Don’t let art make you feel stupid

Work in progress: Woman with PSP 3000I talk to a lot of people who are intimidated by art. People who are intelligent and articulate on a wealth of other subjects seem to clam up when it comes to drawings or sculpture. So often I hear things like, “I don’t know anything about art, but I really like this painting. The colors are stunning.” But see you do know something about art, I want to reply. You know what you like, and in this case you even told me why. That’s a whole lot more than nothing.

Why aren’t we comfortable with our own tastes in art? There’s an elitism in the art world that seems to intimidate people more than elitism in other creative fields. People feel free to embrace their own tastes when it comes to other media, but when it comes to visual art, so many seem to doubt themselves to the point where they avoid the subject all together. Ask someone their favorite movie or band, and they’re usually happy to answer you; ask them their favorite artist or painting and you’ll often get discomfort.

Are you unsure about your taste in art? Are you comfortable discussing your favorite painting in a museum, or are you worried that more learned people are listening in and chuckling to themselves about what you say? Are you confident about buying art, the way you’re confident buying a new album or movie ticket?

Not comfortable? Here are a couple thoughts I have about how you could start to improve your relationship with art. 

1. Start with what you like. I don’t care if it’s Damien Hirst or Thomas Kinkade; you like what you like. For now let’s just ignore all the stuff you don’t get, and focus on what you do. Can you list any artists or artworks off the top of your head that you like? No? That’s OK – let’s go find some. Check out your local museums and galleries and art fairs. Make notes about what interests you; collect business cards from artists whose work you admire.

The internet is another good place to go trolling for art. Check out art blogs and artists’ websites; many museums have their collections online these days; the Google Art Project is pretty cool. As you find images you like online, bookmark them or save them to Pinterest – a website that lets you collect images you like from around the web (I’ve been using Pinterest for a couple months now, and I like it!).

2. Once you’ve started getting a feel for what you like, dive a little deeper. Now it’s time to learn more. See if you can describe what attracts you to a certain piece. Choose an artist or two and do a little research on them (the internet is great for this). Ask a gallerist to tell you more about a particular artist. Ask an artist about herself or her work. Find out about how pieces are made. Knowledge is the perfect way to combat that “art-makes-me-feel-stupid” feeling.

Putting a little bit of time into thinking about art that you like will help you get more out of art viewing. Make better use of your time in a museum by going straight for what you like instead of wasting your time in a section that doesn’t inspire you. Subscribe to blogs by artists whose work you admire. Sign up for the mailing lists of local galleries that show work that appeals to you. In short, spend more of your time looking at art that does something for you, and less time hanging out with art that does nothing but make you feel stupid.

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So why bother with any of this? Because art can enrich your life. Art stimulates your brain. When you’re not worried about whether your opinions are valid, you’re more likely to enter into situations and dialogs that will stimulate and challenge you, and this simply makes your time on this planet better. At least that’s what I think.

Do you get intimidated by art?

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17 Responses to “Don’t let art make you feel stupid”

  1. Christine says:

    Great post! I had no idea about the Google Art Project – I’m already counting the hours I will spend exploring it ;-) Your intimidation question started a steady stream of reflection that navigated through lots of thoughts about how there is a sort of snobbery that hovers around many creative outlets – photographers, writers, classical musicians can all be intimidating to be around if they talk about their craft in a purely cerebral context so many of us assume that all “artists” are like this and wouldn’t dare to comment about things that fall within their realm for fear of meeting the dreaded
    “cricket-chirp-silence” that will surely follow an uneducated observation. So we say nothing or pre-load our delivery with “I don’t know what I’m talking about, but here is my opinion”…
    Thanks for the invitation to be more daring and explore art!

  2. Jul says:

    Thanks, Christine! And, you’re welcome. :) It makes me super happy to have encouraged the exploration of a little art.

    I hear you on the intimidation factor. As an artist I strive to be approachable, and I welcome and encourage commentary from people regardless of their art background. I can’t get rid of all the art world snobbery, but I can at least try to make my little corner of it snobbery-free.

  3. Mark says:

    There was a period when I’d written an article on a post-modernist art boom in a rural part of Canada that had some pretty big-name New York links (Barnett Newman, Clement Greenberg). I did a lot of reading to try to understand the style, and what it was trying to do. It helped me appreciate an otherwise unapproachable form. When I was living in Strasbourg I got into late-medieval religious paintings and sculpture in a big way, and learned to appreciate the different techniques and subtleties those artists brought to their work (and let me tell you, there are a shitload of Virgin Marys out there).
    This is a variation of Christine’s point but appreciation of visual art in particular is – rightly or wrongly – a signifier of refined taste. I think a lot of people think art is supposed to connect with them with no effort on their part, and that if it doesn’t someone is at fault: either their taste, or the art itself. I think some people are put off by discussing art because they feel they haven’t done their homework, or are a rube. Personally, I get around it by avoiding sharing my opinion and asking a lot of questions to better understand what I’m looking at.
    Mark recently posted..Surprise!

  4. um, anonymous says:

    and what do you recommend if one’s art tastes include unusual vaginas?

