The more you learn about a topic, the more you tend to get out of it. This was certainly the case for me when I began taking art history classes.
I’d always had a fondness for art, but my appreciation ballooned as I learned more about various mediums, the characters and intrigue connected to specific pieces, and the movements and categories that have been developed to helped define collections of trends and experiments, putting them into clearer, consolidated context.
Being able to walk into a museum and see a piece by an artist whose work and history I’m familiar with adds something to the experience of viewing that piece. It’s more meaningful to me because of those associations, and I know what to look for in their application of paint, their shaping of marble, their defying of contemporary expectations during the period in which they practiced their craft.
That said, there’s also something interesting and meaningful in naive exposure to art.
There’s a certain punch-in-the-gut feeling that becomes less common the more you know about a subject because you generally know what to expect from artists using a given technique, making work at a particular time in a specific geographic location, as part of a later-defined movement.
It’s fun and interesting being able to walk into a museum and knowing something about many of the pieces you see, then, even if only via a rough understanding of big-picture movements and categorizations, but it can be boggling and uncomfortable and jarring to walk into a museum wing and experience something completely unfamiliar—completely anachronistic or unlikely or unpredictable through the lens of that previous understanding.
And such moments are more common the less you know as you walk in to such a place; if you allow yourself to acknowledge and experience these moments, at least.
I personally try to strike a balance between these two extremes, because I think they’re both valuable for different reasons.
Informed exposure reinforces existing knowledge and can trigger a flavor of joy and enjoyment related to iterative growth.
Naive exposure, in contrast, often catalyzes the sort of discomfort and discombobulation associated with setting foot in an unfamiliar country or culture: a new wave of smells and tastes and dialects assaulting your senses, but also promising novelty and a type of revolutionary growth that’s far less likely in more well-tread, familiar terrain.
I know from experience there’s only so much naive exposure I can handle before my psychological energy reserves are spent, and I feel a type of exhaustion that makes me want to retreat to the familiar and better-understood.
Anyone who’s ever listened to unfamiliar musicians or genres of music, and then felt compelled to flip back to a radio station or streaming playlist filled favorites knows what I’m talking about.
But I also know I tend to get more out of life and grow faster when exposed to a regular, raw dose of such novelty.
These unknowns make me value what I already understand more completely, while also reinforcing the reality that my knowledge-bubble is so small compared to the behemoth proportions of what I don’t yet even suspect exists; and that’s exciting and frightening and challenging in a valuable way.