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When people ask, "What is Art?" or state that something "is not art," they usually are not seeking a philosophical definition but are instead expressing an opinion that a painting is not realistic enough, that it is offensive, or that it does not use traditional materials. Defining art too narrowly, or in a way that only affirms what we already believe, deprives us of many delightful and thought-provoking experiences. An awareness of all the things that art can be should encourage us to enjoy many different types of art, or at least to wonder why we value one type above another.

The art museum is a natural place to start learning more about the visual arts, but many people find it difficult to sustain interest when faced with so many objects by so many artists they have never heard of. Next time you are in an art museum look first at the other people. Count how many are looking carefully at the art; then look at how many simply read labels, walk away, or do other things without looking at the art itself. Most of us share a tendency to look for works by artists we already know something about, especially those we know about through their odd or interesting lives. This is one way to appreciate art, but it is not the only way.

Try looking for only one specific thing: kinds of paint strokes or particularly energetic brushstrokes, the use of a particular color, or sculptures that are constructed of many parts or from different materials. Or you might seek out more conventional groupings, such as portraits, landscapes, and still lifes.

Make judgments, but get specific. Go into a room at a museum and decide which painting shows the most interesting use of light and dark. Which painting is most colorful? Which artist is the best at capturing emotions?

With a painting, try to imagine the steps the artist took to paint the work. Does the canvas or wood backing show through? Did the artist paint quickly or slowly? How do the paints sit on top of each other? Look at the way shapes are repeated or ordered. If you had no idea what the painting was about - and with some modern art, you really might not - would you still feel something simply by looking at the colors or brushwork?

If you are looking at a sculpture, think about how it might have been seen in its original position, perhaps in a church or on the front of a building. Can you walk all the way around the sculpture? Is it more interesting from a particular point of view? Is it on a pedestal, and if it is, does its added height make you feel smaller or more distant from the subject? As with painting, you might think about how the artist made the piece. Is it wood, stone, or metal, or something else entirely?

With architecture, try to become aware of the shape and size of the spaces around you. Notice how doors and windows are spaced. Sometimes they frame special views, sometimes they create pleasing patterns when seen from the outside, sometimes they are framed or made of special materials for interesting visual effect.

With decorative arts and craft objects, consider their use and whether the changes that the artist has made to the basic form add to or detract from their function. How would it feel to hold the teacup, sit on the chair, or wear the clothing on exhibit? Museums often display decorative arts in rooms that replicate historic rooms. If this is the case, can you sense a pattern of how the people of that time might have felt about ornament, wealth, or simplicity? How might you think differently about these objects if they were displayed on pedestals?

As with the decorative arts, museums often display arts of non-Western cultures in an evocative setting, to demonstrate not just their form but also their function. Here, too, you might ask what the display itself is telling you. Would you respond differently to these objects if they were displayed like the masterpieces of Western art?

New media - video, film, digital arts - can sometimes be difficult to appreciate as art because we so commonly see these same forms in advertising and entertainment. As viewers, we may find them intriguing or amusing but still wonder if they are art. Some artists who work in these media try to set their work apart from commercial uses, while others consciously use commercial imagery and techniques. Rather than decide on a verdict (art or nonart), consider works like these as a starting point for a dialogue. What do these pieces say about images in our lives, or about the distinctions and values we give to certain art forms?

Similarly, many works made today are deliberately provocative. Conceptual art sometimes seems to mock everything we value about art, from beauty and craftsmanship to the precious and timeless nature of art. Many works take stabs at cultural traditions that we value enormously, including religion, patriotism, and morality. It is not necessary to agree with every artist, to like every work of art, or to visit every gallery or museum. But it is important to think and talk about the art before passing judgment.

 
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