How to Find the Art You Like
You want to get into art, but you don’t know how to begin. The first step is simple: find what you like.
The Power of Liking
How do you know what you like? Yes, what do you like?
Embedded in that seemingly simple question is actually a pretty subversive notion — namely that it matters what you actually, personally, like. That you should be going out and looking at stuff, not because it is the important stuff that this or that person — the newspaper art critic, the museum curator, the culture blogger, your college art history professor, your mom — says you should be looking at (should be admiring, should be appreciating, should be talking about, should be familiar with, so that when other people talk about it you don’t feel stupid), but rather because, gosh darn it, you like it.
We all remember liking, right? As in, the way you like a boy or a girl when you’re a teenager, like you like them like them. It might make you giddy, it might make you vaguely nauseous, but the main point is that it makes you feel, and feeling that feeling of feeling feels good. It’s an art crush. That’s art happiness, right there. And to find it you must become your own tastemaker.
“Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.” — David Whyte
Be Your Own Tastemaker
There’s a lot to be said for the concept of the tastemaker. Someone who spends a lot of time looking at and thinking about art — be they a gallerist, curator, arts journalist, art blogger, or collector — is going to be familiar with a ton of artists and their work and, as such, is going to be able to introduce you to loads of things you might not have stumbled upon on your own. Which is great, cool. That’s a resource, and by all means, use it.
But here’s the thing: Only you can know when a work of art is working for you. Only you know what you like. Only you know what gives you pleasure. Only you know what makes you think and feel and see. Someone else can only make your taste if you let them. And they can never make it as well as you can yourself. So why let them?
Trust yourself. Trust your taste. Trust your capacity to cultivate and grow and develop and make your own taste. Take recommendations from others, sure, but ultimately allow the buck to stop with you yourself. Have the courage to articulate to yourself what you do and do not like. Have the courage to challenge and stretch yourself. And ultimately have the courage to be your own tastemaker.
Trust Your Instincts
In practical terms, being your own tastemaker means learning to trust your instincts. What instincts are those, you might ask? Oddly enough, the metaphors for understanding such instincts are nearly always bodily, such as the fanciful notion that there are certain receptors in your brain that certain works of art — and only those certain works of art — can fit into. Or that certain works of art jump out at you and sear themselves into the back of your retinas. That certain artworks give you chills, make you gasp, make your jaw drop.
These are the same quasi-physical instincts that tell us when we’re romantically attracted to someone, when someone would make a good friend for us, when to take a gamble, when a job’s worth staying at, when things are about to get a whole lot more interesting.
Some people are a lot better at trusting their instincts than others. But nearly everyone could use a bit of practice at trusting them when it comes to matters of aesthetic taste. We’ve all heard it said so many times that liking this or that thing — jazz, white walls, dry white wine — marks us out as smart and sophisticated that we have a really hard time not believing it. But deep down we know what we like and what we don’t like — the same way we know whether we like or dislike mushrooms. We know what gives us a thrill and what doesn’t. What we agree is amazing and what we secretly think is overrated. And that’s what we should practice trusting. Does this mean we should never stretch ourselves? Of course not. If we all only ever stuck with what we already know we like we’d all still be consuming nothing but macaroni and cheese and apple juice. But that’s the beauty of instincts. They not only tell you what you like and don’t like right now; they can also be a beacon, drawing you toward the next thing you could learn to like, your next palate-expanding adventure. If you just learn to heed that almost physical tug and follow where it leads.
“If you see something, say something.” — Department of Homeland Security
Finding Words for What You Like
Ok, so how do we make our taste? Follow our instincts? Well, one very good way is through language. Say you spend Saturday afternoon at a museum or your lunch hour browsing art blogs, and somewhere in there you see something you really like. Something that makes your eyes and brain light up like a Christmas tree. Use your words. You could actually write it down, or tell a friend, or you could just articulate it to yourself inside your head.
What is the artist’s name?
To what period/era/style/movement does she belong?
Twentieth-century Mexican surrealism.
In simple terms, what is it you like about the art?
The colors. The strangeness. The feeling it gives me.
Dig a little deeper. What about the colors?
What about the subject?
What does it make you feel?
Curiosity. Fear. Bliss.
Just use regular old English for now. In time you may pick up some more technical language, but it’s not important at this stage. Just from the short self-interview above, you already have half a dozen leads to follow: Kahlo, surrealism, Mexican art, vibrancy, feminism, emotiveness.
As you start looking at more and more art, you can use the descriptive words to start to triangulate. Which of those factors do you find yourself drawn to consistently? Maybe you’ll find you have a thing for twentieth-century Mexican painting. Maybe you’ll find you don’t give a crap about time or place, but you really care about use of color. Maybe you’ll find five of those six leads are dead ends, and you really just like Kahlo. Either which way you are using language as blocks from which to construct the palace of your own taste. And that is a tremendous thing.
“. . . so good, and so twisty, and so shadowy, and so chewy, and so boomerangy, that it requires the forging of a new word for ‘beauty.’” — Nicholson Baker
If Words Fail
So, yes, it’s very useful to use your words. But it is also the case that sometimes words will fail you. And that’s ok. There are two main reasons this might happen:
The first, and best, is that you are just so blown away by something that words actually fail you. You just stand there with your mouth hanging open. And if someone were to come up to you and demand you put into language why it is you like so much this thing you’re looking at, you would not be able to give them a coherent answer no matter how hard you tried. Well, congratulations! You are having a more or less transcendent experience, and that beats, hands down, the opportunity to add one more brick to your language-based palace of knowledge.
Other times language might fail you not because you’ve had your socks knocked off but simply because you lack the necessary information. Say you see a painting you like used as décor in the lobby of a public building, or spot a cool mural from the window of a moving train, or notice some beautiful, anonymous hand-lettering used in an ad in a magazine. So you don’t know who made this thing, and there’s no easy way to figure out what style or school or movement it’s a part of, and maybe you even saw it so briefly you’re not even sure exactly what it was about it that caught your eye. Well that’s ok too.
Simply, the more you appreciate the better.
Even when you lack the words to say why it is you like what you like, you are training your brain to like, to like what it likes, and to know what it likes. And major kudos are due to you for that.
There are numerous ways for anyone to enjoy art…so many, in fact, that I wrote a book about it! You can find How Art Can Make You Happy here, published by Chronicle Books—it’s full of tips on how to visit museums, talk about art at cocktail parties, and how to let art wake you up to the world around you.