My Guide for Looking at Art

I nearly pushed a fork into the table a few weeks ago as my spouse read me a little "Here to Help"column in the NYTimes, "How to Fall in Love with Art: Just Look" about looking at art if you are a beginning viewer. If this were a spoof, I would be laughing hysterically, but it is not. It starts by suggesting that you look at the work carefully, which is good, and for the artist's hand, which I am also interested in, but then it mentions that you should look for cobwebs and flaws. Wait. What? Cobwebs? Look for flaws? First? That might mean noticing if it is well made, but that's probably not the first thing you want to do when you approach a work. Another section suggests that you read the wall text, but doesn't say how to evaluate what you are reading.

I've been railing and ranting and suggesting and mentioning about art on this blog for nine(?) years now, so as a reactive remedy, I thought I'd post my own "Guide for Looking at Art."

1. First reaction. How does it make you feel? Are you attracted or repelled or feel neutral about it? Does your heart sink or soar? Can you find one thing about it that catches your attention?
2. Look more closely. Reflect on your reaction. What do you think is causing this reaction? Is it the subject? Materials/medium? Colors? Shapes? Mood? How it is presented? The craft? Be willing to confront your first reaction and go more deeply.
3. What is it? How is it made? What are its components? Describe it to yourself.
4. What does it do? Where does it take you? What does it remind you of? Is it fresh or strange or new to you?
5. Does reading the wall text give you insight about the artist, the context and time period in which the artist lived, or the curator's taste? Does the wall text seem to be factual or is someone making a judgment or guess (educated or not) about the work? Do you agree or not? Do you understand the work any better after you read it?

And remember, you can find a work of art powerful without having to like it.

This is a variation on a critique. I ran critiques in the college courses I taught and came up with a set of criteria based on those presented by Michelle Carter (blog post "Writing Workshops and Art Critiques" from 2011 here).

After I cooled off, I read over it myself, and found there are some good points, but they are buried in what I think is an offhand tone and some poor similes that make it a little disrespectful to the viewer and to art in general. The article, if you are curious, is here.

"Pinkie" aka "Sarah Barrett Moulton"
painted by Thomas Lawrence, 1794
on the wall at the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA

Probably one of the first paintings I knew as a child.