How to Get the Most Out of Art (Even When You’re Not Sure You Get It)

Hunker may earn compensation through affiliate links in this story.

You don't need an art degree or highbrow credentials to make the most out of a trip to an art museum. Viewing art, even if you know nothing about what you're looking at, can be good for your brain and help you develop better communication skills.

"Even though having experience and formal training can help you view art in a certain way, it's certainly not necessary for getting something beneficial out of the artwork," said Dr. Oshin Vartanian, an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto, adding that even if you're an art skeptic, consuming it can have tangible benefits.

Indeed, a 2006 study published in the Journal of Holistic Healthcare found that participants reported lower stress levels and had lower concentrations of cortisol (the "stress hormone") after a brief visit to an art gallery.

If you've ever found yourself a loss for how to talk about art — or even wondered if there is a "right" way to consume it — here's some help.

Keep it quick, but carry the conversation elsewhere

If you've spent money and taken time out of your day to visit a museum or gallery, you might feel like the only way to make the most out of your experience is to force yourself to see everything.


"Just bite off a little piece and enjoy," said Mary Morton, the curator and head of the Department of French Paintings at the National Gallery of Art. Having a conversation partner, she said, also comes in handy.

An easy question to start with is, "How does this make me feel?" Also helpful is to think about what it is that kept you from walking past a given piece. Pretending like you're an overly inquisitive toddler and continually asking "Why?" can also push each of you to look more closely at details in the artwork and begin to think about and vocalize associations you might not have connected before.

The conversation doesn't have to end when you leave the museum, and talking about your experience can even extend the social and emotional benefits of engaging with art, Dr. Vartanian said. So grab an ice cream and reminisce about the pieces you remember best; by giving your brain time to think them over, it's likely you'll have new comments or even a different opinion.

Let's get physical

If you're feeling shy when it comes to talking about the content of an artwork, try talking about how the physical object was made, or better yet, act it out.

You might feel silly swinging your arm around wildly following the lines of a Lee Krasner painting or pretending to recreate the nose-to-canvas-level detail of a Dutch master's work. But forcing yourself to think about the physical process someone went through to make a piece of art is an easy way to get conversation rolling.

What do you think was the first mark made on the canvas? Is the paint applied aggressively or are the lines very faint? Did the artist try to create an emotional response by making the piece large and imposing?

These questions "can help us to access information, whether that's an emotion or a specific meaning," said Tally Tripp, an art psychotherapist and the director of George Washington University's Art Therapy Clinic. Ms. Tripp uses art creation and questions like these with her clients to help them explore how artwork often becomes an unintentional self-portrait of an artist's emotions.

Certainly you'll never be able to truly understand how an artist was feeling when he or she made a given piece. But talking about the physical elements of an artwork — its bright colors or jagged lines — can help you explore the impact different kinds of imagery have on you.

You don't have to love everything

"We like to take people to the modern and contemporary sections to do this, because it tends to be the most controversial," said Nick Gray, who founded Museum Hack, which offers unconventional museum tours filled with art games and gossip.

Mr. Gray has a game he plays on museum tours called Buy, Steal, Burn. To play, choose a piece of art you feel strongly about — positive or negative — and tell your companion why you love it enough to buy it; want to steal it because you need it; or think it's so terrible it just needs to be burned.

Besides getting people to talk about art, Mr. Gray said the real benefit of threatening priceless artwork with arson is getting viewers comfortable with the idea that it's O.K. not to like or revere everything they see in a museum.

"The Met has over 230,000 objects," Mr. Gray said. "You'd have to be crazy to find a single person who would love every object in there."

He also suggested photo challenges as a way to build confidence and practice sharing art with friends. Don't be afraid to keep themes light and a bit silly, and as you walk through the museum snap a picture of anything that reminds you of the prompt. If the challenge is "down to party," it could be a painted jug of wine you're planning to bring, a dreamy looking date or the perfect landscape for a dance party. If your dream get-together involves a bonfire, you can always choose which canvas you'd bring for kindling.

Julia Hood, coordinator of education at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, N.C., encouraged digging into that hate and repulsion, emotions that can be just as strong as love, and asking yourself questions about what specifically bothers you.

Looking at pieces that make you uncomfortable can even help you work through difficult emotions like fear or anger or help you realize certain sensitivities, Dr. Vartanian said.

"Interacting with this kind of artwork can force you to contemplate things you might not think about outside of the museum setting, because the context is safe," he said.

If your companion disagrees with your opinion, dig in. Even if they can't convince you that a piece of artwork should be saved from the fire, talking about your different reactions can spark a conversation that moves past art to the different experiences and baggage you're both bringing to the viewing experience.

Keep looking and talking

Active looking isn't just a recommendation for museum newbies. Even if you've already seen an exhibit there can real benefits, and interesting talking points, left to discover. And research shows that the more you understand an artwork, the more pleasure you receive from it, Dr. Vartanian said.

While a repeat visit might mean the paintings on the wall are the same, you aren't the same person you were when you last saw them, Ms. Tripp said. Even the smallest experiences — like waking up on the wrong side of the bed — can change how we experience art. Though it can be easy to fall back on just visiting your favorites, Ms. Tripp said you should try to look for the piece of art that is your favorite today.

This makes for great conversation as you wonder why a painting you've never paid attention to has suddenly caught your eye. Even if you double down on an old favorite, this exercise makes you justify why you still identify with it. Pick out elements that speak to you and force yourself to articulate why they speak to you. And new conversation partners can bring up different points that can totally change your perspective, Ms. Morton said.

"Inevitably someone, it could be a 10-year-old or an 88-year-old, will make an observation about a painting I've spent years with and a little door will open and I'll see something new," she said.