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Every year, the Detroit Institute of Art places high-quality reproductions of masterpieces from their collection in outdoor, public spaces. The project is called Inside/Out. (For more on from the DIA go HERE).

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This project makes me so happy.

I love art — probably more than most. I have a college degree in art, have traveled all over the world to study it, and my bookshelves are stacked two deep with art books. I paint and draw and even write whole novels about art.

I love it so much that I hate it when we put art — quite literally — on a pedestal, out of reach of so many. We put art in museums and whisper around it. We stand there — with serious expressions and crossed arms — and discuss a work’s historical significance. We ask each other: “What does it mean?” We want the docent to help us UNDERSTAND. We think the more we KNOW, the closer to the art we will be.

In a museum, art can intimidate people; I see it all the time. The “uneducated” look scared because they don’t “know” what they’re looking at. They stand there wondering what they are “supposed” to think about a particular work. Is it famous? Is this one “good”? They don’t want to like something that’s bad. They struggle to “understand.” And then, they yawn and go home.

But this DIA project proves something I have always believed:


In fact, sometimes knowing too much about a piece of art gets in your way of experiencing it.

The next time you’re looking at art, don’t worry about what the artist was trying to say about the politics of his time or the painting’s importance in the development of an artistic movement or blah, blah, blah (because that’s what it all starts to sound like after 3 hours in a museum, doesn’t it?)

Michelangelo did not carve his sculptures for the educated — he carved them to inspire the illiterate masses.

Rembrandt wasn’t trying to remake art history — he was trying to make a living by painting portraits. He was trying to capture the essence of his patrons’ souls.

Vincent Van Gogh did not expect you to know the history of his cafe in Arles or his place within the movement of Impressionism — he died before that place was understood by anyone. Do you know what Vincent wanted? More than anything? To connect with people. He wanted to listen to you, and you to listen to him.

So, please. When you look at art — just look. And listen. The artist is trying to tell you something. Something very personal. And every person will see and hear something different. Your experience in front of a Michelangelo or a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh — is YOUR experience. Those artists are communicating directly to you. So be quiet and listen… you don’t want to miss it when Vincent speaks to you, do you?

I wish we could look all at art like they are in Detroit. Outside, unconstrained by walls, coming across it in our daily lives. Maybe then, we would just look at a painting or sculpture and say: “Hey, I like that.” Or “Man, that’s ugly.” And if we have an emotional reaction to it — if it brings up joy or pain or love — maybe we would pause for a moment, look a little closer, and start to FEEL what the artist hoped we would feel.

Because art is never about thought. It is about a feeling.

If you’re in the Detroit area this summer, go, check it out. See some art in a park. But if you’re not, take the spirit of the DIA project with you the next time you’re in a museum. Don’t worry so much about what you’re supposed to see — just see what you see. Like what you like. Don’t like what you don’t like.

Look… and listen. The artist is speaking to you.