You have been looking at that painting a bit too long and it's making me feel like a nube
June 6, 2008 4:32 AM   Subscribe

Appreciating the visual arts: what should I be looking at? What should I be thinking about?

OK, I love art. I had done several years of art technique in drawing, painting, and ceramics throughout middle school and high school, and a little bit more in college. I have taken (a while ago), classes on art history, so I vaguely remember the different art periods, and the meaning of art from a period perspective. I can appreciate the social aspects and movements that drive art. I understand a wee little bit on art theory - form and color, in particular, but not much.

Here's the problem: When I'm at a gallery or a museum, a lot of times I just don't understand what I'm supposed to be looking at. ISo, fall back to the aesthetics. I also try to role-play the artist - try to understand why they had made one decision over another. Finally, I try to appreciate the art technique.

But, to be totally and ignorantly honest, 75% of what I see, I don't understand. This is especially true in contemporary galleries, where I'm looking at art from this period. I end up passing up most of the art on the wall, because it's not immediately interesting or appealing. Especially photography - oftentimes, I'm puzzled and asking myself "why".

I really want to understand what I'm supposed to be looking at. But, I want to better appreciate art. I don't want to feel out of the know.

What are all of those other people (you) looking at when they look at a painting or sculpture? They seem to be standing there for a very long time.

Are there blogs or books that I can read to help decrease my art ignorance?
posted by brandnew to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I understand the feeling. Especially contemporary art is so abstract, that you need help.

The thing is, there is no art outside of context: art builds on other art, and the more contemporary art is, the more you will need to know/understand the artistic context.

My recommendation: Read the gallery/museum guide; take a guided or audio tour. In galleries, ask what the idea or influence of the art work is. Read.
posted by lord_yo at 4:59 AM on June 6, 2008

I honestly wouldn't worry about it. I actually believe the fact that I only got a little bit of art history background to be a good thing, because that means I have no preconceptions when it comes to approaching a work, and I can appreciate it on its own merits.

When it comes to contemporary work, I tend to respond mostly on the basis of whether it "looks cool" or not. It's a total right-brain response. Sure, this means that a big chunk of what's out there, I don't get, and another chunk of what's out there I'm appreciating on some superficial level, and I probably only get the "meaning" of just a fraction of what's there, but so what -- the art world is a big tent, and at least I'm finding something in it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:01 AM on June 6, 2008

I like audio tours myself. Often it gives me some insight into what the artist was shooting for. Other times it just helps me understand that the random squiggly thing in the corner is a recurring motif the artist uses in many paintings, a personal code or something, that sort of thing. Or that the photo inserted into the composition refers to a current event at the time the painting was made, without which I'd have no idea what the reference was.

And sometimes I just ignore the audio and think "wow, I like this one - can't say exactly why, but something about it is really intriguing to me." Which in the end is the point of art. It's supposed to elicit an emotion in you, whether like or dislike, revulsion, something. If it doesn't do anything to you, well, flag and move on as it were, but don't feel like a heathen if you don't "get" every piece.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:32 AM on June 6, 2008

When I'm in front of a painting that blows me out of my shoes, I'm almost *compelled* to stand there, sucking it up, much as I can -- it brings me joy, sometimes intensely so. And I'll look at it from this angle, and that, and get close to it and attempt to see how much depth is in it and how much is done through artifice -- you look at anything by Cezanne, it looks like it's coming off the canvas, it looks 3D, yet on top of the canvas it's flat as a table top, it's all painted in; I get the biggest kick out of that, I sortof get a dumb but happy feeling, like when a magician pulls a coin out of your ear, or like that, I'm smiling like a kid, I know I've been hoodwinked and it makes me happy, I'm smiling with the 'magician'.

