Many people I know want specific instruction on “reading” artwork. They know that art generates in them a certain emotion or idea but don’t always know how it gets there, or why a particular emotion is stronger than another. I already wrote a post on discussing art, but I do think there are many ways in which to consider art. From what different perspectives might a person consider art and how could that change their views?
A critic seeks to evaluate an artwork. Their goal is to decide whether or not the artwork is any good. They are also a group who are most likely to use art analysis as a tool to dissect and assess art. It is this formal analysis process that many people are seeking out when they say they don’t know enough about art to make an evaluation of a work. Formal art analysis involves several steps.
Step one: Describe. Literally, break down exactly what is going on in an artwork. What objects are in the artwork? How are they placed? What colors are used? What medium or media is utilized by the artist? I have often heard this step explained as, ”describe the artwork as if you are speaking to someone blind who will not have an opportunity to see the artwork.”
Step two: Analyze. Explain what elements and principles of art the artist has employed in their artwork and then decide why they used these particular elements and principles. How does it convey meaning?
Step three: Interpret. Using the information from Describe and Analyze, consider the artist’s intention and message within their artwork. How did they achieve this?
And lastly, step four: Judgement. In this step the critic decides if the previous three steps were used appropriately, creatively, intelligently, etc. This is where they make a final evaluation on the success of an artwork.
So, yes, there are specific steps to analyze an artwork, but do you see any clear cut criteria by which to evaluate an artwork in this? No? Interesting, don’t you think?
A curator is mostly interested in selecting work that can investigate or convey a message in combination with other artworks. So, a curator may decide on a theme of some kind and then use that theme to decide which artworks should be placed on display. Recently, I took my students to two galleries in Dubai: Traffic and The Third Line. Together, they were hosting a show called The State. The goal of these two exhibitions was to look at and address government role in people’s lives. Artists included in the show were both locally based and international: Mahmoud Bakhshi, Banksy, James Clar, Nada Dada, Tracey Emin, Shepard Fairey, Rami Farook, Abdulnasser Gharem, and Damien Hirst were just a few of the artists included. So yes, the individual meaning of the artwork is important, but it is also about placing all of these works together and how that also can convey a message. Other aspects of curatorship includes things like: what color should the walls be for display? What kind of lighting should be used on the artwork? The layout of the space is important as well. How the viewers travel through and experience the artwork is guided by a curator.
The artist. What a loaded term! We have so many definitions and ideas about what it means to be an artist. I am going to speak from my perspective on this so please note, of course, that different artists work and think differently!
Generally speaking I’ve observed that artists are more involved and invested in process. It is very important to have a final product they are proud of, but artists are figuring out how best to reach that end goal. As they are on that journey the question becomes: what does the art say about them? About other people? About society? It is while they are on the journey of creation that an artist often discovers their message or idea and can then actively reinforce the message with their use of medium as well as their formal decisions (use of elements and principles). All artists plan differently: some discover while in the middle of creation, others spend years planning (think Christo and Jean-Claude) and know every single detail ahead of the artwork’s execution. Some artists want to assume every role in art: critic, curator, creator… while others are more invested in creating and letting the critics figure out what it all means.
The viewer: an adult perspective
Not all, but some adults feel a great deal of discomfort, or even insecurity, when it comes to reading and discussing artwork. We feel there is a right and wrong way to discuss it, but without proper education on art analysis and appreciation we feel we have a limited toolkit to accurately or intelligently respond to an artwork. Adults who actively go to shows and museums may have a greater toolkit than others who see work on TV or in the context of a news article to fully understand their relationship to the work and how they come to their ideas about art. Being skillful in the arts does not necessarily coincide with a strong ability to articulate whether or not an artwork is any good or conveys a certain message; generally, it does help. Because of the institutions that exist within art: curators, museums, critics, etc. adults sometimes feel alienated or like their views are unjustified. This is especially the case when there is an artwork that is not skillful in the traditional sense but is focused more on concepts, which may not be overtly portrayed in the artwork.
The viewer: a child’s perspective
Personally, I feel we can all learn from the child’s perspective on art. During the one year I taught elementary art I felt more joy in the creative process than I have in all of my career. It exudes from children like they sweat excitement. Being in art and talking about art was a time to celebrate. Making art wasn’t always about if it was good, but if it was fun. Talking about art had everything to do with emotion and personal experience instead of deciding whether society should decide if it’s any good. It was only when teachers began creating expectations of what art should be that I would observe students’ attitudes change. I worked with several elementary teachers and they wanted to know how to get their students to draw people “correctly,” that their own skill was impeding their students abilities to get it “right.” Interesting how our own notions of right and wrong can so immediately influence that of little ones, even in a discipline such as art!
I write this today to get you thinking about your role in the arts. How do you process information about an artwork? When you look at a work are you trying to be a critic? Curator? Or are you considering the work from the perspective of the artist? Do your preconceived notions of what art is and what you should know affect your ability to enjoy or read an artwork? Food for artistic thought.