From a typical water-cooler conversation about baseball: "Did you see how badly A.J. Burnett sucked last night? He held it together for, what, all of three innings before he fell apart? He really needs to break this slump, it's killing the Yankees."
From a typical conversation at a bar frequented by intellectual types: "Did you see the new Dali show at the Met? I know it's supposed to be the biggest retrospective in years, but they could have been more selective about the pieces they chose. Having that many paintings up is total overload. It wrecks the show."
Like sports teams, many of the major museums live and die by their seasonal lineup. A series of good shows attracts paying visitors, and generates the buzz that draws headlines, sponsorships, and donors. That makes museums, along with films and books and current events, another cultural talking point for those seeking to cultivate a well-rounded intellectual life.
Putting This Theory Into Practice
Museums and galleries aren't exactly secret societies. Newspapers, from the stolid daily to your funky alternative weekly, print reviews of the latest shows. Local news websites will interrupt their white-hot, breaking coverage of a tree limb down on a side road to offer rundowns of upcoming museum events, including film series of talks. You can also direct your browser toward the museum's website, where some intern hopefully stopped "poking" their friends on Facebook -- whatever that means -- long enough to update the official calendar.
Make a point to see the highest-profile shows, which tend to crop up in conversation with your fellow intellectuals. Take along a small notebook on your jaunts to the local art depositories and fill its pages with details about the works on display: notable artist names, what you find most interesting about certain pieces, and the like.
Those notes aren't meant as grist for future talking points (most of your friends, bless them, couldn't care less about Edo-era samurai armor or a Chuck Close retrospective). The notes help you better absorb the show, once you manage to extract yourself from the crowds. In major cities, the biggest museum shows are flooded in short order by jabbering tourists, creating a human wave that carries you too quickly from gallery to gallery, forcing you to concentrate less on the art and more on throwing well-placed elbows into nearby ribcages.
Aside from the occasional bruise, following along with museums and galleries can be fun. Even if painting and sculpture have never topped your list of interests, even if that piece of "performance art" involving two naked models and a cup makes you wish for a method to erase memories on command, every minute spent on the art scene is further evidence that you are not a Philistine. Becoming a member of a museum or gallery will cement your intellectual bona fides still further, and sometimes give you access to shows before they officially open, sparing your elbows and some unfortunate soul's ribs from bruising.
And the Inevitable Footnote...
Some museums rotate their shows and events more often than a fashion model changes outfits. Others are far more static. That quaint little gallery with artifacts and etchings from the local Revolutionary War skirmish almost certainly hasn't altered its displays since Gerald Ford kept tripping over the Oval Office trashcan. The same goes for sculpture gardens or transportation museums, since the main attractions tend to weigh a few tons and are thus very immobile. In those cases, you can safely check in every other year or so to see if anything's changed.
Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media in April 2012.
Follow Nick Kolakowski on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nkolakowski