When my children were young, we lived walking distance from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And we often wandered over to spend an hour or so.
I would choose a different collection each time. Medieval. Renaissance. Impressionism. Nineteenth-century portraits. Modern/contemporary. Jennifer, Morgan, and I would go to one room of one exhibit and park ourselves in front of one painting – usually the biggest or the smallest. (Kids like extremes.)
We’d look at it for a while.
“Do you like it?” I’d ask.
Whether the answer was yes or no, the follow-up question was the same: “Why?” And we’d consider the possibilities. (Sometimes, we even gathered a small group of people who joined in.)
As you might expect from a five-year-old and a nine-year-old, their observations were pretty straightforward:
“I like/don’t like the colors,” Jennifer might say. “They make me feel happy/ sad/ jumpy/ creepy.”
“Why is the sky so big/small?” Morgan might ask.
“It looks like it’s not finished on the bottom.”
“I wonder why she’s holding that book.”
Though deceptively simple, questions like these are basic to understanding a work of art – and they aren’t necessarily easy to answer. I didn’t even try. I’d just say, “What do you think?” And after listening to the ideas my children came up with – and encouraging them to keep talking – I always walked out of there feeling like I knew a lot more about art than I did when I walked in.
The lesson: If it’s in a museum, it’s almost certainly a worthwhile piece of art. And even if you don’t like it, there’s a reason for every decision that was made by the artist. To use those muddy colors, for example… to paint the sky as a barely visible strip at the top of the canvas… to have the paint fall off the top edge of the canvas or not quite make it to the bottom… to place that particular book of verse in that elegant lady’s hand.
So look at art through the eyes of a child, instead of the eyes of a critic, and try to figure out why the artist did what he or she did – especially the things that bother or confuse you. You’ll teach yourself more than you can learn from any book or course.