UW Combined Fund Drive

January 30, 2023

It’s not rude to stare at art

Photo: © Rikard Österlund / Tate

Why look at art? It can make you feel good. A University of London study demonstrated that looking at beautiful (to the beholder) art can create an instant dopamine release, creating feelings of happiness and gratitude akin to looking at someone you love.

Studies have also shown that looking at art can lower stress, particularly when looking at landscapes and seascapes.

But looking at art, really looking at it, is hard. And instead of delight, we may find ourselves instead feeling curious, annoyed, bored, confused, perhaps even disgusted.

And that’s ok, says London-based art historian Susie Hodge. Author of dozens of books about art, including How Art Can Change Your Life, Hodge encourages people to let art be a conduit for their emotions – whatever they may be.

Even if you don’t know a lot about art or how to look at it, you can benefit from engaging with it. Here are some of Hodge’s suggestions for how to look at art and have a meaningful connection with it:

Keep an open mind

When you open a book about art or, better yet, walk into an art museum, try not to be intimidated by the idea of “looking at art” or have preconceived ideas about how you should interpret it. Some artworks may be surprising, and others boring – that’s ok.

In fact, Hodge says she hears from many people that viewing the Mona Lisa in person is a huge letdown – it’s tiny, behind bulletproof glass, and can be uninspiring.

Let the art be a conduit for your own emotions

When you look at something, take inventory of your emotional landscape – what are your personal connections to it, and what is going on in your life that might affect how you feel? You may not respond in the way you think you should, but that doesn’t invalidate your response.

Pick a museum that feels relevant to your interests

In our region, we have SO MANY great museums to explore – more than 40 in Seattle alone! In addition to visiting, you can support the mission of these museums and cultural centers through the UWCFD:

  • Seattle Art Museum: Better known as SAM, the Seattle Art Museum encompasses SAM, the Asian Art Museum, and the Olympic Sculpture Park. If you haven’t been to any of these lately, go! SAM is especially strong in its Asian art collections, and the sculpture park is treat on sunny days.
  • Northwest African American Museum: NAAM is an anti-racist, pro-equity, affirming gathering place of hope, help, and healing for the entire Northwest region that is building intergenerational cultural wealth. The Museum’s exhibitions and programs feature the visual arts, music, crafts, literature, and history of African Americans in the Northwest.
  • MOPOP—The Museum of Pop Culture: Notable permanent exhibits delve into topics like the world of science fiction, the allure of horror films, and the rise of Seattle-based grunge rock band Nirvana.
  • Chihuly Garden and Glass: From London to Japan and across the U.S., thanks to his innovative and creative style, Chihuly’s artworks are easy to spot. And this world-famous artist houses some of his most impressive works right here in Seattle.
  • Burke Museum of Natural History: On the UW campus, the Burke is the state’s oldest public museum and houses some 18 million items. Admission is free for UW employees and students, so if you’re on the UW Seattle campus, take a lunch break visit sometime.
  • Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI): Topics covered at MOHAI range from native Duwamish peoples to the booming tech industry that now shapes the city. Visitors learn about significant events in Puget Sound history, including Seattle’s first white settlers and the Great Seattle Fire of 1889.
  • National Nordic Museum: celebrates the history and heritage of Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland. The museum also ties the culture to the U.S., especially the Pacific Northwest, where thousands of Nordic immigrants have found a second home.
  • Henry Art Gallery: On the UW Seattle campus, the Henry is the only museum in our region dedicated to contemporary art and ideas. Free for Henry members, UW community, educators, military personnel, students, and children; Free on first Thursdays
  • Holocaust Center for Humanity: teaches the lessons of the Holocaust, inspiring students of all ages to confront bigotry and indifference, promote human dignity, and take action.
  • Sea Mar Museum of Chicano/a/Latino/a Culture: Celebrating the rich history of Chicano/as and Latino/as in Washington state, Sea Mar is open Monday-Friday and is located in South Seattle and offers free admission to all.
  • Hibulb Cultural Center: The Hibulb Cultural Center and Natural History Preserve, located in Tulalip north of Seattle, has a mission to revive, restore, protect, interpret, collect and enhance the history, traditional cultural values and spiritual beliefs of the Tulalip Tribes.

Beyond paintings on the walls: Find all kinds of art at Seattle Pinball Museum, Living Computers: Museum + Labs, Pacific Science Center, LEMAY—America’s Car Museum, The Center for Wooden Boats, Museum of Flight, Seattle Children’s Museum, Log House Museum, Klondike Gold Rush Museum, Northwest Railway Museum…

Keep your museum visit short and focused

Art museums can be overwhelming: the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for example, has over 130,000 paintings, sculptures and artworks (put it on your bucket list).

If you spent 15 minutes looking at all 78,000 artworks in the Tate Modern collection, it would take you 12 hours a day for more than four years to look at everything.

And the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York has almost 200,000 works. Let’s not even talk about the British Museum or the Louvre in Paris.

Once you’ve selected the place you want to visit, be realistic about how long you want to spend and how much you’ll see: you don’t need more than a couple hours. After that, looking at art can become information overload and it’s hard to stay focused and retain what you’ve seen.

Really look at the art

Once you’re in front of an artwork you like, what should you do?

Photo: © Rikard Österlund / Tate

Get up close and personal. If you have the luxury of seeing the real thing at a museum, take your time to observe qualities about the work that may not come through on a computer screen:

  • Texture: the look and feel of its surface
  • Brushstrokes: the marks made by the brush across the surface
  • Movement: the path your eyes take when viewing the work

Then, stand back: Look again at the piece from a distance, observing what’s happening in the big picture. What’s going on in the piece? What are the figures (if any) doing? How are they related? What is the action?

Lastly, look at it from an angle. Try looking at an artwork from its sides, because you might catch something you might not have seen straight on.

Any artwork can reward a longer, closer, more thoughtful look. Want more suggestions for how to look? Check out A guide to slow looking from British museum Tate Modern.