By: Mandy Pennington

Art museums tower at the top of most tourist checklists, and are some of the proudest monuments of many cities such as Washington, D.C., New York City, Paris, London, St. Petersburg, Athens, Madrid, and Vatican City. Have you ever stopped to wonder why the public derives so much joy from these museums? Practically speaking, if you are not an artist, a historian, or a great appreciator of either, what is there for you to enjoy about an art museum?

Seriously, hear me out. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to dissect why I enjoy art museums — and when I say art museums, I mean the galleries filled with old 14th-century paintings and sculptures, not the colorful modern art displays. If, as enjoyers of art, we view art as an exchange of emotion between creator and receiver, then what can we glean from a portrait of a long-dead European king? How can we find meaning in these pieces of art? Good art, as many artists and art critics claim, connects with the beholder; it gives them some sort of feeling. This feeling doesn’t need to be positive or negative; it can even be confusion. Artist Matt Shlian put it like this: “A piece of art needs to connect. It needs to have some element of truth to it that resonates with the viewer and leaves them something after they’ve left the piece. A good piece asks questions and teaches you something you didn’t know or shows you something you didn’t know you knew. It articulates something we’ve felt, and we connect to that thing in a way where words aren’t necessary. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe but makes us feel less alone in a way — that someone else understands us and gives a voice to this thing inside us.”

So, what emotion do we feel when looking at countless European paintings of stiff, posed monarchs and shirtless nymphs? Whenever I’m at an art museum, I always wonder if I’m “doing it” wrong. I walk slowly down the row of paintings, not quite pausing to read the description on every single one, gazing at each painting intently as if I’m gaining wisdom from it, but then forgetting it once I’ve walked away. I mean, what else can you do? There are so many pieces at an art museum that you can’t possibly read every label and look at every painting, but when you walk around “skimming,” it seems like you aren’t quite doing the art justice.

It’s currently very popular to look “cultured.” I attribute this to the hipster movement, or perhaps the perception that the millennial generation is media- and technology-obsessed, but many young people take pride in going to classical concerts, owning shelves of vinyls, and “casually” perusing art museums. I had a terrifying thought that maybe I only go to art museums because I want to seem cultured. Maybe it’s just that I feel cultured when I go to one. I found myself in the St. Louis Art Museum with a polaroid camera and a friend, ready to document our oh-so-cool experience on Instagram, when I realized it. I was there because going to an art museum was a sophisticated, mature, and “cool” thing to do.

It’s not that I dislike art museums. In fact, I love art. I especially love modern art: the piles of water bottles that are supposed to represent the insides of your soul and the photo of the naked female body with a pig’s head that represents the state of humanity, or the paintings that are just blobs of color but surely must represent something. I find those things very entertaining to observe; in fact, I often do feel great emotion — even if it is disgust or discomfort — while taking in these pieces of art. But when I look at many old paintings in a gallery, I don’t feel much of anything.

Then I feel insecure. What does that say about me? Is everyone else enjoying what I can’t seem to glean meaning from? Does that mean I’m just uncultured? Does that mean I can’t appreciate great art?

Maybe we are supposed to look at these ancient paintings and sculptures with reverence to those pictured, or inspiration of some kind. These paintings of monarchs are historical, and the paintings of nymphs are mythical. Maybe people like the Mona Lisa because they’re supposed to like the Mona Lisa. If a painting is hung proudly in an art museum, it must be important enough to respect, right?

So why do we like visiting art museums so much? Despite the halls and halls of portraits and sculptures of monarchs and mythical beings, art museums hold something else that we value: a look into ourselves. Artist Rone said it best when he expressed, “I think what it takes to make a great piece of art is to connect with the observer on an emotional or personal level. A bit of mystery can let the observer interpret the work based on their own experiences and let them identify with it.” At first glance, perhaps you didn’t relate to that wig-clad, baby-faced prince or the two mermaid-like nymphs hiding under lily pads. However, ancient art is not specific to its subjects; it represents the entirety of the human race and the human condition. Perhaps we enjoy looking at these pieces of art because we can see ourselves in them; or we can see who we could have been in another life. Maybe they inspire us to search inside of ourselves, or create stories of our own. What I have discovered is that art doesn’t have to be directly applicable to our lives to provide us meaning. Art is a vehicle for self-exploration and growth, a conversation between the creator and the receiver. Art museums ensure the continuation of these conversations, many of which have been going on for centuries.

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