Living Rich: Fake It Till You Make It: How To Tour An Art Museum

Nothing will enrich your life as much as the appreciation of art. By art, I mean the fine arts — painting, sculpture, and all that — but also the crafts (woodworking, needlepoint, masonry, etc.) and sports. If you want to Live Rich, you have to — absolutely have to — include art in your life. There. I’’ve made it a mandate. (I say it only because it’’s true.)

Today, let’’s talk about how you can become a lover of fine art by visiting art museums. If you don’’t like them, it may be because you’’ve gone about using them in the wrong way. For example, the most common way people approach museums is the worst way: trying to do too much. (See too much. Learn too much. Spend too much time.) It doesn’’t matter how long you plan to be in town or how much extra time you have on your hands, marching for hours through an art museum is the least effective way to learn anything and/or have fun. My advice is to see only one exhibit, one section, or even one room. Spend no more than two hours in all. But do it right.

To do it right:

1. Understand, before you begin, what you are about to look at. You can do that by reading about the exhibit in a brochure, reading the copy on the wall at the entrance to the exhibit, and/or speaking to someone at the information desk. If you are seeing a show on Andy Warhol, for example, you need to know the basics. (That he is considered one of America’s most important “pop” artists, that he promoted his own celebrity, and that some critics think he had little talent and was more a promoter than anything else.)

2. Study the paintings that you like. The easiest way to do this is to walk through the show and read the wall/catalog descriptions that apply. If you prefer to take the audio guides, make sure you know how to fast-forward so you can listen to only what intrigues you.

3. After you’’ve completed the “study” part of your tour, walk through the exhibit again, more quickly this time, looking again at the pieces you studied before. See if you can remember the artist, the title, and any interesting facts. Ask yourself if, on this second go-around, you like the painting as much as you did on your first pass.

This three-step process is fast, fun, and effective in terms of learning. If you have 90 minutes to spend at an exhibit, you could spend the first 15 minutes trying to understand the fundamental questions (What kind of art is this? Why is it supposed to be important? What is the educated word on it?), the next hour “studying” the artwork, and the final 15 minutes on the review. You don’’t want to make sweeping generalizations such as “Picasso is boring” or “Edouard Vuillard couldn’’t draw very well” after only a single visit, because you may discover later that Picasso was indeed a great genius and Vuillard an accomplished technician.

However, if you want to develop good judgment about art (and you should), you need to form tentative opinions from the get-go (e.g., “I prefer Monet to Mattisse”). But don’t let those early opinions become permanent. They will change over time as you spend more time and develop — quite naturally — a more sophisticated eye. It shouldn’’t have to be said, but your purpose should never be to learn the conventional wisdom.

The only interesting opinions about art (as well as politics, literature, and film for that matter) are those that are not conventional . . . that spring from a very particular and personal experience. When it comes to touring art museums, the best strategy is to look at fewer paintings but to look at each one seriously. Weeks, months, and even years after your walk-through, you’ll still have strong visual memories and something intelligent that you can say about what you saw.