Man listening to an audio guide in front of Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (photo by peteaylward/

Man listening to an audio guide in front of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (photo by peteaylward/Flickr)

Art critic Philip Kennicott published a guide to viewing art in the Washington Post this week. Lovely and thoughtful though it is, parts of it just seemed sort of … old-fashioned, you know? A little 20th century, if you will. Being a millenial, I took it upon myself to update the guide to better reflect our new, late capitalist, hypernetworked reality. Herewith, five indispensable tips for kinda viewing art.

1. Take Time

… lots of it, because you’ll need it. The most important thing when visiting a museum is to see as much artwork as possible, since, let’s be honest, you don’t manage to go that often, do you? Yeah, didn’t think so.


The best way to ensure that you see enough art is to set an Instagram quota for yourself for the day’s visit. Think about how many photos you posted on your last art outing and try to up the number by some reasonable amount, like 10. Bonus points if all the photos are selfies, but keep in mind that this might be difficult to achieve if you don’t have enough selfie experience. Maybe try starting with a selfie with every work in one specific gallery, for instance. Be aware of your strengths and limitations, and of those of your Insta followers. #awesome

In order to leave yourself enough time, line up at the entrance to the museum at least half an hour before opening time. Plan to spend the entire day with frequent breaks and trips to the various cafes and restaurants within the institution, since food is the new art anyway. Make sure to Instagram those meals, too — your warm goat cheese and toasted walnut salad alongside your favorite newly discovered Minimalist sculpture might make make for a slightly ironic but also intriguing visual comparison.

2. Bring a Friend

For art critics, the way to process art is through writing; for laypeople, it’s through talking. Bring a friend or a date to help you talk your way through whatever art you’re planning to see — conversation in front of a painting inevitably produces fresh insights. If you can’t find an equal, think about bringing a child, either your own or one borrowed from a friend. You’ll be amazed at what thoughtful art viewers kids can make.

If that’s not an option either, visit alone but plan to be bold and make acquaintances (famous artworks are best for this: there’s always a crowd around the “Mona Lisa”). This has its advantages: strangers can offer perspectives you might never even dream up — plus, you never know what might happen. A long, involved, unbelievably romantic story of how you met your future spouse while seeing art will make for a great entry on your future wedding website.

#museumselfie in Jim Hodges's "Untitled (Near and Far)" (2002) (via @risdmuseum/Instagram)

#museumselfie in Jim Hodges’s “Untitled (Near and Far)” (2002) (via @risdmuseum/Instagram)

3. Go with an Open Mind

And by that I mean really open. Some people say you have to read and learn about art to understand it, but that’s really only if you’re a critic or an academic. Everyone else (the lucky bastards) gets to just see and experience art, rather than having to think about it so hard. If you’ve looked at the work and still want to know more, read the wall label. If that’s not enough, you could consider a docent-led tour, definitely a good way to meet people and engage in conversation.

But there are more interesting and original ways to open yourself up to art and commune with it. Try talking to the work, or moving around in front of it, letting your limbs lead you into a freeform improvisational dance. If you see a vibrant red and it inspires lust, run with it. Find a way to express the feelings the art stirs within you before, like everything else, they’re gone.

Later, when the museum’s about an hour from closing time, visit the gift shop. Try to find the mouse pad, calendar, umbrella, watch, or water bottle that most embodies your experience that day, and buy five of them: one for you, four to share with your closest friends who really get you.

4. Don’t Worry Much about Remembering Things

Back in the day before the internet, people had to remember any and everything they thought was worthwhile — texts, how to cook a chicken, their age, etc. Now that the digital blessings of computers and smartphones have been bestowed upon us, we’re able to free up that memory space for day-to-day minutiae, like whether or not we forgot to turn off the stove last night.

The same applies to art: it used to be you had to remember the names of specific pieces and artists you like, but thankfully now it’s all just a Google Image search away! Instagram also comes into play here: the more photos of artworks you post, the fewer you’ll have to remember. This is also why it’s good to visit with a friend — if you can’t remember enough to get a solid Google/Google Image search going, just text them. Between the two of you, you might just be able to figure out who made that immersive installation filled with found trash, flickering lights, and taxidermy that you took selfies in and what it was called.

5. Seek Out Art that Fits Your World View

These days there’s so much art being made and shown, it can be hard to know where to start. I find it’s always good to seek out art that reflects your own ethos and approach to life. Art can be many things, but it’s probably most effective when it’s a mirror — either literal or figurative — reflecting yourself and your ideas back at you. If you’re into abstract art but find its politics hard to decipher, just look at the institution that’s showing it and you should get some answers.

Some say art is meant to be beautiful; others argue it should seek to enlighten or enliven. It doesn’t really matter what camp you’re in as long as you’re in one. Seeing art is worthless until you walk away with four things: a story to share about your experience, an opinion about what it meant, a larger lesson to draw from it, and at least one Instagram. This is how you effectively view art in the age of social media.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

9 replies on “Five Rules for (Kinda) Viewing Art”

    1. This is probably an extreme example because I was just at the Louvre, but yes. A large percentage of visitors were just taking selfies in front of famous objects and then passing them by without looking at all. Their loss, I guess.

      1. At least you got in. Last time I went to the Louvre it was stuffed with Swedish high school girls. I guess it’s what they do with them when they’re not in school. Waiting time was three or four hours. Mona Lisa can wait.

    2. I’d add to the list above: choose unpopular artists, and unpopular times (9 a.m. Tuesday morning), so you can actually see the art instead of a bunch of people in front of it taking pictures, talking, gesticulating, or passing out listening to the recorded commentary on their little commentary machine.

  1. This is a wonderful article that is so very relevant. The NEA published a study a few years ago that found that millennials are an underserved population in museums. How do we make museums relevant? Your suggestions hit on key points of strategies we can use to make the museum experience more enjoyable for this group. Bravo!

  2. Rule #1 should be : Turn off your “gadget” ( cell,smart phone, tablet, whatever…) when you walk in the front door. The outside world can wait.

  3. I’m not sure that people got that this is satirical (despite the tags at the end). Perhaps the reason for that is there is some reasonable advice mixed in with the humor?

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