Art is something that has always been with me, I have always lived my life either around it, surrounded by it of by simply devouring it. To me, art is life, or brings life. In this line, am always guided with three elements, To see, To look and to think.
The first two – look and see – are just about using your eyes, and observational skills. The third requires a bit of thought, drawing on what we already know and creatively interpreting what we’ve observed within an artwork’s broader contexts.
When we see anything, whether it’s a work of art, a movie or a billboard, our brains perform a massively complex split-second process of reading and making meaning. We absorb a whole range of clues that make up our understanding of any image, many of which we’re not even conscious of.
Any process of understanding art, then, is about slowing down that process, breaking down the image deliberately and holding off from jumping to any snap conclusions until later.
Isn’t it obvious we “look” at art? Not really. When we visit a gallery, we tend to spend only a few seconds in front of any one work. In fact, some estimates have it at under two seconds.
So look at what’s there, literally right in front of you. Start with the most basic: what medium or material is it – a photograph, an object, a painting? How does it look? Rough and quick? Slick and neat? Shiny? Dirty? Carefully made? Thrown together?
The artist will have made some very deliberate decisions about the materials, style and approach, and these will feed directly into the overall feel and meaning of the work.
What’s the difference between looking and seeing in the context of art? Looking is about literally describing what is in front of you, while seeing is about applying meaning to it. When we see we understand what is seen as symbols, and we interpret what’s there in front of us.
The final step involves thinking about what you’ve observed, drawing together what you’ve gleaned from the first two steps and thinking about possible meanings. Importantly, this is a process of interpretation. It’s not a science. It’s not about finding the “right answers”, but about thinking creatively about the most plausible understandings of a work.
The key here is context. The broader context of an artwork will help make sense of what you’ve already observed. Much of the information about context is usually given in those dull little labels that tell you the artist’s name, the title of the work and the year. And there are often other valuable morsels of information included too, such as the place and year an artist was born.
Who is the artist? Is it someone whose work you know something about? If so, what do you know about them? Even if this is “Picasso was a womaniser”, or “Jackson Pollock was a drunk”, if you’ve heard of the artist, you have some existing knowledge you can bring to bear.
Importantly, bring to bear everything you know – you’d be surprised how much you know of the context of an artwork just from your general knowledge, a lot of which comes from conversations, television, the internet, all those things that are “informal learning”.
Myself, I love art that pokes me to think differently about something I thought I already knew. Other people prefer eye candy. It’s all valid.
Just give yourself a moment to slow down, to look, see and think, and you’ll find something that really speaks to you.