How to Enjoy Art: A Guide for Everyone

This lively how-to (160 pages) was published in October of 2021 by Yale University Press. The book takes you to the art world. David read How to Enjoy Art and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.

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How to Enjoy Art

A Guide for Everyone

Ben Street

In this lively, entertaining book, art historian Ben Street invites you to come with him to look at art. He arms you with ideas to help you understand and enjoy the works — no background in art production or history required.

When you hear a song on the radio, it either moves you or it doesn’t, but you probably don’t think, ‘If I knew more music theory, maybe that song would be better for me.’ Street argues your relationship with a piece of art and how it hits you, should be the same.

To show how that can be done, this breezy book is divided into chapters on color, scale, process, placement, and content. At each step, he writes about what those things can mean with plenty of examples to interrogate your feelings: How does it affect you that this portrait is tiny and part of a brooch? What does it mean that the Statue of Liberty is enormous, and how different it would be if it could sit comfortably on a table? What does it say about the work when it’s put in a museum? How would it be different if it was sitting in a Renaissance-era church?

One of the great things about this book is that, along the way, he smashes into other fascinating questions: Who decides what’s art, and why do we believe them? Why is this piece in a museum when another is not? Why is there a difference between looking at a photo of a work and being in the same room with the work? To answer that, he writes, ‘A photograph of a painting is to the real thing what a photograph of a sandwich is to an actual sandwich.’

Street doesn’t specifically address the theme of time, but he visits it throughout the book, most effectively with a thought experiment. He imagines a painting traveling back through time, from the museum to the royal gallery, to the artist’s studio and the sitting, to gathering the materials and shipping them, back to when the pigments of the paint were still a part of the earth.

This tidy volume is a delight. Fair warning: You will be eager to visit a museum as soon as possible. To look at art. To ask questions. To think about the artist. To find the works that hit you like your favorite song.

You’re standing in a fairly crowded museum, looking at a work of art you’ve never seen before. It could be anything: a fragment of ancient pottery; a video projection composed of footage found on the internet; a still-life painting of rotting fruit; a porcelain sculpture of a flirtatious couple; a quilt stitched with an abstract pattern; a photograph of a baby’s foot. Any one of these objects might form the center of a lifetime’s worth of research and analysis. Equally, any one of them might be glanced at for a couple of seconds, passed by and instantly forgotten. These two extreme possibilities reflect the simple choice anyone has when encountering a work of art. In any art experience, you have a decision to make: Should you stay or should you go? The only decision that really matters is that one. Either give your time to the experience, or move along; there is no middle ground. Not that it’s an easy decision to make. — Ben Street

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From majestic (Michelangelo's David) to silly (a can of SPAM) and everything in between (taxidermy! historical costumes!), museums are a fantastic place to get curious. These books do the same, no travel required.
Humans have been collecting precious stuff to show their friends for millennia. In this episode, we discuss the first museum, explore Renaissance Wunderkammers, and celebrate all that makes museums so very awesome.
Humans have been collecting precious stuff to show their friends for millennia. In this episode, we discuss the first museum, explore Renaissance Wunderkammers, and celebrate all that makes museums so very awesome.

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