  5. Mark says:

    I realize that the first part of my comment doesn’t correlate to the second thanks to some poor editing on my part: what I was trying to say is that sometimes appreciating art takes work, or repeated exposure. And after figuring out what you do like, it helps to figure out what you don’t know.
    Mark recently posted..Surprise!

  6. Jul says:

    @Mark – I completely get what you’re saying, and I hope that this post comes off as complementing that view rather than contradicting it. I value the deeper understanding and appreciation I have developed for work that I have spent time looking at/studying/researching, too. There is absolutely value in connoisseurship.

    But, I think that that can coexist with the idea that art can be accessible to all. Not that all art is necessarily accessible/enjoyable to all viewers, but one not need be a connoisseur to find immense value and joy in art. Just as one not need be a wine snob to spend a lifetime enjoying wine, there’s no requirement that one join the art world elite in order to delight in viewing and even collecting art. Knowing what you like and learning a little more about it can enhance your experience no matter what your entry point.

  7. Jul says:

    @”anonymous” – I hear that Picasso is the king of unusual vaginas.

  8. Jen says:

    I often find myself spending a lot of time in front of a painting I don’t particularly like if there are others in the museum/gallery that I assume will think I am uncultured if I don’t stand and stare at each piece. This is pretty silly now that I think about it! Thanks for allowing me to breeze through the stuff that isn’t ringing my art bell and concentrate on the things that do! For example, I stare at your paintings in my house often.

    Well written thought provoking entry, Jul!

    And Em-nomymous: Picasso IS king for your tastes. Just ask any UK schoolboy.

  9. Em-nonymous says:

    mmm, picasso you say? i will check that guy out. and thanks jen, i’m loving em-nonymous and considering using it as my username in various contexts. you have such a way with words. you ring my wordsmithing bell.

  10. Mark says:

    @Jul: Certainly! I don’t think the ideas are contradictory at all, but I think I put mine badly. For me, learning to appreciate abstract modernism or medieval iconography meant that there were more things in life I could appreciate and enjoy – which I gathered to be your aim as well – but for many it might be perceived as doing homework for something they *should* understand in order to be *cultured.* I think people forget that putting in the effort, if they want to, can pay off in their own pleasure, not just snob points.
    Mark recently posted..Surprise!

  11. Jul says:

    @Jen – I’ve totally had the feeling that I have to spend time looking at a certain piece as to avoid the imaginary judgement of me going on inside other people’s heads. Silly how we let nonexistent things control our actions sometimes, isn’t it?

    @Mark – Well put. ‘Learning about art: good for something besides snob points!’ That should be the motto of a college art history department or something.

  12. Annissa says:

    I think that people like me … ha ha ha …. when approached with a piece of artwork … feel so lost, you see people who go put to an abstract piece of art and say stuff like, “the artist is obviously trying to express yadda yadda insert huge meaningful descriptive words I don’t understand here” and I’m like… HUH? I just like the contrasting colors…. So then I throw out things like “I wonder if they were having an orgasm when they were painting that” and walk away… its fun, you should try it sometime…. muahahahhaa… j/k, I’ve never done it….

    Happy ICLW from #86 :D
    Annissa recently posted..Day at the Zoo …. Part 1

  13. Anna Kudak says:

    I’m definitely intimidated by art! But that also means I’m obsessed with people who are not. I swear, being able to create something lovely with paint, clay, or other materials is one of the things I’ve always admired about others who hold that talent.

    I really enjoy modern art. I agree with you (but am embarrassed about this) that my taste in art makes me somewhat self-conscious. What will people think of what I put on the walls? Why do I care!!!???

    Great blog.

  14. Kristin says:

    I’m not at all intimidated by art which is good because I’ve got very eclectic taste. The elitism in the art world reminds me a lot of the elitism about wine. In both situations, a mystique about the knowledge in that field has been built up and people are sometimes afraid to have an opinion unless it’s been validated by a so call expert.
    Kristin recently posted..How Not To Buy A House: a lesson in comedy, futility, and madness (part 1)

  15. Jeri says:

    I am very comfortable talking about art… to a point. I took a few art history classes, love reading big coffee table books about art, and thanks to a nearly perfect photographic memory can spout other people’s ideas about art with almost perfect recall. I know what I like but find I fall back on other people’s thoughts and words than my own out of intimidation maybe? I’m not quite sure. I do find the art world to be relatively snooty and pretentious and since I’m not a snooty, pretentious person, seek shelter from it in other’s thoughts and words. You’re not being snooty to me about MY thoughts… you know?
    Jeri recently posted..It’s IComLeavWe Week!

  16. Jul says:

    @Annissa – LOL. Let me know what reaction you get when you actually use that line. :)

    @Anna – Thanks! At the moment I only have my own paintings on my walls, so I’m extra-self-conscious about what people think of it. I think I’d rather hear judgement of my tastes than my talents.

    @Kristin – I agree, it’s so much like wine. Both worlds thrive on the mystique of experts and snobbery.

  17. Jul says:

    @Jeri – It can be comforting to fall back on the opinions of others, can’t it? Sometimes it’s just easier than putting your own ideas out there, especially in a context where you expect them to be poo-pooed by snobs. I too tend to save my thoughts for situations where I feel like there’s potential for an honest, inspiring conversation.

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