I recently spent a week in Washington D.C., much of it inside the city's phenomenal art museums. Though I feel ill-equipped to fully understand and appreciate what I'm seeing, I'm increasingly drawn to art museums over history and nature museums. Part of that is an introvert's preference for smaller, quieter crowds. But this experience showed me how much I enjoy the inherent focus of an art museum. I love spending time with a single work, even briefly, without distractions. History museums tend to present an overabundance of objects at every turn, each competing for attention. I find myself focusing more on completion than the moment.
On this trip, I confirmed how much I enjoy the work of Joan Miró and Wassily Kandinsky, and developed a new appreciation for Robert Delaunay and Wayne Thiebaud. I'm not sure what the common thread is between these artists, but revisiting the photos I took suggests I'm drawn to abstract images with vivid colors. An interesting art museum app would be one that records your reactions to pieces as you go, and then recommends others you should see.
Next to each painting is an informative card that tells you the title, who painted it and when, the artist's lifespan, and often the story behind it. In some cases, it's tidbits about who is in the painting or what was happening in the artist's life when it was painted. Other times, the text puts the painting in context, explaining why it's significant, how it defined or responded to a movement, or what it reveals about that period in history.
It wasn't until the second museum that I realized what I was doing. I would walk to the next painting and read the card, then take in the work itself. I wanted context before I experienced it. Is this painting significant? Is it by someone I know? What's the connection between this one and the one to the left?
That approach was partly driven by a lack of confidence. I didn't trust my first take. It's not a great feeling when you fail to give a masterwork its due.
It was also just easier. The experts put the painting in context for me and guided my experience.
But it was no longer my experience alone. I couldn't say whether a painting spoke to me without hearing the voice that told me why it should have.
It's a familiar feeling. We all have voices that frame and interpret things for us. They tell us why this news matters and a book is worth reading, the best place to stay, signature dish at a restaurant, or the right position on an issue. They tell us why we should be outraged or why we should be outraged that others are outraged.
Trusted organizations and experts, talented curators and editors, are essential. None of us can watch every movie, try every restaurant, or study every issue in-depth.
Sometimes, though, the consensus is nothing more the quick conclusions of people who think like we do.
I want to see, hear, and experience more things unfiltered, and incorporate the wisdom of others after my own thoughts have taken shape.
And appreciate the mysterious beauty in front of me.