4 good reasons to visit a modern art museum – especially if you don’t like modern art

A guest post by Melissa Dinwiddie of Living a Creative Life

You’d think I’d be a big modern art fan, being an artist myself. But I’ll be honest—some modern art just strains the limits of my patience.

On a recent trip to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, though, it occurred to me that spending time around art you don’t understand—or even like—can actually be a good thing for a creative person.


Here are 4 good reasons:

1) To think “outside the box”

Yeah, you might find yourself bewildered or annoyed, but open your mind a bit.

Modern art museums tend to like to push the envelope of what art is. It’s a question that has no pat answer, so use your visit to decide for yourself.

Let yourself have opinions. You may find things to hate, and you may discover you like something you never thought you would.

Who knows, your visit may even take you out of your regular world so much that you find yourself having sudden insights totally unrelated to art! You might even emerge with a solution to that sticky problem with your spouse or your boss.

2) To “fill the well”

In her wildly popular book/course on recovering your creative self, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron prescribes a weekly artist date, a two-hour excursion by yourself to nurture your creative consciousness and your inner artist.

As Cameron says, “Art is an image-using system. In order to create, we draw from our inner well.” The problem is, that well gets depleted, and in order to keep creating, we need to fill it with new images.

Even if you don’t like what you find there, a visit to a modern art museum will stock your well with all kinds of images. The brew that results may lead to a whole new direction for your own creative work.

3) To find models of authenticity

There may be nothing new under the sun, but there’s a difference between a copycat and a truly authentic voice. Authenticity is rare in our society, and we’re all hungry for it. And when we find it, we sit up and take notice.

Plenty of the pieces I saw at SF MoMA did not appeal to me, plenty were (to my eye) downright ugly or even seemed boring (as if the artist had laughed all the way to the bank).

What they all had in common, though, was authenticity.

Each piece was clearly the creation of that particular artist. And even if I didn’t like the piece, it was that authenticity that made it interesting and compelling.

As a creative person, you want to find your own, unique expression, right?

More likely than not, at a modern art museum you’ll find work by people who did just that, which could very well inspire you to keep uncovering your own authentic voice.

4) Permission

Many of us creative types (myself very much included!) find ourselves sucked into, and paralyzed by, the Comparison Trap.

You know: “My [activity] is never going to be as good as [admired person]’s. I might as well quit; what’s the point?”

The beautiful thing about going to a modern art museum is that you’ll invariably see pieces that make you think “Huh? THAT’S art?”

My old reaction used to be confusion and frequently a dose of resentment and envy. How come this person is getting fortune and fame from this crazy thing that appears to have required not one whit of talent or skill to create?

Now, however, I welcome these discoveries. Somebody clearly thought of this piece as Art. (Indeed, not just any somebody, but a somebody with a lot of “authority” in the Art World. In fact, they thought so highly of this bizarre piece that they were willing to pay a lot of money to acquire it for their hifalutin’ museum!)

This is in no way to suggest that you should go out and start creating blank white canvasses or urinals and offering them for sale (for one thing, it’s been done already, and remember, art and creativity are all about authenticity).

However, I’ve found that noticing the weird and seemingly totally-lacking-in-skill art that populates modern art museums gives me a very freeing sense of permission.

If that’s considered a work of valuable art, then really, anything I make is fair game! And as a creative person, that “anything goes” place is exactly where I want to be.

If you’re the kind of person who tends to keep yourself from creating because you’re not satisfied with your creations, a visit to a MoMA might be just what you need to help bust through that block.

So what do you think? Have I convinced you?

Take a trip to a MoMA, and let me know if you come away with a different perspective this time.


As an artist/designer, freelance writer, jazz singer/songwriter, and teacher/coach, Melissa Dinwiddie likes to call herself a Multi-Passionate Creative ARTrepreneur. She combines her varied passions on her blog, Living A Creative Life. Melissa’s current project, the Thriving Artists Project, is an online course for anyone who aspires to turn their art or creative thing into a full-time career.

{ modern art is – photograph by Dan Strange }

22 thoughts on “4 good reasons to visit a modern art museum – especially if you don’t like modern art

  1. I totally agree. A break from the studio with a trip to MoMA (or any museum) should be on everyone’s schedule. It really gives you a perspective on what the curators of those museum deem as “art”. While you may not agree with them, it gives you the confidence to know that art is in the eye of the beholder. Stay with what is in your heart and will, never give up! That is what makes your art authentic and meaningful, not only to you, but to the world.

    1. We hear that all the time: “beauty (art) is in the eye of the beholder,” yet it can be so easy to get caught up in what someone else deems as worthy of the “art” label. At least I know that happens to me!

      But you are absolutely right: “Stay with what is in your heart and will, never give up! That is what makes your art authentic and meaningful, not only to you, but to the world.”

