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How To Look At Art (on a wall or anywhere) - Part 1

Updated: Dec 15, 2021

"Art is like love: it's about seeing yourself in someone or something else."

These are my thoughts on how we can get more out of the art we own, or that we visit.

In this first part, I'll look at what it means to "look at art": what it consists of.

Doesn't everyone know how to look at art?

You just look, right?

And you know what you like, right?

It's good and necessary to have instincts. But you can get more out of art if you train the instincts. It's a bit like watching an unfamiliar sport; if you know some rules, and who does what, it's much more interesting. And then you will "know why you know".

"Art is like love: it's about seeing yourself in someone or something else."

For me, this touches on some fundamental things about making and viewing art:

  1. We're always looking at the "other" or the "outside"

  2. We nevertheless see "ourselves"

Looking out at the "other"

As I discussed in an earlier post about abstract art , I believe any worthwhile work of art will show the mind of the artist in some way. In this sense, when looking at art, you're kind of "borrowing the artist's glasses".

Also, art should render a subject, whether that be a physical object or an idea. So art always invites you to see something else outside of you. A mirror, or a window, by itself, doesn't make an art work.

What if I Don't Know What the Artist Was On About?

Even the artist can have trouble looking at their work: they're so close to it, all they see is what they intended to have you see. And just like you, they react in a personal way. Luckily, you probably have more in common with the artist than you might think.

You probably grew up in a similar culture. And if you can't tell what their intention was, give it time! They spent time making the work, so they must have been trying to achieve something.

Seeing ourselves?

If an artwork shows you a subject "through the artist's eyes", how can we be "seeing ourselves" in it?

You can't see the subject or the artist's mind directly. What you see is, the artist's skilful translation of the subject and idea, and you interpret that according to your own senses, associations, experience, thoughts and feelings.

Another person might respond differently. And more than that, you might respond differently on another day (if my mood or mind has been influenced differently between visits).

So you are part of the experience. You might not be conscious of your preferences, biases, tastes and thinking patterns, but they have to come into play.

Seeing The Subject

In a piece of representative art, you generally know what the subject is supposed to be, even if the technique of the artist is loose, abstract, impressionistic, or downright obscure. Humans are terrific at identifying things, given a few clues. Especially with portraiture (even babies identify faces very easily, or see faces when they aren't there!)

You can then ask yourself:-

  • what aspects or ideas about this subject, are being shown or emphasised?

  • how does the way it is painted or drawn, suit the subject?

  • are any objects in the scene, symbols for something else (such as a story, or myth, or historical event)?

  • what is "true" about what you see?

In abstract art, the subject is likely to be something like:-

  • colour itself and our perception of it (think: Rothko; pointillists such as Seurat)

  • movement and what that expresses (e.g. Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock)

  • space (positive and negative) and form (Mondrian ended up doing just this)

  • a combination of these

  • a philosophical or spiritual idea (see: Hilma af Klint; Paul Klee; Joan Miro)

Ways To Approach Looking

I hope that the above survey has shown you some ideas about what to look for in art.

In the next part, I'll talk about some ways to start engaging with art and learning how you look at art.

I'll look at:

  • getting past "What the heck is it?"and your first reaction

  • questions to ask yourself to help you expand your mind to be able to see and learn more.

I'd love to know your thoughts on this!

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