What can make a museum membership worthwhile are repeated viewings of works of the Old Masters, and thinking about them chronologically and relative to contemporary art.
In my observations of visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago, Impressionist paintings still get the most "Likes". They were in some sense, the first "postcards", depicting scenes of people reclining, in places such as La Grande Jatte and the Bois de Boulogne. These artists really must have felt that a new zeitgeist had arrived, and perhaps viewers well over a century later are picking up on that feeling. In some ways Impressionism was the foreshadowing of abstraction, something we are now perfectly comfortable with.
"Only with the Impressionists did aesthetic theory begin to accept the view that the pictorial image is a product of the mind rather than a deposit of the physical object. The realization that the image differs in principle from the physical object lays the groundwork for the doctrine of modern art. The similar fundamental break with tradition occurs in the psychology of visual experience a few decades later. The comparison with Impressionist painting can also help us to understand the nature of "visual hints" and "flashes". Instead of spelling out the detailed shape of a human figure or a tree the Impressionists offered an approximation, a few strokes, which were not intended to create the illusion of the fully duplicated figure or tree....The elusive quality of such experiences is hard to capture with our language, which commonly describes objects by their tangible, material dimensions. But it is a quality and valuable for abstract thought in that it offers the possibility of reducing a theme visually to a skeleton of essential dynamic features, none of which is a tangible part of the actual object" Arnheim, Rudolf. Visual Thinking. Berkeley: U of California, 1969. 108
The Impressionist gallery is one of the two "ante rooms" for the museum, the other displays 18th- century religious-themed work by Tiepolo. They are the first two galleries at the top of the grand staircase, and is my understanding has been this way since the museum was built.
(If the museum was virtual, the galleries would be the equivalent of what's not at the top of the stairs but what has ascended to the top of your Facebook feed.)
As you move through the European Art galleries from the 16th-century forward, you realize the painters started having more freedom in what they were doing, from themes to pallets, to artists signing the work. (Artists didn't typically sign paintings and were usually attributed to a collective or studio of artisans.) Painting was gradually becoming more innovative--surely with Van Gogh and Cezanne. Technological progress was evident. Certainly, Monet's Water Lilly series was full of a sense of freedom of experimentation with light effects and use of more high-frequency color (blues and purples) as well as oriental influences such as Japanese woodblock prints.
By the 1900s, technology again was having an influence, with the advent of electricity, radio broadcasts and new forms of automation, as grist for new freedoms of expression. The idea of "pop" must have been there in its earliest stirrings, but the term would take fifty years to be coined. There was also the element of speed; They were simply painting faster, because the allure of abstraction obviated the painting of things like catch-lights with a one-hair brush. By 1950 Pollock was almost "supersonic" in paint application.
Ironically the galleries showing the 17th and 18th-century Dutch portraits seemed to get very little traffic. These were commissioned "look at me's". The gallery with the famous Rembrandt "Old Man With a Gold Chain" was almost empty.
The contrast between the Old Master's work and contemporary work is shocking. It could be that people are still attracted to the ambiguity inherent in 20th-century art. It could be that the "don't make me think" contingent is shrinking. Given the heady nature of contemporary SciArt, we love thinking.
Perhaps the feeling is "we're not going back to the old ways". Painting with a mop and paint bucket is still somehow more interesting and you can tell by its popularity in the galleries, even if people don't get it. But they're getting something...