SPEAKERS’ CORNER: How to Look at Art?

During the Speakers’ Corners meetings we show our interests and passions — my passion is art and writing about it, so I have decided to create a sort of educational presentation regarding the ways we can interpret art in order to understand it better.

I think contemporary art is often wrongly regarded as hard to get, pointless or just a product of pure vanity of the art market. While it might be true in many cases, not all the art created in recent decades tries to fool us. Despite the fact that many of us find it difficult to comprehend what the work of art wants to tell us, usually is just the lack of preparation or a will to open one’s mind that prevent us from understand the meaning that hides behind the canvas, installation or gestures of an artist.

René Magritte, “The False Mirror”, Le Perreux-sur-Marne, 1928

First of all, we shall be aware that there is no one sole definition of art and that, in today’s world, everything is art: from ready made objects to social projects and provocative performances. As Donald Judd once said, “art is everything what is considered as art”. It is the consequence of the conceptual art movement from the late 19060s that contemporary art is so fluent and crosses all the barriers. Secondly, we have to remember that the perception and the physiology of an eye is also determined by culture, habits and knowledge:

“All perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention.” — Rudolf Arnheim

In my presentation I’ve also stressed the importance of exhibitions and of the Internet in perceiving art: through a life experience or via reproductions and photographs.

Summarizing, the most important aspects of looking at modern art are:

  • FORM — medium (painting, object, installation, performance, art as social intervention, etc.);
  • CONTEXT (art on an exhibition, site-specific art, intervention in public space);
  • THEME — message;
  • CONDITIONS & CIRCUMSTANCES (art market, economy of art).
Me and my pretty (boring?) presentation…

I’ve divided my speech into 10 sections, which were inspired by the book Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art by Ossian Ward. In these section I prove that looking at art is not just a question of aesthetics and taste — art brings to us these aspects of reality that we often don’t see or don’t want to see.

Art as a Reflection on Art Itself

Many artists use the expressive power of art to talk about the condition of art in a particular moment and about its dependence on the art market and money. One of them is Urs Fischer, who created his installation entitled You to play not only with a viewer’s perception, but also with the ideology of the white cube — the modern art gallery space. A big hole in the gallery;s floor, instead of artworks nicely placed on the walls — it’s his way of knocking the viewer from a cognitive lethargy.

Urs Fischer, „You”, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, 2007

Art as a Dialogue with the History of Art

I referred here mostly to the appropriation art movement and I recalled such works as Marcel Broodthaers Modèle- La Pipe, which he modeled on basis of Rene Magritte’s famous painting; Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q.; and Yinka Schonibare’s The Swing installation inspired by the Fragonard’s rococo painting.

Yinka Shonibare, „The Swing (after Fragonard)”, 2001
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, „The Swing”, 1767
Yasumasa Morimura, “Handshaped Earring” from the series “An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo”, 2001 | Frida Kahlo, “Self Portrait”, 1940

Art as a Social Act

We may also see art as a way of changing the reality around an artist, who tries to collaborate with particular groups of people to make others aware of their situation. Such artists are, for example, Paweł Althamer and Ai Weiwei.

Paweł Althamer, „Common Task”, 2009 | Ai Weiwei, „Sunflower Seeds”, Tate Modern, 2010–2011

Art as a Confrontation

Contemporary artists love to incorporate us into their installations and thus, to confront us with our own fears. Yayoi Kusama makes it by using colorful polka dots and organic forms that she associates with the anxiety to her childhood trauma — the work can also be read as a means of therapy, of confronting a fear by representing it on a grand scale. Maurizio Cattelan, on the other hand, often uses shocking means to throw us off balance — as in his sculpture HIM, presented in the gate of one of the building in the district of the former ghetto in Warsaw.

Yayoi Kusama inside one of her dotted installations | Maurizio Cattelan, „HIM”, Warsaw’s former Ghetto, 2012 (created in 2001)

Provocative Art

Artists like to provoke, but we shouldn’t fall for it. In works of many artists, who still wear the etiquettes of provocateurs, we can find deep meanings, as in the works of Tracy Emin, Marc Quinn or David Černý.

David Černý, „Gesture”, Prague, 2013 | Marc Quinn, „Self”, 2006

Art as a Joke

We don’t have to always treat art seriously — sometimes it’s just a joke — usually on art itself and on the mechanisms that rule it. Good examples of such art are Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God and a lot cheaper pastiche on it made by a Polish artist, Peter Fuss, For the Laugh of God.

Damien Hirst, “For the Love of God”, platinum cast of human skull covered with diamonds, 2007
Elmgreen & Dragset, „Death of a Collector”, Danish Pavilion, Venice, 2009

Art as an Entertainment

Art’s main purposes were always to teach, to delight and to move (lat. docere, delectare, movere). Artists who make us the active creators of their installations, such as Ernesto Neto or Tomas Saraceno, fully explore this entertaining value of art.

Ernesto Neto, „Celula Nave”, 2004 | Olafur Eliasson, „One-way colour tunnel”, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2007

Art as Intervention

In the 1970s art left the art gallery and museum to enter the public space. Richard Serra’s Tiled Arc is considered to be the symbolic work of art that represents this shift from a closed room to a civic open space. I personally prefer the recent realizations, for example, Simone Decker’s Chewing Gum sculptures in Venice, in 1999.

Left: Simone Decker, „Chewing Gum” sculptures, Venice, 1999 | Right: Bonno von Doorn, „Kunst Kamers”, Rotterdam, 2011; Joseph Kosuth, „Home Sweet Home”, Chambres d’Amis, Ghent, 1986

Art as Meditation

The most traditional function, nowadays often underrated, is the function of contemplation. Look at the brushstrokes made by Gerhard Richter, Fiona Tan or Jackson Pollock, and you will know what I mean.

Gerhard Richter, „Cage” series, 2006

Art as a Confrontation with Death & Suffering

Last but not least, art’s aim is to challenge us and confront us with the death and the transience of life. In the past eras this function was realized by memento mori topics and dances of death, nowadays artists are less sensitive and show us the futility of the earthly life: Zbigniew Libera in his video Intimate Rites, and Ron Mueck in his rescaled sculptures of old people.

Ron Mueck, „Standing Woman”, Towada Art Center in Towada, Japan, 2008

The final part of my speech was to give all of us some good advices on how to look and perceive art with all our senses and mental powers in order to get the essence of it:

  1. Don’t be afraid of the contemporary art museums and galleries — they are there for you!
  2. Get to know the rules that govern the art world so you can feel more confident.
  3. Think about artists as normal people rather than geniuses & abandon all the clichés.
  4. Learn to look in a way to understand the message.
  5. Be patient — looking and experiencing are not easy — it’s similar to laying on a couch at the psychotherapist — you have to OPEN UP!
  6. Remember that perception is the subject to numerous conventions — fight with them!
  7. Try to look without going into biographical and artistic details; instead, focus on the aesthetic values of the work of art…
  8. …then get to gain some knowledge on artist and his art.
  9. You can also just experience art with all your senses.
  10. Ask questions about a work of art whether it is still valid, and raises important problems, or moves you in any way, maybe makes you angry? (sometimes art is supposed to piss you off).

I hope this will help you looking at art. It can be real fun!

Originally published at pixersize.com on April 19, 2016.

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