CULTURE & ARTS
10/22/2014 09:09 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How You Expect To Feel At An Art Museum Vs. How You Really Feel

The art world can be like a guarded fortress. Its expertly decorated walls are difficult to penetrate, and once inside, you might feel like a prisoner to other people's strange beliefs. Lots of people feel intimidated by today's art in particular, with its incomprehensible "masterpieces" and slightly disturbing figureheads. We want to understand it, be accepted into it, but even the act of visiting a museum can be less than ideal. With formidable columns and elaborate floor plans, entering a modern art haven can just as easily take the form of a dreamy afternoon jaunt or a nightmarish descent into the netherworld.

But we all want that dreamy afternoon, so what's an art admirer to do? The Washington Post tried to advise us earlier this month, and more than a few writers disagreed with it. So we turned to the great 19th century poet Alexander Pope, who stated, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” In the spirit of a true pessimist, we could take this to mean we anticipate too much from a day looking at art. To help lower your expectations, we've compiled the definitive "How You Expect To Feel At An Art Museum Vs. How You Really Feel" list. Behold:

1. How you expect to feel: Heroically intelligent. Only hyper-sharp, enlightened, and uniquely creative people visit a museum, right? The institutions are always teeming with elite thinkers, well-dressed professionals and artists on-the-brink-of-bursting-with-ground-breaking-ideas... right? Upon entering the museum, I will immediately inhale a breath of fresher, smarter, just plain better air and through osmosis will absorb a higher IQ. RIGHT?

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How you actually feel: Slightly out of your league. Museums are built to intimidate you. They are abnormally quiet, palatial and pristine, filled with guards and attendants who will only speak to you if you mess up. "Don't touch the art," is not a statement reserved for children. You might expect to blend in with an art world version of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, but you'll probably feel a touch out of place. Which is fine.

Like we said, everything from the architecture to the pretentious docents to the gaudy frames to the priceless artworks is meant to impress you. Sometimes, even the signs are perplexing and can throw you off your game. Just don't let all the bells and whistles keep you from confidently purchasing a ticket so you can drool over your favorite paintings and sculptures.

2. How you expect to feel: You will waltz into the museum with an innate knowledge of where things are. You're a blood hound for art. Once you bust open those ornate doors, you're going to fling yourself past the turnstiles and navigate the halls like an old sea captain.

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How you actually feel: Like the kid who got left behind in a department store. It's like someone told you to head toward the North Pole. You have an idea of how to get there. It's north, so... you head in, like, that direction. But then there are these mountains, rivers, oceans, etc., that derail your linear path. Before long you're hanging out in the depths of the medieval archives, face-to-face with a whole lot of judgmental monks. Just grab a map and look like a tourist. We've all done it.

3. How you expect to feel: Peaceful. Like a yogi-samurai on vacation.

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How you actually feel: Weirdly alert. Like someone who's never used public transportation, or a wounded animal. Yes, a museum is a calming place. It can be quiet, lit to perfection, filled with soothing colors and forms. But on busy days, calm is a pipe dream. First, there will be children. As far as we're concerned, children should absolutely be welcome at every single art establishment on the planet. But you should also be aware that they will rupture any expectations of heavenly peace with their voice immodulation and urges to break into a sprint when faced with an open hallway. This is okay.

Second, there will also be tourists, who've never seen the "Mona Lisa" or "Starry Night" and can't help exclaiming their excitement. And hey!, you might be one of them. This is also okay. Third, there will be restrictions galore. You can't go into this gallery without paying the special exhibition fee. You can't step too close to this sculpture because we're afraid you're going to put your tongue on it. You can't take a photo of this painting because it's a no-camera zone. If you've ever been to the Museum of Modern Art during its free Friday hours, you know what we're talking about. Tip: take an hour or two off work during the week to visit your favorite art haven when it's least popular. You'll have a better chance at finding peace then.

4. How you expect to feel: Like that one semester of art history really paid off. You're a savant. Once you lock eyes with "The Arnolfini Portrait" you'll immediately remember that the dog in the foreground symbolizes loyalty and that the trinkets next to the convex mirror represent the Passion of Christ. To quote Celine Dion, it's all coming back to you now.

