How to look at a work of art
We’ve all been there at some point. Standing in front of someone’s artwork, completely bewildered as to what exactly we’re supposed to “see,” particularly with non-representational works. Fear of embarrassment prevents us from asking the obvious. Chances are that if you’ve passed through the education system in Guyana then no one has ever taught you how to look at a work of art. Some would argue that the idea of teaching someone how to look at something is ridiculous. But is it?
Personally, I believe there is value in being taught basic observation techniques, not just for viewing art but viewing in general. As visual beings we tend to take a lot of what we see and how we see it for granted. We spend most of our lives perfecting our relationship with words but just a fraction of that time is spent truly analyzing the images we see. So how do we bridge the gap between the ways we are educated with words as well as with images? Of course, viewing art is a subjective exercise but there are general guides that have the potential to bolster our appreciation for art by activating the under-utilized areas of our brain.
How nice it would be to not sail past someone’s art after just a few seconds simply because we don’t “get” it. If I had to pinpoint a single cause I would say our reluctance to spend any significant amount of time looking at something is directly linked to our shortened attention span since the introduction of technology, particularly social media. Whether we realize it or not, we are actively training ourselves to consume visual material in record-breaking time, scrolling past posts every three to four seconds, occasionally stopping only to comment or click “like” before moving on. Most of us are guilty. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t.
How important is the title of the work to your viewing experience? I once had a college lecturer tell the class that the title should be the last thing we looked at, that we should instead take time to consider every detail of the work before letting the title shape our interpretation of it. Then of course there are times when the work is untitled. What then? How should we respond to untitled abstract art? Hopefully, the following tips would be able improve your art viewing experiences.
1. Slow down. I find it extremely difficult to focus on viewing a work of art on opening nights. It’s always noisy and there are too many distractions that prevent me from really taking in the work. My train of thought is always interrupted by persons introducing themselves or friends catching up. While I try to attend as many openings as my schedule would allow, I also try to revisit them when it’s much quieter and I can hear myself think. If this dilemma sounds familiar then I would encourage you to do the same. You would be surprised how differently you respond to the works. However, if you have the discipline to slow your brain down in the midst of the noise on opening nights then you will have no problem enjoying the works on display!
2. Pay attention. Take time to assess the artwork on display. Ask yourself questions to get the ball rolling. What do you see? Is it two-dimensional or three-dimensional? What is the scale? What materials did the artist use? What about the artist’s use of colour and mark making techniques? What is the subject of the work? How did the artist utilize shapes and forms? What type of composition did the artist use? How is the work connected to the works on either side of it, or the work opposite it? There are many more questions that could follow but the idea of this exercise is to make a mental inventory of everything you can identify in the artist’s work and to pay attention to how it is displayed in the exhibition. In any curated exhibition works are deliberately positioned to have “conversations” with each other and if you’re in too much of a hurry then you could miss out on quite a lot!
3. Consider. Now that you’ve made note of all the elements in the work you can begin to consider their individual and collective meanings. What is the artist trying to say with all these things? What is the narrative? Could the work be considered personal, political, social or just abstract? Was the work meant to have a deeper meaning or was it simply meant to be appreciated for what it was? Does the title of the work provide any context? Could you think of anything similar that was done or attempted before by another artist? If yes, picture this other work. Consider the two and whether or not they were successful in their individual attempts. Note their differences and similarities. What kind of mood does the work evoke? If the work is by an artist whose works you have seen before, has the subject or style of the work changed in any significant way since your last viewing? These are all questions that have the potential to change the way you engage with art in general.
4. Connect. This step is tricky because you won’t always connect with the art you’re viewing, and that’s okay. But you won’t know if it’s your “cup of tea” unless you try to understand what the artist is hoping to communicate with their work. If you find yourself frequenting exhibitions then it means you are, at the very least, curious enough to want to know more about the works on display. Follow through on that curiosity by giving the work a fair chance. At this point you would’ve identified all the elements in the work and considered the artist’s intention. Now ask yourself if you feel any connection with the work. Regardless if you do or don’t, try to figure why you feel the way you do about the work in question. Even if you don’t like the work, there is still value in questioning your response to it. You can learn quite a lot about your own preferences and the many factors that shape them by digging beyond the surface. Likewise, if you’re a huge fan of the work it shouldn’t be enough to just say, “I like it because I like it.” Train your brain out of the lazy habits it would’ve developed over the years. Learn to question everything, the things you agree with as well as the things you don’t. There are no prescriptive outcomes or answers but I’m willing to guarantee that if you follow these guides, you will never look at art the same again.
This article was first published in the Pepperpot magazine of the Sunday Chronicle newspaper on February 26, 2017. Click on the link to be redirected to their website: