Read This Before Your Next Trip to an Art Museum

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Does art make you nervous? Do you leave the museum wondering What the f&*# did I just look at? Join the club!

Even to the most experienced viewers, art can seem confusing, intimidating, or even pointless when viewed without the right context. That’s why I’m here to give you a few tips on braving the Botticellis and mastering the Modernists at your next museum visit.

Think of it as the quick version of that Art History class you took in college...minus the part where you were always too hungover to pay attention.

All photos for this post were taken at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA during the Andy Warhol: Prints exhibition (on view through September 3!)

All photos for this post were taken at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA during the Andy Warhol: Prints exhibition (on view through September 3!)

Dress: Diane Von Furstenberg; Necklace: Topshop; Ring: Urban Outfitters

Dress: Diane Von Furstenberg; Necklace: Topshop; Ring: Urban Outfitters

WHERE DO I LOOK?

When you first enter an exhibit, take a moment to scan the room. Does there seem to be an intentional path for you to follow? Perhaps the pieces are in chronological order, or you are supposed to experience certain emotions at specific times. Curators (the people who select the pieces to be shown in the gallery) almost always have a plan for how the room should be seen, so take an extra moment before you begin so you can get the big picture—pun intended.

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WHAT AM I LOOKING AT?

Breaking down what you see is the first step to giving it any sort of meaning. Is it a painting or print? Is it a sculpture? Is it just a banana that looks like a penis? What materials were used in making the piece? Artists always make intentional choices for the methods they use to create. 

In almost every museum, small signs mounted next to the art tell you what materials were used and where the piece was made. These create a story about the art: in Warhol's case, everyday objects—bananas, flowers, Campbell's soup cans—inspired him to recreate their images in colorful (and multiple) reproductions. Although Warhol was an accomplished illustrator, the mass reproduction of these objects would require a method other than painting or sketching. Warhol turned to a process called screenprinting to allow for more accurate recreations of his images.

So what makes this cool? I'll leave that answer to Warhol: “Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?”

Take a notepad and write what you see; this will give you a better understanding of the elements coming together to make a masterpiece.

Take a notepad and write what you see; this will give you a better understanding of the elements coming together to make a masterpiece.

Soft smiles for my boyfriend, the one and only Mick Jagger.

Soft smiles for my boyfriend, the one and only Mick Jagger.

WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?

As a lover of modern art, one of the criticisms I hear most often is "I could have made that." Yeah, but you didn't. And that's often the case with modern or abstract pieces: they're great because no one at the time was thinking to make something in that style, with those materials, or of that subject. (Pro tip: if you're completely confused, just squint your eyes and say, "Wow, no one else did it like [ARTIST'S NAME]." You're welcome.)

If you're a history nerd, you're in luck at almost any art museum. Great art captures the mood of the time in which it was made while simultaneously challenging the "norms" of its peer works. Warhol's pieces perfectly exemplify this idea—he mimicked America's obsession with mid-20th century celebrities but was incredibly intentional about his subjects: that famous Marilyn Monroe photo (below) was created after her suicide in 1962. Ru Paul and other drag queens were featured in a 1975 piece called Ladies and Gentlemen, which served as a commentary on Warhol's fascination with underground LGBTQ culture (Warhol was also a gay man in an era when sexuality was not openly discussed in polite society.) Realness.

If you can tie a historical aspect to a piece, you can better understand the artist's purpose for creating it; this allows you to connect with it in new, meaningful ways.

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IT'S OKAY TO NOT LIKE IT

Art is subjective.

I know you've heard that before, but let me say it again. Art is subjective. It's fine to look at a piece, to think about the materials and time and yada yada and still say, "Nah, not my cup of tea." You are no less cultured for having an opinion. But be prepared to explain why you think that Trecartin video is garbage. Do the colors hurt your eyes? Does the message leave you feeling confused or uncomfortable? When I don't like something, it helps to talk it out—I've even found myself on the other side of an opinion after some insight into the artist or work!

And last, but not least:

DON'T FUCKING TOUCH THE ART

I'll never forget the time I took someone special—let's call her Mom*—to a museum with a massive Jackson Pollock piece on display. I took my eyes off of that rascal for one minute and by the time I turned around, she was being scolded by a security guard for TOUCHING the Pollock!!! Her excuse? "I just wanted to see what it felt like." That story does not hold up in art court, people. If you don't take away anything else from this, just remember: don't ever, ever touch the art.

*Names have been withheld to protect the incredibly guilty.

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Swish, swish, Mao

Swish, swish, Mao

That's all I've got, folks. I hope you enjoyed this teeny lesson on art and that you feel confident to explore a museum in your town on your next weekend excursion. If you're in Atlanta, be sure to stop by the High Museum of Art to check out even more of Warhol's work! Tickets and more can be found here.

Did you try these tips out already? Do you have any tips of your own for visiting a museum? Let me know! I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

MPD