Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Looking at Art


I’ve often wondered what people are actually doing inside their heads when you see them gazing at a painting in a museum. Being of a naturally cynical bent, I often suspect they are mentally going over a shopping list, or imagining telling the boss what they really think of him! But what should one do when looking at art? When I went to university you only studied the subject you’d signed up for…and there weren’t any appreciation classes. I have read through the notes from art/dance/music appreciation courses but I discovered that these were not really courses on how to appreciate or experience the work but actually more like abbreviated histories of the range of art or dance the teacher exposed them to in class.

Maybe no one else wonders about this!! Perhaps this is just a problem for a cogitator such as myself. Not only do I think, but I check to see I’m really thinking in the “right” or “best” way! I used to feel I should spontaneously experience Deep Thoughts and Grand Emotions when standing in front of a masterpiece. There should be an explosion of gladness within my heaving bosom! I should leave the gallery a changed person. But so often it’s the same old me inside my head! Is this my fault? Or the fault of the work?

If you eavesdrop upon other gazers you learn very little: their remarks range from the disparaging “my child could have done this” ( then rush home with paints for the little monster!) to the pretentious “it’s his use of ultramarine, isn’t it?” And… it??

Yes, I know how to assess a composition and I often marvel at how frequently the greats keep “the rules”…but you know sometimes you can feel a little bit cheated by that – surely an artist of this caliber should have found a more interesting way of balancing the weight?

If you spot the technique too easily, then perhaps they have failed to give you (the viewer) anything to do. And I do feel a considerable responsibility for bringing my attention and my thoughtfulness to bear upon the work. I don’t, therefore, like the answers to be too easy – I prefer it if I must engage with the work to discover its meaning. Easy and trite solutions are not satisfying. I want to leave the room feeling that I’ve been enriched – not just by the piece itself but by the dialogue between the artist and myself. I think that if this happens, I will be able to become a better artist myself. If I can see and appreciate the nuances then I can create nuances of my own. It’s the difference between something quite prosaic and ordinary and something that speaks of the maker in a fresh and compelling way. It’s the same way that good writing doesn’t use commonplace idioms so many of which grate after just a few repetitions (have you noticed now how people are being “thrown under the bus” everywhere – it’s not even an accurate metaphor!). If it’s written well, the language illuminates and you think “that’s how to put that feeling into words!”. Memories resonate with delicious almost shivery awareness.

I shall continue to visit galleries all senses aquiver! I want to focus on the work right from the start…not idly saunter up thinking about something else…what does this piece say from across the room? Is there more as I approach more closely? Have I experienced this before? Or is it a new and beautiful visual expression of what the artist wishes to communicate. Is this a genuine feeling, or just pure bathos and sentimentality?  What does the content of this work actually mean to me? Is my delight in it emotional or much more intellectual? How is the artist evoking this response in me? If I watch and think about my looking and thinking maybe my cogitations will lead somewhere……..

Well, if you have been, thanks for reading..and do tell me about your Grand Thoughts while viewing Art…I want to know!
It is important to learn how to see. Elizabeth


Deb Lacativa said...

Oh Tasty Topic!
I'm terribly out of practice and promise to get out more often but ever since a very specific gallery experience (you'll have to wait for it) I have stopped the routine (which took up when I was an art student in New York City and had the art of the world most often within walking distance) quick stepping through galleries tossing off "… hate it… boring.. PURE CRAP.." interspersed the occasional whispered “Wow” where I would come to a screeching halt and plant myself awhile in front of a piece to wash in the wow and figure out just what provoked the response. Of course it’s all self serving – I’d like my art to Wow people in the same manner.

Lately I’ve changed the routine. Take a quick tour, make a mental note of the pieces that grabbed me first and put me off the worst. First I make a reexamination of the middling pieces to see if I can figure out what was missing that made them fall flat. Then I go back to the off–putting pieces to examine just what the artist was trying to convey and why I resisted. Saving the dessert for last, I return to the charmers, just to soak them in at first and then, a bit by bit breakdown of just what and why these pieces make me take a deep breath.