I don't know -- at all -- why paintings affect me the way they do. Why do I get blown apart in a museum? But I do. But, as you, some paintings, there's forty-seven people standing around them, they're jerking off, they're gasping and ooh-ing and aah-ing and I'm totally cold. It's nothing I'm doing wrong, it's just that the painting doesn't blow my skirt up, is all. And while some paintings *can* grow on me, mostly it's love at first sight or it's not going to be there. But paintings that I love, that love can grow and grow, each time I see it, I'm more in it's thrall.

You're not doing anything wrong. You're not missing anything. They don't move you. Find what does. Tom Petty -- "ya gotta listen to your heart / it's gonna tell you what to do"

What others have said is true -- if you know maybe what the artist was doing, it can maybe open you to the painting more. Or maybe you've got to see another artists take on the same subject -- I never 'got' "Tangled Up In Blue" listening to Dylan sing it, some piano player at a folk festival sang it, made it his own, and now I can't get enough of whoever is singing it, I'm in love with the song. I get it.

You aren't 'wrong'. No one else is 'right'. It is what it is. You dig it or you don't.
posted by dancestoblue at 6:58 AM on June 6, 2008

This also -- Picasso just bugs the shit out of me; here's a guy who can do anything, here's a guy who can do as much as Matisse with one simple, single line, as much or more, he can make me dance and sing and jump up and down but here he's got four pieces of a guitar, a fish-head, and half a womans smile on a canvas -- I want to choke him.

Yet he painted every day, he did follow his muse, he was honest, he wasn't jerking us around, he painted what needed to be painted.

It doesn't bug me as much any more -- it is what it is -- but it was terribly frustrating, and for a long time, too. It's like, here's John Lennon, but he's singing 'Silly Love Song' -- I'm like "WTF? What in gods name are you doing? Are you completely out of your mind? Where'd you *go*?" I kept trying to find 'it', chased it around til I fell over, panting. Or something.
posted by dancestoblue at 7:17 AM on June 6, 2008

In terms of books that might help with your art appreciation journey, I highly recommend Lawrence Weschler's book on artist Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting The Name of the Thing One Sees. It's a fantastic and very readable profile of one of America's most inscrutable abstract artists. Weschler really gives readers an amazing "behind the scenes" view of what was going on in Robert Irwin's mind, and what Irwin's intentions were as he made his minimalist masterpieces.

I think one of Robert Irwin's central philosophical insights about art - which may be helpful in your quest as well - is that the "ART" is not what is on the wall in front of you looking so baffling..."ART" is the experience YOU are having in your mind as you look at a piece on a wall, or walk through the museum, or street, or restaurant, or your house etc. That's where the art is. That's what you have to appreciate or not.
posted by extrabox at 7:24 AM on June 6, 2008

To foster a real appreciation of art, you need to foster the ability to say that something just doesn't do it for you. The art world is not a secret cabal with hidden codes. (It is, however, a secret cabal filled with insider dealings and backstabbing.) If you don't get the meaning of something, then the artist has failed. There was nothing I hated more than students in art school claiming their piece was something greater than what it was because of some great meaning we were missing. Sure some work is going to have personal meanings or cultural ones you won't get, but that's part of the artist's bargain. Artists create, but when it goes out to the world, it goes out alone. Sure you can put context in labels, articles, and audio guides, but in the end, the work stands alone.

I personally walk through galleries rather briskly and stop when something really calls out to me. I don't feel a drop of shame from it.
posted by advicepig at 7:45 AM on June 6, 2008

"Falling back to aesthetics" isn't really a failure. This is visual art; if a work of art doesn't speak to you when you look at it , reading more about it isn't going to impart that understanding. Reading a statement or manifesto may tell you in words what the artist was attempting to do, and may make a person feel like they "get it," but if the piece doesn't communicate in a purely visual way than the failure is not necessarily that of the viewer.
posted by louche mustachio at 10:19 AM on June 6, 2008

« Older Virgin Mobile US to T-Mobile UK. Can we connect?   |   Help me find a post-grad program in applied... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.