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How you actually feel: Like art is a foreign language that no one ever taught you. Take a deep breath. Tell yourself that those early Dutch painters were overly obsessed with symbolism. And take solace in the fact that placards accompanying artworks are there for a reason. You might have once heard that reading the liner notes is akin to cheating. This is not true. Curators pore over those snippets of information, delicately sprinkling nuggets of wisdom across an exhibition for your benefit. It doesn't hurt to do a little research before you head to a museum, either. For example, are you going to see the MOCA Pacific Design Center show, "Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman." We suggest brushing up on your knowledge of Aleister Crowley and the Los Angeles avant-garde. It will make ogling Cameron's eerie sketches all the more wonderful.

5. How you expect to feel: You're going to be blown away by every work of art. Cue spotlights and carefully placed fans, because Marilyn Monroe is in the building.

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How you actually feel: You hated 75% of what you saw. Hopefully, this is an exaggeration. But when it comes down to it, art movements have varied drastically over time and place, and a person who loves traditional Japanese printmaking might not be in love with American Pop Art from the 1960s. Futurism, fauvism, cubism, Impressionism -- they're not for everyone. And it's not uncommon to spot a few eye rolls whilst perusing a contemporary artist's work.

But here's the thing: you don't have to like everything. You don't have to have a Hollywood moment with every piece you lay eyes on. It's hard for anyone to innately understand the gestures contained inside a Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin, let alone find it aesthetically pleasing. That's not the point. To Georgia O'Keeffe art is beauty, to Fellini it's autobiographical, to André Malraux it's revolt, to Seurat it is harmony. Art can be many things all at once, but it doesn't have to be loveable. Let yourself experience hate, repulsion, and anger, and maybe eventually that freedom will allow you to discover a whole host of other emotions. Stop confining yourself to reactions like "I love it" or "I hate it" and maybe you'll find a totally new and explosive experience.

6. How you expect to feel: The world makes perfect sense! Artists are truth tellers. They reveal the inner workings of the universe.

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How you actually feel: The world is chaos and nothing makes sense. Art is full of contradictions. And, as we've emphasized, you're going to have to work a little hard to get to that "A-HA" pinnacle of universal understanding. Especially when it comes to conceptual art. Why are two clocks mounted by Felix Gonzalez-Torres or a staring contest staged by Marina Abramovic considered art? There's certainly no definitive answer, nor should there be. If you spend less time trying to define art and more time trying to immerse yourself in the creative work of another human being, the chaos might start to drop away.

If it comforts you, Roberta Smith, New York Times art critic extraordinaire, has faith in all of us: "I think the general public really gets conceptual art because it's actually about ideas. What you have is this idea of creativity being able to affect things, and I think that that's really amazing."

7. How you expect to feel: You have a photographic memory. You're a visual leaner. You'll never, ever forget the art. You'll never, ever forget the artists. This whole experience will leave an indelible slideshow in your brain.

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How you actually feel: You want to document anything and everything you see on social media. On the one hand, taking photos of art can be tedious. The images will almost always fail to capture the actual feeling of standing in front of beloved photograph or installation. And, some studies have shown that snapping photos can actually hinder your memory of art, as we're wont to rely too much on technology to organize and catalogue our experiences.

On the other hand, taking a photo of an artist's name or a painting you'd like to revisit in the future isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, the museum should spark curiosity in the patron, not stifle his or her interest in knowing anything more about an artwork or artist than is offered in one show. Respect an institution's rules on photography, but don't feel like you can't take visual notes on a great exhibition. Just shy away from selfies.

8. How you expect to feel: Like you could spend hours staring into centuries of fading paint and nicked bronze. The museum is a shrine and you are its most fervent disciple. You will worship at the feet of Milton Avery and Joan Brown until you reach moksha. As Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones wrote, "The simplest, most final way to dismiss a work of art is to say it does not reward serious attention."

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How you actually feel: Tired after 30 minutes, maybe less. Standing plus staring plus attempting to remain quiet does not bode well for energy levels. And hey, you might positively adore that Joan Brown nude but that doesn't mean it's going to captivate your senses for eternity. Blame it on our depleting attention spans if you'd like. Some people spend less than five seconds looking at a contemporary artwork. We encourage you to give it a little more than a passing glance, but you're not letting the art world down if you deck over to the cafe for a bit of caffeine midway. As Jonathan Jones later wrote, "There is no such thing as a totalizing gaze -- the look that comprehends everything -- because the nature of visual perception is momentary, partial and fragmentary."

For more advice on making it through an art viewing experience, check out our guide to reading abstract art and our guide to reading monochrome paintings.

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