I know next to nothing about art history (or visual art in general), but I love art museums. Maybe it’s because it is a social-ish activity that requires little to no talking (an introvert’s dream) but after spending a few hours at the Minneapolis Institute of Art this weekend, I’m left wondering just what it is that captivates me so profoundly.
I think for one thing, art helps me notice details I generally overlook. A series of landscapes caught my attention this weekend. I was drawn especially to the clouds in several of them: the play of light and darkness, the gentle shadows that set the tone for the entire rest of the painting. Are they heavy and ominous, signaling an impending storm? Fluffy and light, floating above a carefree summer afternoon? I considered the brush strokes that brought the rest of the image into life: the perfect angles and shadows and spots of bright color that turned a canvas into a window looking over the foamy ocean or a distant mountain range or a magically green, sun-spotted forest. Studying these paintings helps me look at the world around me through a different lens, one focused on the brilliant diversity of colors, shapes, lines, and textures that define our existence, even when we are completely unaware of them.
Perhaps another part of my fascination is that art transports us across time and space, offering glimpses of different landscapes, ways of life, and history from a variety of perspectives. Paintings that are hundreds of years old, ancient pottery, and religious relics remind me of my smallness in the great sweeping narrative of humanity. People have been seeking meaning and transcendence for thousands of years. Love, loss, joy, anxiety, and hurt are nothing new. Art serves evidence that we dwell in the great mystery of what it is to be alive together, with those who have gone before us, those who create among us now, and those who have yet to add their art to the world.
I am also often struck by the lack of resolve and definitiveness in many pieces. The wonderful and frustrating thing about art is that it doesn’t tell me (at least with words) how to feel or how to interpret it. I’m forced to let go of my default dualistic framework of right/wrong, correct/incorrect, perfect/imperfect and instead sit with the possibility of multiple interpretations. Art also invites me to experience emotion that completely surpasses my logical, word loving, theory constructing brain and instead begins in a different, perhaps deeper, place. It hints at a different way of being, a way that is much more like poetry and less like a textbook and a way of living that is more open and spacious, leaving room for mystery and wonder. It helps me see life from a different angle without jumping to defensiveness. And it causes me to consider a world that lets me be okay with not having it all figured out – and gives me permission to be present and curious in the midst of the unknowing.
I wonder if some of artists’ greatest gifts to the world are the ways in which they invite us to live counterculturally. Art has the power to inspire reverence, attentiveness to detail, and a slower way of moving through the world. When you enter an art museum or gallery, the goal isn’t to “do” or accomplish anything but to simply take in, to ponder, to slow down, to notice, to wonder.
In a culture of short attention spans, workaholism, overstimulation, and constant information consumption via digital media, to simply stand and notice the details of a painted canvas seems irrational, wasteful, or even boring. But I wonder how much our world would change if we approached all of creation first and foremost with a posture of curiosity and reverence, with the underlying assumption that whatever and whoever we see possesses inherent worth and a perspective worth pondering. Might art invite us into a communal practice of holy curiosity?