      Every little reminder of this is helpful, which is why I write about this stuff! (Sometimes I need those reminders daily… :})

  2. Another important benefit is seeing the works as they are meant to be seen.

    Case in point: I’d seen Roy Lichtenstein’s work in art books for years (who hasn’t). Seeing them hung at SFMoMa a few years ago was An Experience. There’s just no way to really understand what he was up to without seeing his work in detail. If you haven’t seen his work, it’s large. Far larger than what you think from seeing it in print.

    Yet his art still works at smaller scales.

    There’s a lesson in there. I’m sure of it. Just not sure what it is. Must need more coffee.

    1. Great point Dave! Thanks for bringing this up.

      In many cases, you simply cannot get an idea of the real impact of a piece unless you see it in person. This can be hard to grasp in this world of easy reproduction, but there really is a difference between reproduction and original.

      Lichtenstein’s work is a terrific example. Coffee-table-book size simply does not have the same impact. Seeing it person is An Experience indeed!

  3. Shifting perspective is exactly what modern art is about, not necessarily beauty. Duchamp’s urinal, which you mention, was shown at a different angle than usual and called ‘fountain’. Those changes may not have made it beautiful, but it did make people take notice. A visit to a MoMA should be an eye- and mind-opening experience, as you say!

    1. So true in a lot of cases, particularly conceptual art, where it’s not about technical skill at all, but rather the concept behind it, and how it makes the viewer think.

      Art can have very different purposes: to be beautiful, to inspire, to motivate, to shift paradigms… I love the variety available, and being a “thinky” person, I really enjoy art that makes me think–even if it sometimes confuses or annoys me. I may not want it on my wall, but I’m glad it exists.

  4. I love modern art. And while many see it as odd, I find it fascinating. I always have. Just like when looking at a Van Gogh painting, I think “I wonder if this is how the artist sees the world.” I wonder if we see the world the same (obviously not), but even the colors we see are different. My husband and I have even gotten into debates about a shade of a color before, but there is no right or wrong answer.

    Art opens us up to new things and keeps us thinking, questioning and seeing the world in new ways.

    1. I agree, Diane: the best art keeps us thinking, questioning and seeing the world in new ways.

      And though we can never know what it’s like to live in someone else’s head, one of the beautiful things about art (visual or otherwise–think poetry, fiction, film, music, dance…) is that it can help bring us a little closer to knowing.

  5. Yes, you have convinced me! I love filling the well at art museums. I don’t have a big art background, so I am enjoying learning how to look at art. My drawing teacher always encourages our class to visit art museums for these same reasons. He is exhibiting his artwork later this week, so now I can’t wait to see it. It’s definitely hard not to compare, but I have to remember he has been teaching and making art for 30 years, and I’m just learning.

    1. Sounds like you have a great teacher, Terriaw!

      I struggle with the Comparison Trap all the time. The important thing to remember (which I have to remind myself of frequently) is that only YOU can create the creation inside you waiting to come out. Plus here’s the thing: what you create might not feel surprising or exciting or cool TO YOU, because it’s of you and from you. You *know* you, so other people’s work can often feel more compelling.

      But it works both ways! To someone else, who isn’t you, your work may seem special and interesting and super-cool, precisely because it’s not of and from *them*.

      In an art class, it always seems like the person next to you is doing much cooler stuff. But remember, you are the person next to *them*! :)

  6. Excellent post! Your point about “permission” rings so true for me. After seeing a bunch of new art I always feel a great sense of possibility. Melissa, I just found your website last night via The Abundant Artist and was happy to see you here too.

  7. Its funny you wrote about this now, as I have just started grad school to get my MFA and feel the same way about modern art.
    I actually feel the same way about Modern Art, and I think you make a good point, and I think it will be good for me to try to have a more open mind about viewing Modern Art:)

  8. When I was little, my parents would take my brother and I to art museums (both fine and modern art) and to keep us entertained, my mom made up this game where we would go into a room of art on an “emotion scavenger hunt” to look at every piece of art and pick the one that made us feel…[insert a type of emotion here]. She would mix up the types of emotions we were to look for in each new room we went into. Then when we found one that made us feel the chosen emotion, she’d have us explain to her why it made us feel that way. I don’t think she realized what an impact this little game would have on me and how I “feel” about art, but it absolutely changed the way that I view art. Even now, as an adult, I think about what emotions a piece of art evokes in me and take note of that, more so then whether I like the art or not. It is still a fun game and for me, a wonderful way to experience art!

  9. Great post. And I’m totally with you – in the world of contemporary art, I embrace some things and slink away in confusion from others; still, it’s important to keep an open mind, observe the world outside of your own, and grow from that experience. :)

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