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How To Look At Art (on a wall or anywhere) - Part 2

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

Doesn't everyone know how to look at art?

In the previous posting, I put forward a framework for looking at and thinking about, art.

Here are some practical steps you can take, to gain more from looking at art.

A Recap: The Artist, You and the Subject

The framework I described, is all about awareness; awareness of what an artist might be trying to do; awareness of how the materials can be used by the artist to convey something; and an act of self-awareness, to be awake to your ways of perceiving and reacting.

If you can respect all of these, and give them time and space when contemplating an artwork, you're well on your way to appreciating the work fully.

(There are other dimensions of course, especially knowledge. Sometimes an artist will make references to the art culture and art history, as well as popular culture and history. That's a whole other subject.)

The ideas given below are some ways of giving time and respect to each of these.

They're a sequence of questions to (silently) pose to yourself.

(You might find similarity in this, to the attitudes and techniques of Active Listening or counselling. When I was trained in counselling, patience, respecting boundaries, acknowledging one's own biases and becoming open to the other, were the basis of active listening.)

Ways To Approach Looking

Most of the day, we are judging things, categorizing them so as to make quick decisions on them.

To appreciate art, we first need to temporarily switch off that "snap judgement" mode (or "System 1" as Kahneman calls it). And to get curious.

Questions for getting past "What the heck is it?"

  • What's your first reaction to seeing the piece? Does it appeal; does it repel; or leave you cold? But regardless: does the picture intrigue you somehow? (e.g. Rothko's coloured rectangles may make you think "they're just flat coloured areas". But then, their sheer size can make you wonder why the artist thought them important. Then you might notice how the colours aren't quite pure, and the edges not straight or sharp.

  • What's all that about?

  • What about the art, seems to cause this?

This is about respecting yourself and the art work, and expanding your mind to consider more.

If you no longer find yourself repelled by the work, or indifferent to it, you can start to go a bit deeper...

Now That You're Paying Attention, Ask Yourself :

- what do I actually see here?

  • What shapes, lines, colours, positive and negative spaces;

  • What identifiable objects, people, places

  • How does your attention get focussed? Does it follow a track? Or does it just settle in one place?

  • What else is hinted at, or implied, or obscured?

- are there any symbols here?

  • not actual things, but common signs that people use (e.g. crosses, boxes, circles, groups, stars, grids). Many simple shapes suggest similar things to all people (e.g. circle= sun/moon/face/eye); but you will know many others, and the artist might know the same ones, or a slightly different set.

- how do the above things relate to each other?

  • How are they similar versus different? Repeated shapes can imply patterns, order, repetition, abundance... If changes seem to be predictable, is there a process being shown here? Variations in size might imply distance or perspective; or time; or just scale.

  • What does their relative size and positioning suggest? Do some elements draw your attention to particular parts of the image?

- how do I feel about what I see?

  • If the picture were a person, what mood would they be in, and what personality would they have?

  • What causes you to react to such attitudes, in the way that you do?

  • What personality are you imagining in the artist?

- what thoughts does it bring up?

  • Are any memories triggered by looking at this piece?

  • Is the work making any apparent statements or opinions about the world? Do you agree with them?

  • Is the work trying to do the impossible, the ridiculous?

  • If you were to create this scene, how would you have done it differently?

Final Words

I hope that these ideas and questions can increase your understanding and appreciation of art.

And I hope that you can use that understanding, to both make better choices in selecting art, or to enjoy the art that is around you.

If you're active in art yourself, you probably look at lots of other art. Who knows? You might find the process helpful in your research and inspiration.

Next time you're looking at something, maybe you can try this out.

In any case, I'd love to hear your comments.

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