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You already know how to look at art (but NPR will tell you)

As an art history student, I was immediately drawn to NPR’s headline “Don’t ‘get’ art? You might be looking at it wrong.” The article came out Jan. 10, accompanying a twenty-minute podcast episode in their Life Kit series, with reassuring explanations on feature topics like finances, enemies, perfectionism, and everything that would normally fall under an advice column: “How to look at art (and have a perception-altering experience).” I read and listened, and there is a lot more leniency in the world of contemporary art and its interpretation than the title implied. The overall message of this accessible article and episode is that there’s something for everyone in the arts, as long as you don’t look too hard. 

The main tips are incredibly flexible. Seek out art you enjoy, and take from it whatever you want or need. This theory is different from an antiquated phrase about letting art speak to you because based on the tips from NPR’s current experts, you don’t even have to listen. 

Let the connection happen naturally, but don’t look for something to incite an emotional response. The point is, it’s okay if someone doesn’t “get it.” In a haze of interpretations, there is no one thing to get, and transitively, everyone can access a viable view of the same artwork, however complex or simple it seems. 

For example, over winter break, I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which has a collection of art based on the Caribbean diaspora. An installation with projectors surrounds the audience with video images of pomegranate tree groves, ocean waves, and historical scenes of people walking and interacting in black-and-white film. I was enthralled by this installation and wanted to watch the whole reel for repetition and a narrative, and my family was ready to move on after a brief appreciation of the art. Even though none of us knew what to make of it, the installation was rich in content. 

Of course, there is the artist’s side, which may have an intention or at least a preference, and rightfully so. The intent of an artwork doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a right answer, however. When I visit museums with friends and family who don’t look at, read about, and discuss art as often as I do, I tell them to simply pay attention to what they think. 

People want an expert, but if art was made for someone other than you to understand, why would you be seeing it? It is such a cliche to say art is for everyone, so instead, I’ll say that it can and should benefit and teach everyone according to their life experiences. Everyone is allowed to know what they’re looking for, what they like and dislike, and to not know what they don’t understand yet. 

“We all have an aesthetic perspective,” art critic Jessica Lynne said in the podcast, going on to explain that whatever you like is what you should visit in museums. 

Further, what you like is what you should follow on social media. Everyone with internet access has constant opportunities to curate the media they see. This is the best opportunity to express taste, which everyone has to find for themselves by looking at a lot they do and don’t like or understand. It’s harder but also fulfilling to hear from someone with entirely different tastes.

These conversations come to be about how people build community around the arts. An exclusive streak led the experts in the article and podcast to over explain that there are ways into the art world for everyone. Having worked in both an art gallery and a museum, I know how hard it can be to have an opinion when there are well-read experts with more believable takes. That point of view doesn’t actually drive my understanding forward, and I’ve found more learning opportunities in guessing. If I share what I like or think about an installation or artwork, I put out something else, which becomes an opportunity for people to relate. 

When you do relate to someone’s taste, it’s so fun to talk about it.  Leaving space for that is so educational and valuable. Probably for the same reason, almost all the middle schoolers I’ve known appreciate art class because it is fun and fulfilling to create together. People have incredibly varying tastes in how they like to let their minds wander. If there is space for originality in art, there is the same space in interpretation. 


~ Molly George `23

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