Getting Into Art Can Require Seeking Something Of Yourself In Art

Last month Vox had a piece by Courtney Tenz about how to interpret art. It isn’t the sort of article you can simply link a social media post to for your audiences to read. One of Tenz’s core points is that art often isn’t immediately digestible at a glance. But there are takeaways organizations can use when having conversations like “If art’s such a central tenet of our culture, though, why do so many of us feel like we just don’t get it?”

Tenz says one of the barriers she likely faces is being told by a teacher she would never truly understand the beauty of Monet. But she still desired a relationship with visual art:

I realized, I had to build a relationship with art. I not only had to take it in regularly — akin to something the writer Julia Cameron calls “artists’ dates” in her book on creativity, The Artist’s Way — but I would also need to sit with it when I did.

The first step she lists for learning to interpret art is to view it as an interactive adventure where you as the viewer have license to decide what is interesting and meaningful about the piece. In that vein, take the time to evaluate what you think about the work rather than just give it a passing glance.

Correspondingly, the second step is to be open to feeling discomfort with the experience:

…And truthful art can make people wildly uncomfortable. “But that discomfort is such an important part of the work,” Deal says.

In this case, part of not getting the art could stem from a reluctance to confront that discomfort. As Langer writes, teaching art is an education in feeling; when art gives rise to emotions that we do not always have access to, it can feel too tough to manage. Yet it is in grappling with those emotions that the connection to art — and, ultimately, understanding it — is forged.

“How do you teach a willingness to be uncomfortable?” asks Ovenden. Even as an avid lover of art, she finds the emotional response doesn’t always come easy. “It can be really overwhelming.”

The third step Tenz lists is related to the first – “Keep an eye out for glimmers of your own experience.” Finding what is relatable to your life and seeing yourself reflected in something contributes to an increased comfort and perhaps increased understanding.

“Or, as Karen K. Ho told me, if you start to think about the arts as a way of transforming time or transforming your experience — if you move beyond the surface response of “this is a nice picture” or “this is a picture that sucks” — then looking at art can be a really interesting endeavor”

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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