Oh - that show that made me really stop and take notice with all new eyes? It was the very first fiber art exhibit I had seen. Here’s an excerpt from the local paper:

“Felicitously hung, allowing each a luminous presence, Elizabeth Barton's art quilts animate with vibrant color the sleek modernist space of the Jacqueline Casey Hudgens Center for the Arts in Duluth, Georgia. Representing the artist's major series - cityscapes, abstract formats, and her Red Shift quilts, a meditation on time - the 31 works juxtapose imagery from Barton's native England in counterpoint with that of her adopted country, the United States.”

Elsie Montgomery said...

When I look at art, as an artist I know that the creation of it was with certain emotions, certain ideas, and with desire to convey these through the work. As a viewer, I want to feel and think along with the artist. Sometimes art is so very excellent at creating that communication. I look for it, even listen. It requires an open mind (not so open that my brains fall out) but a willingness to try and think with the mind that made the work. Is this too fanciful? I don't know, but the works of art that leave me cold are those that are "pretty" and cranked out according to a "formula" -- not as bad as a paint-by-number, but you know what I mean. Even ugly art speaks. The painting that spoke most clearly and sticks in my memory for years depicted a hallway in a hospital and cancer patients waiting and watching as the passing doctors and others became invisible as they went by, leaving the patients feeling solitary and alone in their illness. So powerful. I still weep. Good topic, Elizabeth!

Terri Stegmiller said...

Very interesting cogitations!! I have always wondered what I was missing inside myself when I compare what I am experiencing when viewing art with what I can only imagine how others experience art. I find myself not giving the time of day to something that upon first glance I don't like. I find that if I look at something I do like that I tend to not analyze it's meaning or figure out what the artist is trying to say and how it affects me, but wonder how it was made and what prompted the artist to use that particular color or medium in that particular spot.

When I watch other people viewing art with an intense gaze and thought-filled stance, I think they must really be "getting it" in a way that I don't. But now I wonder about that after reading your post. Another thought I have had is do people who have had art education in their lives "get it" more than those that don't have any art education.

Thanks for the interesting read.

Terry Grant said...

You have me wondering if artists view art differently, with more analysis and judgment, than the untrained viewer. And, is that a good or bad thing? Good, I think, if you are an artist trying to learn or a critic preparing to write a review. Bad, if you are so caught up in the analysis that you freeze out the emotional, visceral, visual joy of the experience. Viewing art with a friend and discussing as you go sometimes kills the experience, sometimes enhances it. I am especially un-fond of the companion who rates the art as we move along--"Like it, Love it, ehh, hate it ...." I may be that viewer that could be mentally making lists, but I'm not--mostly just standing and feeling and tasting and hearing the work, like music or delicious food or captivating, perfectly chosen words. Then I think about it later.

Nina Marie said...

Being my ADD self, I've had to stop myself from going through a collection too quickly. I tend to skip over pieces that don't wow me. Now I'm stopping and thinking - why aren't I "wow"ed. The exact oppisite is true when I'm wowed. What in that piece that grabs me? What is the artist using to grab me so? Once I realize what it is - I make a metal note - that way I can use tht same element in my work.

Karen M said...

A number of times I have had the experience of viewing the same piece of art on two occasions, separated by a period of years. Often my reaction is different the second times, sometimes viewing more favorably, sometimes not. I always wonder why.

If the art is in a different location, perhaps the new location itself, or what you see leading up to it, causes this effect. But if it is in the same location, is it something in me that has changed? Am I more educated? Or is it caused by the emotional response that Terry is talking about? Just one more thing to think about while looking at art, I guess!

Sandra Wyman said...

