Liking Art

Not sure how I feel (in a like/dislike way) about the actual art. But I did react strongly to it—which is saying something.

—My reaction to Rineke Dijkstra

The whole point of art appreciation in general, and museum going in particular, is the willingness to be surprised and provoked.

Approaching Art

One of the interesting things about being into art is the balancing act between personal tastes and bigger-picture picture art appreciation. It’s a very limiting thing to only judge art on a “do I like it?” scale. Yes. It’s a very useful and completely valid metric. But the idea that things which are intended to provoke thought and emotion should only trigger pleasure misses the point of going to a museum.

Commercial enterprises need to appeal to pleasure. Most people do not want to purchase or display things which they don’t like. Even books and movies where it is viable and acceptable to provoke thoughtful or unpleasant reactions* tend toward more mass-market appeal. We like our happy endings and nicely tied-up plots. Or if things don’t end nicely, we want to enjoy the ride. If it’s not enjoyable, no one buys the product and so it doesn’t get made.**

*especially in genre fiction

**While I’m avoiding the video games and art discussion since I’m not a gamer, that video games are intended to be purchased and enjoyed is the biggest argument to me as to why they aren’t art. All the bellyaching about the ending to Mass Effect 3 and how people feel ripped off, etc. only confirms my feeling. 

Museums though are not in the business of trying to move product. Yes, smart museums will always have a show capable of generating a lot of sales. But a good museum will almost always counterprogram the marketable shows with potentially unmarketable ones.* And it’s those shows which are often more interesting.

*For example SFMoMa running its Exposed exhibition at the same time as Cartier-Bresson. Those shows played off of each other but Cartier-Bresson was the obvious draw.

Museums are in the business of making people think and feel. We go to museums to learn and grow and be challenged.* If something is in an art museum, it’s there to make you think or feel. You don’t have to like it. You may not even be intended to like it.

*This is especially obvious in history museums where not including uncomfortable topics makes the entire museum suspect—to the point where it’s possible to have an entire museum which functions as an uncomfortable experience.

Instead of concentrating on “like” pay attention to how it makes you feel and how it makes the people around you feel. This approach also eliminates a lot of the intimidation factor with art. Museums are scary places for people who don’t know art history since a lot of people use museums as an opportunity to show off how smart they are.

Wrong approach.

Museums are a chance to be honest with yourself and your emotions. If you concentrate on reactions, you can never be wrong.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

16 thoughts on “Liking Art”

  1. As someone who is pretty much an outsider when it comes to art, I find this distinction very useful. Although I do wonder if there isn’t some danger of falling into a sort of non-usefully relativistic position in which all art is evaluated phenomenologically but no art is judged. (Whereas ideally a viewer should be doing both those things.)

    1. There’s always a danger of being a lazy critic. But I’d rather have people fall into the “how does it make you feel?” approach than the “am I supposed to like this?” approach.

    1. Thanks!. I can definitely see your point. I’m not that extreme. Yet.

      A more non-commital star icon (twitter, flicker, etc.) isn’t as bad. But your point is why I was thinking that having brain/heart/spleen/genitalia/etc. icons would be a more interesting way to go. Click on as many as you wish depending on whether something makes you think/love/anger/turned on.

      Liking is too simple and limiting. Both as an approach for consumption and as a goal for production.

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