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“I Want to Learn More About Art, What Should I Do?”

Greetings Readers! Today our question is:

“I want to learn more about art but I don’t know where to start. What should I do — what can I read, where can I go, who should I talk to?”

It’s important to consider this process in terms of parallel strategies.

First, find a few friends whom you can drag along — even if they are clueless, but as long as they are keen to join you. Together, you should frequent galleries and museums as well as exhibition openings. Going alone to those things can feel intimidating, and a friend can make the difference; you’ll feel more comfortable and open to looking at different things. After your excursions, talk amongst yourselves about what you’ve seen and experienced. This is very important — being able to articulate and share opinions. One of the best ways to learn is to converse about art. First among your friends, and then later with artists, curators, writers, scholars, audiences and so on.  

Next step, go to art talks, but again, with a friend or two. It should be easy to get on email invite lists. After these events, talk amongst yourselves about what you think. Eventually, approach the speakers. If you are too shy to ask a question in public, then approach them afterwards. Begin to get comfortable talking with professionals about art. Build up to asking them out for a coffee to talk more about their work. Not everyone in the art world is friendly, but that’s true of any field. However, you’ll find many folks — from artists to museum curators — who are generous and happy to share their own experience and expertise.

The Geopolitical and the Biophysical: A structured conversation on Art and Southeast Asia in context, organised by NTU CCA Singapore at the 56th Venice Biennale, 9 May 2015. Image courtesy of Heri Dono.

The first set of strategies is to immerse yourself in your local art community. Go to art spaces, attend art events, get to know art professionals — be part of the community conversation. The second set of strategies is about reading. Magazines like Plural are good, but you’ll want to go elsewhere for more material. There are plenty more online magazines, from Artforum to ArtsEquator, Art-agenda and Art Radar — and that’s just a sampling of the As. The more you read, the more other platforms you’ll find to read.

There are also a lot of free online university sources. For instance, check out MIT’s Open Course Ware  — there you can search for courses such as “Modern Art and Mass Culture”. The point isn’t to try and take the course on your own, but browsing through course outlines and reading lists will give you many references that you can look up and read. There is also edX which features online courses from UC Berkeley, Harvard, the Australian National University, and so on. There are also websites like Open Culture or Brain Pickings that have a lot of interesting content on the arts.

Some of P’s earliest reads

A few points about reading. I strongly recommend reading widely: read biographies about artists as well as popular books like Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World, but make sure you get a good dose of art history. Read about art from everywhere. Some art history books are important but difficult, like T.J. Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life, or anything by Patrick D. Flores, but a number of good art historians have also written more accessible books, like What Painting Is by James Elkins. Don’t worry if you struggle with your reading, but don’t give up. Not all books on art are good, but it’s good to learn through trial and error; reading not-so-good books is part of any education. And don’t worry too much about art theory for now, although later you should get around to reading that stuff, as well as the more challenging books like the aforementioned Clark and Flores. A good intro to theory is John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Find friends to discuss your readings. As you meet and talk with people in the art world, ask them for reading recommendations, whether books, websites, or just articles and essays.

And when I say read widely, I also mean read around art — Stephen Jay Gould, the late Harvard palaeontologist, was a great science writer, and my own art writing has been deeply influenced by reading him. Read about natural history, politics, feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, a whole range of things, because these references will better equip you to interpret the art that you see. If you are so inclined, keep a journal of your thoughts and questions on art and your readings.

These are but a few suggestions for getting started. I hope this helps.

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