How to Look at Art

how-to-look-at-art

Art is stupid, my friends.

Art holds no magic that is not already in the world.

The same constituent stuff that makes Art makes up everything else, too.

Once you accept that fact — and accept it not derisively, nor with regret, nor with disgust, but viscerally — then you’re ready to fall in love with art.

 

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I like to lurk in museums. I keep my eyes open to the people, as well as the objects. There are certain patterns in the way people view art. There is a dance I call the Gallery Shuffle, which goes like this:

  1. Glance at the painting,
  2. Lean in to take a closer look at the informational card,
  3. If you recognize the artist, lean back and nod. If you don’t, tilt your head and shrug.
  4. Repeat with the next painting.

It’s fast, it looks very knowing, and you’re sure not to walk past something famous. You’re also sure to forget almost all of it. The Gallery Shuffle is everywhere, once you open your eyes to it.

I keep my ears open, too. A phrase I hear over and over is, “I don’t get it.”

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I don’t get it,” can mean “I don’t understand why this has been chosen for display; I don’t understand why the artist created it; I don’t know what I am being offered.

And that is OK.

But “I don’t get it,” can be an excuse to stop looking at the art or to stop investigating it. “I don’t get it,” is a way of categorizing something as a strangeness that can be safely ignored.

So I’d like to take a few minutes and talk about how to look at art, even if you don’t get it. Here’s what to do:

  • You don’t have to look at everything. It’s not a race or a scavenger hunt. When you walk into a room, pick two or three pieces that catch your eye — not the pieces you’re sure you’ll like, but pieces that hold your attention. The more practice you get, the better you’ll be at picking out interesting stuff. Once you’ve picked your targets, feel free to ignore the rest. There are simply too many works of art, even in the smallest museum, to appreciate in one day. Head straight for your first choice.

 

  • Be patient. Start by calmly looking. Don’t stretch for great insights or deep understandings. Try not to think at all, at first. Take note of any thoughts you have — including “I don’t get it,” — but don’t let them stop you; keep looking.

 

  • No reaction is wrong. It’s just you and a lump of matter. Thoughts and feelings can’t be right or wrong. Maybe contradictory thoughts chase one after another; maybe you like some thoughts more than others; maybe some thoughts others will agree with and some thoughts other people will think are silly. It’s all inside your head, right now. Try not to spend too much time feeling guilty — or proud. Just keep looking.

 

  • Ask Questions. Eventually, you’ll find yourself distracted. You may be congratulating yourself on noticing some subtlety, or you may be thinking about the laundry you need to do when you get home. Use simple questions to bring yourself back to seeing the art. Questions are the most valuable tool you have, so I’m going to list a bunch. You’re smart enough to come up with your own, too.

Are there people in the image? Definitely? Maybe? Definitely not? If there are, what are they doing? What are they wearing? How many of them are there? Imagine yourself in their place. Are their poses comfortable? What do they seem to be feeling? Who do you think they are? Where are they from? When?

What’s the piece made of? Does it look like its made of something else? What do you imagine it would feel like to touch? What colors is it? How was it made? Can you imagine the motions the artist must have used when they were making it? Were they fast, or slow? Big, or small? Strong, or weak? Confident, or hesitant? What came first? What happened last? How long did it take?

How big is it? Is it huge? Tiny? Human sized? Just a tiny bit bigger? When you saw it across the room, did it seem like a person? An animal? A window? An ethereal ideal? What’s happening to your body as you look? Are you hunched over? Leaning back? Are you squinting? Is your heart beating faster, or are you becoming more relaxed? Are you smiling? Frowning? Are your eyebrows raised?

Does it remind you of something from your life? From your past? Is that memory something most people would have? A few people? Just you?

  • Look for patterns. As you invent, ask, and answer questions, keep your eye on the piece as you start looking for patterns in the answers. How does the apparent speed of the brushstrokes relate to the poses of the people? How does the color relate to the way your body is reacting? What does the material used have to do with the memories it evokes?

Don’t worry if you don’t have an answer. Accept all the thoughts that bubble up — including “this is stupid” and “I hate this piece of art”. Just don’t let any thought prevent you from continuing to look at the art. Do what you have to do to keep seeing it afresh. Look into every inch and from every angle and at every distance.

When you’re all out of questions, take a look at the info-card. Do the title or the curator’s notes lead to any new questions?

  • Finally, when you’re tired, relax. Take one last, long, gentle look at the art, informed by all that you’ve seen. Look at it like a new friend — you may not like it, you may still be unsure why it’s in a museum, but you know it’s face.

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There is a kind of love that comes strictly from familiarity; cultivate it, and art will reward you.

Once you’ve had some practice, and have made friends with a few dozen pieces of art, perhaps you’d enjoy applying the same techniques to other, non-art objects. Take a long look at a jar of buttons; at a rock half-buried in a hillside; at your own body.

If you find yourself moving things around, tweaking them, trying to make more accessible the ideas and connections you’ve discovered, then you’ve become an artist.

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