First, how old are you?

I find myself in the position where I may be seen as too young to fully appreciate the deeper understanding of artwork, and how to even look at a piece is an even more difficult and personal challenge. Well, I’m here to tell you that, it’s… almost true. You see, we live in a world where experience is everything, whether it’s for a job, an internship, or life in general. One can gain only so much experience at a young age through text, and images, or even the short memories we all hold deep in our minds from early childhood to where we stand today. We may certainly give off the illusion of experience through maturity and vice versa of course, but in the reading that follows, I will explain the deeper understanding through small examples from two different books, the first being You Don’t Know What You Like, by Frederic Taubes, and the second, How to look at a painting, by Francoise Barbe-Gall. Both incredibly good reads if you have the chance, the first by Taubes is very text-heavy and the second by Barbe-Gall is around 50-50 in regards to image and text.

Anahuacalli Museum

Look past bias

Biases can be understood as anything from what you see vs what you know about what you see. I’m by no means asking you to shed your opinions from existence, however, when you take the first glance at something, a piece of artwork, you may already have some sort of unconscious bias towards it. Say you walk into an art exhibit/gallery, you understand that the pieces may be extremely expensive so you take your first trip as just a visit, and right as you walk in, you see this hideous piece of work that has no alignment, repetition, or in other words any meaning at all… What do you think? Did I just waste my time coming in here just to see expensive nonsense? Well, it turns out the painting you so insulted was the artwork of the gallery owner’s child that they wanted to display among everything else in the store. But you kept your opinion to yourself (thankfully), you still had no knowledge of the artwork’s background or who painted it and you continue to walk around seeing some “pretty” artwork and some more “nonsense.” You leave with disappointment without the realization that most pieces of artwork displayed in any prominent position have a deeper meaning.

It may be a stretch, and while this has never happened to me, you went in without an open mind as to what you were going to see. A “crummy” piece of art can pass for one of such originality and value that biases sometimes come into play for or against the team, and in some aspect, you may also be right…

“There is no definite standard of value in contemporary art; it went down the stream with the advent of modernism, and our all-out license for self-expression. Today as students work as much chance of passing a jury of experts as the work of a trained professional.” – Peyton Boswell, Jr.

The unfortunate word…

Lots of artists today see more income than passion in their artwork, many lose their motivation to put in real work to achieve a great piece of work. But in my youthful experience in dealing with once-great artists, they only look for that one word, “commission.” So in a sense, yes it may be so difficult today in dealing with finding or appreciating a good piece of art, but the work you see is all dependent on how YOU see it. Did the artist create work that means absolutely nothing to them but means something bigger to you personally? Well first, I hope that they don’t find that out because the word “commission” will arouse them. But it’s that idea of art appreciation that gets misunderstood, and while it can be seen in many ways, it’s easy to say that the word “appreciation” is misused from a monetary standpoint.

To find some examples of artwork being created solely for profit, click here.

Criticize your own opinion

Taubes does a fine job in allowing the reader to understand that one opinion is not the only one, and while this can look like the perfect example of a bias, we must still see that the public eye is diverse and forever changing. By criticizing your own opinion, it will open you up to a completely new view of a piece of work, whether it’s magnificent or small. This will allow you to understand and appreciate artwork more greatly than before, and it’s all about your own recognition of a piece.

“The same public which applauds an inferior performance will recognize a great one.” -Frederic Taubes

Look at it

While finding the deeper meaning of art may involve lots of mental processing and realization, obviously, much of the appreciation comes from actually looking at the work. Pay attention to every detail when you see, and understand that every detail also has its own choice of meaning and timing. Some work is even meant to be seen from the bottom-up, finish to start.

In Gall’s How to look at a painting, we are given some literal examples on how to look and appreciate artwork:

  • Read the title.
  • Get close.
  • Pay attention to rhythm, colors, odd details.
  • Understand the history of when it was done.
  • Compare your first impression with your last.
Café Terrace at Night – Vincent Van Gouh

While there is much advice to give, that is only an introduction to what Gall has to say. But do not just see a painting for its dull or fluorescent colors. Look into the eyes of the painting, wherever you see fit. Spot any still movements of a hand or gesture or human emotion and compare it to your own.

Enjoy your time

I feel summarizing just a glimpse of what you read here does no justice compared to reading the full texts of Taubes and Gall. I highly recommend at least reading some passages and viewing some of the images vs text in Gall’s books. Though while you’re in that art exhibit or museum that your friend or family dragged you to, give a shot to appreciate why, what, and even how that artist got their work to where it’s standing now. There is always some meaning behind or on the face of an art piece, whether it’s from the piece itself or just to you.

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