How We Experience Art: A Reflection on 2 Recent Books

I have to admit that I am a bit of an enthusiast when it comes to books about how we look at and experience art.  So when I found out about the recently published books by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford as well as Ossian Ward, I was more than just a little curious (I ordered them right away and began to dig in during the winter holidays).

Rendez-Vous with Art, by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford (Thames & Hudson, 2014)

Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art, by Ossian Ward (Laurence King Publishing, 2014)

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First, let me dive a bit into the pages of Rendez-Vous with Art.  This book reads like an enjoyable travelogue of the great museums of the world, retelling in lush detail a series of art encounters as filtered through the interests, knowledge, passions, and opinions of de Montebello (Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 31 years, 1977-2008).  At café moments and interludes, both authors engage in brief conversations about how we experience art, how we think about it, and how we look at it. The book is, as the authors write, “an attempt to get at not history or theory but the actual experience of looking at art” (9).  Visiting the Louvre, the Prado, the Palazzo Pitti, the Mauritshuis, the British Museum, the Brancacci Chapel, the Met, and other notable art sites, their conversations focus on their experiences with masterpieces and lesser known works that allow them to escape the crowds of some of the more popular cultural destinations.

I happened to be reading this book during the days leading up to a workshop I was facilitating with our docents at the Portland Art Museum, spending time in the galleries looking at an absolutely electric El Greco painting on loan to our museum from the Cleveland Museum of Art.  I was searching for a new way to frame our extended experience with this masterpiece — a way to prompt our viewing of the painting in a way that could transcend the art historical facts of the painting’s creation and context.  Could a work like this speak to us today about something meaningful?  As a viewer, what does this work mean to me?  De Montebello provided the tee-up:

“A characteristic of great works of art is that they persistently catch our attention and beckon us. It is like a piece of music that we want to listen to ad infinitum or a book that we love re-reading — because one never exhausts what a great work has to give, whether it’s in the detail or the whole…. It has an ability not just to defy time, but also to communicate through time, even to people who do not and cannot know much about the beliefs of the people who made it or the message it was supposed originally to have. Somehow, inexplicably, a great work of art transcends its own age.” (31, 34)

While I may not agree with de Montebello when it comes to how we shape visitor learning experiences and use social media & digital technologies to broaden public engagement (among other things), I did enjoy his grandiose statements about the powerful nature of experiencing art.  The hustle and bustle of a crowded art museum  can certainly be music to a museum educator’s ears, yet I know that many of us, like myself, also seek out the more intimate, quiet, deeply rewarding experience of being the only person standing in front of a masterpiece (how many of us sneak into the galleries when the museum is closed to steal away our own time with art?).  De Montebello muses on the challenge of viewing art amidst the crowds of popular, well-visited institutions … or, as they write, “the hell of looking at art with other people” (128). As Gayford recounts, de Montebello originally wanted the title of the book to be “The Art Museum: An Imperfect Construct.”

At times, both authors seem rather grumpy about the millions and millions of people who crowd into museums to see masterworks of culture and history, but their questions about how we experience art in these contexts raises interesting issues about marketing, image reproductions, and digital collections.  For example, given the deep crowds of camera-phone-wielding tourists crammed in front of the Mona Lisa on any given day, is it more valuable or meaningful to look at a high quality digital image on my iPad (here in the quiet comfort of my own home or office)?  And how does our repeated exposure to beautiful, massive publicity banners and posters showings close-up details of masterpieces effect our expectations of the actual museum gallery experience with these artworks?

This is what it is like when you're standing looking at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.  Photo by Stephen R Melling, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
This is what it is like when you’re standing looking at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Photo by Stephen R Melling, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

How Do We Experience Contemporary Art?

OK, let me shift gears here, from talking about experiences with Egyptian sculpture, Renaissance masterpieces, and nineteenth-century portraiture to experiencing the art of now — contemporary art that can be scattered across a gallery floor, projected on multiple walls, consuming a massive space, requiring us to talk to someone or eat something, confusing, perplexing, and having no apparent start or finish.

“The old rules of not touching a work of art or of reverentially paying homage to each picture in a state of quiet awe are now gone….” (Ward 8)

Carsten Höller "Test Site" installation at Tate Modern, 2006. Photo by David Sim, Creative Commons 2.0 license
Carsten Höller “Test Site” installation at Tate Modern, 2006. Photo by David Sim, Creative Commons 2.0 license

Ossian Ward’s Ways of Looking makes a fresh pairing with Rendez-Vous with Art, focusing on art created since 2000 that frequently expects viewers to perform, interact with, or complete the piece in front of you.  In this highly readable, straightforward book, Ward offers a set of tools that go beyond just looking and might help provide a way to make sense of contemporary art.  While an art critic and art world insider himself, I think he succeeds in his attempts to combat the ubiquitous and opaque ‘art speak’ that so frustratingly surrounds contemporary art.  He writes (and I quite agree):

“Too often, these gatekeepers [curators and critics] stand in the way of the understanding of a work of art by using a morass of theoretical jargon and pseudo-philosophical art-speak. This kind of clever-clever writing about art does very little to bolster or boost an artist’s cause, other than perpetuating more reams of similarly hard-to-fathom ‘discourse.'” (20)

