Art exhibitions can be fascinating but also overwhelming. Contrary to what some may think, you do not need to be an "expert" to enjoy them – as long as you keep a few simple tips in mind.
There are some people, and perhaps you are one of them, who think that art is just not for them. Some find the art world intimidating and believe that you need some sort of special education to "really" appreciate it, while others consider most contemporary art as nonsense dreamed up by lazy hippies who consider owning a weird hat as a personality.
Considering that art is perhaps the most subjective thing in the world, it is no wonder that opinions regarding it are so divided. However, that same subjectivity also leads to an incredible diversity, and it is almost guaranteed that anyone, no matter who they are, can connect to certain artworks on a meaningful level.
To do so, you do not need any special badge or degree. All you need is the right approach to visiting a museum or art exhibition. So, how does one go about that?
Let's start off with something straightforward: DO read the information provided on the panels. A good museum or exhibition will provide you with enough information to put the art into a certain context without overwhelming you with details. It is up to you whether you want to read the information first and then look at the artwork or take in the art "raw" before consulting the panel or plaque next to it. It should also be pointed out that, in recent times, curators have started to move away from the traditional info panel, arguing that it imposes too much of a "filter" on a visitor's experience. Nevertheless, some information on the artist or the artwork itself will almost always be provided.
DON'T feel obligated to appreciate every single artwork on display. Especially when visiting a big museum or a large exhibition, you can quickly feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of art. Art is highly subjective, and it is almost guaranteed that you will not "click" with some, or perhaps even most, of the exhibits. When walking through an exhibition, give each artwork a chance, of course, but if it just does not speak to you, feel free to move on. Before visiting a museum or exhibition, you could also take a look at the floor plan and "plan" your visit beforehand.
The other side of this coin is naturally: DO take your time with artworks that pique your interest. If you notice that an artwork intrigues you in any sort of way, that is your signal to take a moment and focus on the experience. If an emotion has been stirred up, whether positive or negative, you may want to observe that emotion and how it relates to the artwork. This moment between being "hooked" and experiencing the creation on a deeper level is what art is all about. Ideally, you want to try and maximise the time you spent with art that speaks to you.
That being said, DON'T write off an artwork based on your first impression. To illustrate this, let's have a look at a practical example from the 2022 Biennale in Venice. When you first enter the German Pavilion, you might be slightly confused to find it completely empty. What you will notice is that the artist has decided to open up part of the floor and some of the walls. Some visitors enter this pavilion, look at it for perhaps five seconds, and leave immediately.
But if they had taken the time to read some of the literature outside of the pavilion, they would have learned that the German Pavilion in Venice was redesigned by the Nazis in 1938 to reflect fascist aesthetics. Despite some attempts at modifications after the end of the war, the pavilion still embodies the ideals of fascist architecture to this day. By opening up the floor and walls, Maria Eichhorn, the resident German artist at the 2022 Biennale, allows visitors to look past the era of the fascist dictatorship and catch a glimpse of the original German Pavilion from 1909, still hidden behind the modifications done by the Nazis. A good example of a simple idea, executed brilliantly.
DO respect the art and other visitors. This might appear obvious but, unfortunately, it is not. For art lovers, visiting an exhibition is a time of introspection and contemplation. Depending on the artwork, it might even be a very emotional experience for some. It is important to keep this in mind, especially with art that you do not particularly connect to personally. There is no need to sneer at or openly mock art that you do not like (again, some of you may think this is preposterous, but the author of this article has seen this happen before). An art exhibition is usually a shared space and as long as we remain mindful of everyone's place within it, it can be a very enjoyable experience for everyone involved.
DON'T fixate on finding "meaning". Art is not a math problem waiting to be solved. More often than not, it is simply about the experience. If you think you spotted a reference, metaphor, or clever allegory, great. Perhaps the artist was thinking the same thing, perhaps they never considered this point of view. The important thing is, it really does not matter. A work of art belongs as much to the artist as it belongs to the people experiencing it. Both perspectives are equally valid. Traditional education puts a lot of emphasis on trying to sleuth out what the heck these devious artists were thinking about when they created their artworks, but the truth is: Art really starts to become meaningful (and fun!) when you as the person who experiences it starts to take agency. Seek out the art that interests you, bring in your own memories and unresolved emotions, and let art become a part of your life.