Looking without seeing: art appreciation edition
May 22, 2014 7:25 PM   Subscribe

I make an effort to visit art museums very regularly. I love art! How can I make the most out of my visit? I would also welcome suggestions for how to get more out of the books I read and films I watch.

I was rather close to completing the requirements for an art/art history major in college (although officially, I majored in a science), so I do have some background. I can offer basic interpretations of a number of pieces of art I see, and as a hobby, I'll pick out a few pieces of art I liked or that stuck out in my mind (I keep a bunch of pictures of images I have seen in museums on my phone) and write an essay about them or at least read up on them. I also keep a notebook of thought-provoking passages or quotes I've read, names of contemporary artists that I liked. Every now and then, I draw out these idea-maps that connect some ideas I've been mulling over.

Still, I feel like there are lot of ideas and images that I'm utterly blind to; lots of ideas and images that I fail to retain. I also feel like much of the time in art museum is just spent looking without necessarily seeing. How do you look at art? Is there a way that one is "supposed" to go through an art museum, gallery, or even an online portfolio? What strategies do you use to get the most out of your art museum visits, the books you read, and the films you watch? Are there any questions you like to ask yourself while reading or looking at art? Any essays or passages on art appreciation that you would like to share?

Previously: art history for a total beginner
posted by gemutlichkeit to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I have a completely different approach to art museums...I just appreciate the art on an emotional level, with maybe only a tiny bit of critical thinking at times about where pieces fit in a broader context. I don't think there's a 'right' way. I don't feel any compulsion to analyze art in general, though. While not read more critical theory, if it interests you?
posted by three_red_balloons at 7:35 PM on May 22, 2014

Have you ever tried sketching the pieces? Growing as an artist will definitely help grow your insight into art in general, even if your own work never becomes anything "special." In some places (in Moscow, for example), there are whole museums filled just with reproductions so that art students have the opportunity to sketch masterworks from around the world -- but in most museums they have benches for people to sit on while sketching.

How interested are you in the gallery scene(s)? If you're interested in what's going on in location- or period-specific artist communities, then there's a lot of areas you might research or groups you might join (if that's up your alley, please update with your areas of interest so people can make more specific suggestions?). An example of something that I learned by going to galleries as opposed to museums: in Colorado recently, they've been having a mountain pine needle blight that has decimated a lot of the pine forests and turned the pines' wood a purple-y black -- which means that the artists who use that wood in their work are creating pieces that use that coloration and are doing some interesting things with it.
posted by rue72 at 7:50 PM on May 22, 2014

With film--understanding what the cinematographer did made a huge difference to me--watch Visions of Light. Also, The Ways of Seeing.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:13 PM on May 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I tend to take each artist and research them. For instance, Rossetti. His whole history with his wife and lovers and William Morris and Ruskin. And then in his later years, he developed a glazing technique that was really very unique. Yet, in his life, he was kind of a jerk to the women, but the other Pre-Raphaelites, I could understand much more through studying Rossetti. For instance, seeing April Love by Arthur Hughes, or Guinevere by William Morris, or The Golden Stairs, by Bryne-Jones, amazing. Yet I had studied all the books, the models, everything before seeing these paintings, but to see them in real life was so great, so astounding, the height, the depth the frames they made, the houses tours of all of them, really great stuff.

Or Joan Mitchell. I checked out books on her from the library and studied her. She was amazing.

Spent a lot of time at the Art Institute in Chicago as well. Oh and the Milwaukee Art Museum. How I look at art is first, do I like it? How does it affect me? Who was the artist and what was their approach? What was their inspiration? What was their medium? What time period did they live through and how did that affect them (i.e. the German Expressionists). I try to dig down into them and appreciate not only their talent and commitment to their art, but what they were going through in history. It's all just amazing stuff, isn't it? When you think about it. How they could produce it and then keep on producing it, and we get a peek into their lives.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:30 PM on May 22, 2014

I have experienced museums differently since reading this article about looking at a painting for three hours. I have never actually done that exercise, nor anything close to it, but I was surprised to find how much more detail I noticed in an artwork if I would just stay still and look at it for five minutes with an open mind instead of cruising through a gallery and giving each piece a glance for a few seconds.
posted by Orinda at 9:42 PM on May 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

One of my biggest eureka moments with art history was in understanding each period and how it grew out of the technological and sociopolitical situation of the time and as a reaction to previous periods, and how each also laid the groundwork for successive ones.

So even if I don't aesthetically respond to Jackson Pollock's drip paintings as much as I do other artists' works, I can appreciate that they are symbolic of the power of America following the overseas win of WWII (such that while Europe was coping with the devastation and rebuilding, America was building on its postwar victory and wealth) and the beginning of an American art scene that was taken seriously as a global art center despite, or perhaps because of, these artists' rejection of the staid, traditional, representational European oil painting tradition in favor of a wild abstract expressionism that conveyed a new and exciting macho cowboy art aesthetic. And then how the pretty much exclusively white male machoism of that period engendered responses from black and female artists. And then...

Or I can point to impressionism as a response to the development of the camera. Or cubism as a fascinating attempt to more truthfully depict three dimensions in a two-dimensional plane (think Flatland), yet again in part due to the development of the camera. Or Mondrian and his followers as an interesting formal study into trying to eliminate the figure-ground relationship.

So that's my advice for art museums - spend some time linking all of the art periods together into a fascinatingly complex continuum of technological and sociopolitical change and action and response and reaction that continues to evolve to this day. Knowing how art is connected to its moment in time really enhances my appreciation and understanding and expands my standards for art that may not initially fulfill my aesthetic preferences.
posted by vegartanipla at 10:23 PM on May 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was coming in to post the article that Orinda linked to. I've studied art history at a graduate level for years now, and that article taught me more than many of my classes. Since reading it, I've been making a conscious effort to visit museums sometimes without reading wall text, without needing to look at every thing, but just to walk though and find something that catches my eye and then just stand there LOOKING for way longer than feels comfortable at first.

Just be open to the painting (or sculpture or...), notice what colors and shapes are echoed across it, notice how the artist treats every detail, notice the texture of the paint, notice the angle of each line and how close it is to the edge of the canvas, hold your hand up and notice how the composition changes when you remove an element, notice what different emotions are evoked and how they change over time. It's a revelatory experience.

Of course as an art historian, I also endorse learning about different periods, and especially how art might relate to the historical climate, but looking is also super super important and can be an entire education in itself.
posted by LeeLanded at 7:34 AM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I took some art history in grad school, always loved art, etc. But it wasn't until I started taking a painting class that my eyes truly opened. You see art MUCH differently if you've tried to do it. I've just enrolled in another such course, and another art history course to boot.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 8:15 AM on May 23, 2014

How do you look at art?

What can I learn or what inspiration can I glean that can better my own art.

To me, it's alien to think of appreciating art without a backdrop of your own ongoing creative/artistic projects. (You didn't mention any.) Maybe a bit like how they say you find out whether you really understand something when you try to explain it to someone who doesn't understand it?

Often however, this explores the technical - I might find little interest in the subject (yet another piece of piety, for example) but quite a lot in how they went about making it compelling, etc. And if seeing a work affects your own process going forward, then you're taking away something concrete regardless of whether of not you remember the work forever.
posted by anonymisc at 2:29 PM on May 23, 2014

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