A little tip: If there’s a museum show you’re interested in, look for a “family guide” or “classroom guide” on the website. They’re often offered as free, downloadable PDFs and have good images and information without museum “artspeak.”
I was intrigued by Gretchen Rubin’s Met Museum Experiment, in which she plans to visit the Met every day of this year that she’s in NYC. (She lives within walking distance.)
Her experiment and her goals — to waken her senses, to learn about art, to explore the building space, to see more clearly, though she doesn’t feel she’s a visual person — got me thinking about how I like to visit museums.
Here are 3 things I do that make my museum experiences much richer:
1. Draw, draw, draw! When you try to draw something, even with just a rough sketch, you really have to look at it, and you notice all kinds of things you don’t by just standing around gawking at it. I always have a pocket notebook and a pencil or two with me. (Many museums don’t let you use pen or marker in the galleries.) I stand and copy the art I like, often just swiping a detail here and there from different pieces. (I write more about drawing and “slow looking” in chapter 5 of Keep Going.)
2. Enlist a small child to guide you through the museum. Kids are alive to the world in ways we aren’t as adults. They’re also lower to the ground, so their perspective is literally different. (More on this: “The 5-year-old docent” and “Borrow a kid.”)
3. Don’t read the label before you look at the art. Watch people the next time you’re in a museum gallery. They almost always look at the labels first! Don’t do this. Use your own eyes first. Let yourself be drawn towards what is genuinely interesting to you. Spend time looking at a piece without having someone else’s words messing with your looking. (More on this in Edward Tufte’s essay, “Seeing Around.”)
A fun Family Circus from 1972, shared by @KurtBusiek.
It reminds me of this spread from a 1963 LIFE magazine (see my post: “Borrow a kid”):
It also reminds me, with its subtle poke at modern art — and the supposed gap between “high” art in museums vs. the “low” art of the comics page — of Ad Reinhardt’s art comics collected in How To Look. (See some of them here.)
Here’s “How to Look at an Artist.”:
With comics now being accepted as their own art form, there are still those who need “high/low” distinctions of taste within it. A lot of folks — including me! — roll their eyes at Family Circus, but Lynda Barry drew a really beautiful appreciation in The Best American Comics 2008:
I loved Family Circus because I lived in a violent, difficult home. I used to look at that little circle and think, ‘Goddam! How can I get into there from where I am?
And tells this story:
I’d always heard that great art will cause people to burst into tears but the only time it ever happened to me was when I was introduced to Bil Keane’s son, Jeff. As soon as I shook his hand I just started bawling my face off because I realized I had climbed through the circle.
And how I did it was by making pictures and writing stories. To me the Family Circus has always been my wished for family. My soul family in the image world…
COMICS ARE MIRACULOUS!!! They are IMMUNE SYSTEMS! They are TRANSPORT SYSTEMS!!! They are TIME TRAVELING DEVICES!!
“I never went to an art school. I failed the art courses that I did take in school. I just looked at a lot of things. And that’s how I learnt about art, by looking at it.”
My favorite part of the documentary Basquiat: Rage to Riches is Fab 5 Freddy recalling how he and Basquiat started a “museum club”: every week or so they would cab up to The Met and walk around with sketch pads, pretending to be art students, looking at the paintings.
Here’s a clip of Freddy joking about how they thought Carvaggio was “gangster” for carrying a sword:
He also points out how white artists were inspired by black culture — Pollock listening to jazz while doing his improvisational drawings, Picasso stealing from African masks — and how Basquiat took their influence and reclaimed it back into his work.
It’s a good watch. If you can, though, check out Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child, which I think dives a little deeper into his influences.
For example, in that documentary you’ll learn that Basquiat loved to have a bunch of books around when he painted. Above are two comparison screenshots, one showing a page from Gray’s Anatomy (his mother gave him a copy as a child after he got hit by a car) and one showing a page of hobo signs from Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook (a personal favorite of mine). He also had copies of Da Vinci’s Notebooks and Burchard Brentjes’ African Rock Art.
We had a houseguest a few days ago and he said, “The thing I like about your books is that I feel like they give me permission.” I’ve heard other people say, “You gave me permission,” to do this or that, but I always found it sort of bewildering. “Permission” makes me think of a teacher handing out passes to the bathroom, or a parent signing off on a field trip. I’m just a writer, you know? I write about stuff I’m trying to figure out, then I share it.
I kept turning that word over in my mind — permission — and then I was sitting in front of a video at Nina Katchadourian’s show at the Blanton Museum, and I doodled this page in my sketchbook. Like many doodles, I wasn’t sure what it meant, if it meant anything, but as I was walking around the museum, looking at Katchadourian’s work, it clicked for me: Every piece of art or writing I’ve ever truly loved was a kind of permission, a permission to bring forth what I felt was already inside of me.
Permission to be humorous. Permission to draw. Permission to write poetry. Permission to use the simple tools at hand. Permission to write books with pictures. Permission to suck. Permission to love my family more than the work. Etc.
At the end of Katchadourian’s Q&A, a woman raised her hand and said that she found the show so funny she couldn’t stop laughing, and then she felt bad about laughing, because she’d never laughed in a museum before, and she wasn’t sure you were supposed to. She was, in a sense, asking for permission.
I turned the page in my notebook. You don’t need permission. But if you insist, here it is…
If you have a child of two or three, or can borrow one, let her give you beginning lessons in looking.
—Corita Kent and Jan Steward, Learning By Heart
This weekend we visited the Umlauf Sculpture Garden here in Austin. Towards the end of our visit, I spent at least half an hour at the very edge of the garden with my back to the beautiful art and scenery, watching the cars whiz by on Robert E. Lee Road.
Going to an art museum with a two-year-old will make you rethink what’s interesting and what’s art. (After all, what are cars but fast, colorful, kinetic sculptures?) This, of course, should be the point of museums: to make us look closer at our everyday life as a source of art and wonder.