finger at that insult by appropriating it. You call my work an unfinished impression? Then we’ll call ourselves Impressionists, assh***. But the first time that painter showed his brushstrokes, a critic either voiced the audience’s anxiety, or, a generation later, praised its genius. Either way, critical opinion both set the tone and frequently changed its mind. It still does. So take that into account – nothing here is static. No one person’s opinion is the final word, even among the experts.
So let’s jump in together. We’ll go painting by painting, story by story. Here’s my process: Whenever I go into a museum, I take my mic and ask people to describe the paintings we’ll be looking at. I ask them to imagine their with someone— like you— who can’t necessarily see the painting, so describe it for them. What jumps out at you, what do you think you’re supposed to see? I love their reactions. I love the words they choose. I love what they see first. And I love watching them start to trust their own reactions and start to care, just because someone finally asked them what they think. No fancy words, this is your house.
And it turns out, that secret knock is just a pair of eyes.
Next time on The Lonely Palette.
Host: Describe what you see.
VOICE 1: What’re we supposed to see? A table with a plate of fruit.
It looks like something I did, doesn’t it? [laughs]
VOICE 2: It, it really is something like we would find in our house, because she does that…
VOICE 1: I would be disappointed if I painted like that. I’d have to fix this.
It probably only took him an hour, for all we know. [laughs]