So how does Ward propose we cut through the verbose jargon and allow for better experiences with contemporary art?  His central foundation is to “start from zero” and wipe the slate clean — tabula rasa — using the first word TABULA as a mnemonic device for the approach he proposes.  While I don’t want to give away all the details (after all, you should read the book yourself and explore this approach), here is a very brief summary:

  • Time: Always a good idea to start with a few minutes of calm contemplation, looking, and exploration.  Take stock.
  • Association: What is the personal resonance or ‘hook’ for you?  This can be a visual attraction or a connection with a memory or experience you’ve had.  Make some associations.
  • Background: Use some basic ways to learn a bit more about the backdrop of the piece or the artist — using the title, label, press release, museum brochure or website, etc.
  • Understand: After looking, connecting, and learning a few basic background facts, the piece is more likely to sink in a bit more.  What might be some broader messages at play here?
  • Look again: Simple as it sounds.  After a bit of pondering, go back and look or engage with the work even more. Did you miss a detail?
  • Assessment: After these first four steps, you’re now in a better place to decide whether you think the work is good or not.  But Ward reminds us not to hastily jump to this step (which we all do far too often).

Much about this method of looking at contemporary art or thinking about an encounter makes sense, and reaffirms many existing pedagogies and educational philosophies already informing museum practice.  In addition, throughout his book, Ward provides us with wonderfully pithy ‘Spotlight’ features that lead us through parts of the TABULA approach with individual works of contemporary art — including explorations of Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), Carsten Holler’s whimsical Tate Modern installation Test Site (2006), Glen Ligon’s Warm Broad Glow (2005), and Roger Hiorns’s amazing and enormous Seizure (2009).  When the TABULA approach seems a bit lacking, at least the discussions of contemporary art are enjoyable and digestible.

ward

Everything Comes Full Circle

The entire experience of reading these two ‘looking at art’ books side by side became eerily connected when I reached the final pages of Ward’s book only to find a Spotlight on Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Two Circles (1661) — a painting that de Montebello and Gayford could have easily included in their travels.  Ward comes around full circle to the more traditional ways of looking at art that form the foundation of Rendez-Vous with Art,  writing: “there is no better way to slow down and tabulate one’s appreciation of art than by sitting with one of the Old Masters.”  No matter what approach or strategy you take when it comes to encountering art of any time period or culture, is there anything more essential than spending time to look, perceive, and use our multitude of senses to take it in?

“It’s not rude to stare at art.  Quite the opposite, in fact: it’s the least you can do. Stop. Breathe. Relax. Don’t think, just look, take it all in. Soak up your surroundings, feel the space in front of you, set your mind free, let your internal monologue recede and allow your eyes to settle.  When was it that you last allowed yourself such a moment?” (Ward 148)

*     *     *     *     *

Featured header image: Carsten Höller panorama by David Sim, Creative Commons 2.0 license

6 thoughts on “How We Experience Art: A Reflection on 2 Recent Books”

  1. Thank you for this. I’m using a chapter from Ward with the learners in my “Museums as a Resource” graduate course. Interestingly, it is assigned for the day we visit The Met!

    1. Kristine, thanks for your comment. Great that you are using Ward for your graduate course — which chapter did you choose? I’d love to hear how your students respond, and what works at the Met you spend time with. Have you played with the TABULA approach at all yourself, or with a class?

      1. Hello Mike, we’re going to use the Introductory chapter of Ward and I’ve paired it with a chapter from Berger’s classic, “Ways of Seeing.” This is a very diverse, thoughtful, and enthusiastic group and so I am sure the conversation will be quite insightful. I’d be happy to share, with the group’s permission, of course. We typically discuss many elements of TABULA (certainly Time, Looking, Looking Again, Awareness, Background, etc.) throughout the the course and I always have them begin the semester by sharing a personal reflection of a museum experience (Association). This will be this first time I’ll use Ward’s mnemonic, however.

  2. As a second generation artist, I always took the experience for granted. No point explaining music to the tone deaf. But this type of book ( I haven’t read them) often disappoint me because of their nannying approach to being helpful. Is it just me ( and most of my fellow practishoners) – but isn’t there an element of divine connection, of cosmic apprehension, of extase – that the average Citizen is missing out on? Is this covered in these books? It is the essentiAl component of the experience. But it always seems to elude the experts.

  3. Although its not new, we have used Looking at Art by Laurie Schneider Adams (2002). I like that it focuses on the personal connections between art and the viewer, has lots of “ways” of understanding an artwork, and the idea of visual literacy being important in today’s world. The Ward sound like it would be a great addition to our library for an upcoming contemporary art exhibition – look forward to reading it.

    1. Katherine – thanks for letting us know about the Adams book. I’ll have to add that to my shelf/collection. Sounds a bit like some of the awesomeness of the John Armstrong’s “Move Closer,” which I have a write-up on here: https://artmuseumteaching.com/2012/03/18/move-closer-an-intimate-philosophy-of-art/
      I do think the Ward is worth a read, especially if you are a newbie or outsider to contemporary art theory/criticism (I imagine that Ward’s book might seem a bit pedestrian to those inside the art-speak world).

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