I start with the "what does this communicate to me" and "how does it do it" approach; there might be some art history come into it too at some point. My favourite art historian, Sir Ernst Gombrich (under whom I was fortunate enough to study) said: "I do not think that there are any wrong reasons for liking a statue or a picture..." but that "there are wrong reasons for disliking a work of art"

For me any work of art works if I can go back to it (where the opportunity arises) time and time again and find more layers of meaning in it. I find that many works of art - where I have had the opportunity to return to them - have meant different things to me at different times. I also find - like others who've responded - that I need to be selective: it's just not possible to take in a whole exhibition or a whole gallery in one go!

Sandy said...

I think in stories a bit, so when I look at art, never having even had art appreciation classes, I look at it and think about the story.
Sort of why did the artist choose to make this? what was he thinking about? Was he just trying to make a living? was he trying out an idea? What drew him to the subject matter?
For work that is not totally abstract, I think about the story that might be in the work itself. What are is happening or what are they doing and why? what is going to happen next?
I don't know much about composition and what one is meant to do to create certain effects, but I can see the end product. So, if the light effect draws your attention to something, I try to figure our why the artist wanted people to look there. What is hiding in the shadow?
Maybe these are wrong questions, but they are the ones I want to know!

and so I guess I am not a big admirer of blocks of colour and endless stripes, etc maybe there are stories I am missing in those, too. But, there are plenty of people who do like them and plenty of work that I can relate to, that I don't really feel I HAVE to get to the point where I appreciate stripes or randomly flung colours.
Sandy in the UK

Jackie said...

I like to take a quick trip through and scan, waiting to see which pieces engage me. Some don't survive the second, closer look. The strongest, most engaging--to me-- earn more time. There's some basking in its presence then a more thoughtful period examining what's going on that caught my attention so strongly.
Sometimes I have other people along, like grand-children, so I keep the range of options limited. Still rewarding, I just miss a lot of opportunities. It's worth it though, to teach the young ones how it is that I interact with art. I hope some day they'll further develop their own sensitivities.
I've been enjoying thinking about this topic--as usual! Thank you.

magsramsay said...

Not sure about 'Grand Thoughts' but it got me seaching through my old blog posts to see what I've got out of the various exhibitions
I've been to.
My annual visit to the RA Summer Exhibition is definately exploratory, trawling through 1000's of diverse artworks concentrating only on what grabs me. I make quick sketches and notes and follow things up on the internet afterwards and often come up with un-expected discoveries both in artists and my taste!
Then there's the visits to see work by artists I admire.
Rothko was for me about contemplation and meditation, plus an analysis of how these works instilled that feeling through brushwork, colour shifts ,texture, variation in edges.
It can also be about venue - the video installations of Susan Collins in front of the changing seascapes that fed them brought a new awareness of nuances of colour depending on light and weather conditions.
Seeing the work of Richard Long in a spacious gallery with detailed explanations was quite different to examples of his work I'd seen in a different context.
The photographs, drawings , sculptures and textworks were interesting and often beautiful in themselves in addition to representing in varied ways the act of walking. But as I was going round I realised I was thinking as much about my own interaction with landscape and interpretation of it, relating his work to my own experiences.
Perhaps that's why it's stuck in my mind so long.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Thank you all for your fascinating, revealing and thought provoking answers to my question!!No longer will I be cynical! Going to see art can make such a difference in our lives...I love (and hate of course! because of the noise and chatter!) seeing teachers with bevies of kids in museums. And now - back to the galleries!

Cheryl K. said...

I'm trying to learn to appreciate art and was directed to this series - In the National Gallery of Art explains use of color, composition, light, subject and a host of details so that I see a lot more in the painting.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Cheryl, thank you for that wonderful link - I shall definitely look at all their discussions...and then go and visit the nearest art museum!

California Fiber artist and composer said...

This is very thought provoking post. As a music student in England we studied nothing but music. However, I still remember a lecture when we were told that people do not listen to classical music (now known as Western Art Music) for more than 30 seconds at a time before their minds wander.

I wonder if it is the same when looking at art. Do artists look at art differently than non-artists? If we are artists are we more interested in the technique than a lay person would be? Does the type of art affect how we look at it? I know that when I see 3D art such as sculpture I tend to walk around all sides of it.