People Looking at Art

I always find it interesting to see how people look at art in museums. I feel like there’s 3 different types of museum-goers:

  1. The Caption Reader – spends more time reading the caption than looking at the artwork
  2. The Photographer – rushes through the entire museum, snapshotting as many works of art as possible; also the Instagram photographers, posing in front of famous works of art, ready to share it on their feed
  3. The Absorber – sits/stands in front of a work of art, staring at it for a long time
Van Gogh’s Starry Night at the MoMA
Henri Rousseau at the MoMA

I’ve fallen into all of these categories. I have so many photographs of artwork at museums, and I never look at them, I don’t know why it’s so important for me to photograph a work of art. I guess it’s just a memory, like any photograph.

And while captions are important, I realized that I was spending more time reading the caption than looking at the artwork. It’s comical how the caption almost becomes another work of art on the wall, ready to be taken in by museum visitors. Would the artist want people to read the caption, or would they prefer people look at the art? I suppose both are important, context is important when looking at art, but I wonder sometimes if reading too much into the context of the artwork takes away from what is on the canvas.

After learning in one of my art classes that the average person only spends a few seconds looking at each work of art in a museum, I decided I would challenge myself and sit in front of an artwork for at least five minutes. It’s peaceful and slow, like watching rain fall, taking note of swirls of brushstrokes, colors meshing together, thinking about who the artist was, how they felt when they created the artwork.

It makes me think about how long it takes me to create art, and how much time the artist must have spent creating their artwork. Although maybe it doesn’t matter how long people look at the art. Musicians spend hours, days, months, years crafting the perfect songs and lyrics. And when it’s finished, there’s only 3 minutes of a song that people listen to and move on with the rest of their day. Do you have to sit with something for a while to appreciate it, or can you still appreciate art after only seeing it for a short time?

Regardless of whether or not time spent consuming art relates to level of appreciation, my favorite artwork to sit and stare at is Jennifer Bartlett’s 24 Hours at the Met. I first saw Bartlett’s 3 large paintings my junior year of high school, when my art class took a five hour bus trip to New York City. The clocks in each painting piqued my curiosity. Later, in college, I went to the Met many times, and I would always skip past all the Renaissance works until I made it to the modern art section, where I would sit and stare at the 3 large Bartlett paintings on the wall. When I was homesick and alone, I went to these paintings to find comfort. They were familiar.

Maybe art is about portraying the human experience. Maybe art is about finding connection, communicating what can’t be said in words.

What do people think when they see artwork? I guess if I’ve learned anything from the countless art critiques I had in college, everyone looks at art differently and everyone gets something different out of artwork. And the artist’s intention when creating the artwork is not always evident to the viewer. Do artists make art for themselves, or with an audience in mind?

a man reads the caption of a painting (I don’t remember which museum this was at)
3 of Jennifer Bartlett’s 24 Hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

2 thoughts on “People Looking at Art

  1. Outosego December 19, 2020 / 10:05 am

    I always find this interesting, also. Great observation, dear ! Wonderful post. Thank you.

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