Understand the Context
Art is always a reflection of its times. Taking time to think about the political, social and economic events of the period when it was produced will give you a wider scope to comprehend what the artwork is trying to achieve, and why it was made in the way that is was.
Historical context will give you a greater understanding of the purpose of a painting. Picasso’s Guernica for example: A gigantic modernist masterpiece containing huge semi abstracted figures and writhing animals cannot fail to impress when you see it for the first time. Once you know that it is a depiction of the brutal aerial bombing of the Basque town of the same name in 1937, during the Spanish civil war, our understanding will change. As we know this, we gain insight into the artwork, and can comprehend how and why this canvas has toured the world, and earned its reputation as one of the most significant and iconic anti-war images within human history.
Research the Artist
We all know the expression that ‘knowledge is power’, so if you want to see more in an artwork, then it makes sense to research about the artist that produced the artwork you are looking at. This will help you to think about their personality, motivations and the events within their lives that may have shaped the way that they felt about certain subjects.
Joseph Beuys, the German Artist, was shot down in an Airplane during the Second World War on the Crimean Front. The story goes, that a local Tartar tribe, who found him close to death in the snowy woodland, took him back to their settlement and saved his life. Supposedly, they smothered him in fat and wrapped him in felt to keep him warm. These unconventional materials became influential within his own sculptures, and unless you knew their story and relevance to his life, then they would be shrouded in mystery.
Empathise with the conditions of the time
There is a phenomenon called shifting baseline syndrome, which basically means that as humans, we automatically assume that the conditions of our live are the norm, because it is what we are used to. Although we attempt to comprehend how it must have been for the general population 100 or 200 years ago, it is very difficult for us to imagine with any validity. For example, a large portion of the world now owns a mobile phone. 10 year old children in the developed world will grow up with the idea that this is the accepted norm, and if they have used and owned a mobile since this age, then the idea of not having one and not being connected to the internet all the time will seem foreign to them. For anyone older than 25, we can all perfectly well remember a time when mobile phone use was not ubiquitous.
In the same vein, try to think about this when you look at Artworks. Oil paint for example, is now sold readily and easily in tubes. This was not always the case, these paints used to be sold as raw material that had to be ground by the artists, or the assistants, and mixed in a hugely time consuming process. The next time you look at a Dutch still life painting, think about how the artist will have spent days just creating the paint, a task that nowadays takes an artist a second to simply squeeze out of the tube.
Listen to your Heart
Art means many different things to many different people, and its motivations and aims vary tremendously. The vast majority of artworks begin as a way to express an idea, feeling, or as some kind of social commentary. Cezanne said ‘that a work of Art that does not begin in emotion is not a work of art’, and this is a good quote to keep in mind when you observe and experience an artwork.
There always exists a wealth of academic ideas, interpretations and individual opinions on almost all aspects of art, but it is important to remember to trust your gut and listen to your heart. If you feel something when you look at an artwork, if it stirs any kind of strong emotional reaction in you, then you must listen to that feeling and follow it to wherever it takes you. Your personal impression of an artwork, the way that it connects with you, is just as important as any lofty and widely accepted view of the most cultured art critics around. It is also ok to be unable to articulate this feeling, so don’t worry about it.
Suspend your own judgment
We all have preconceptions and we all judge. Unfortunately it is part of being human, but when you see an artwork for the first time, it is a good idea if you can try to suspend any opinions that you may already hold. A great artwork will show you the world in a new way. If you have already decided in advance that you are going to hate a certain artwork, or that everything created by another artist is complete genius, then you will miss the idiosyncrasies that make artworks special. Even the greatest artists occasionally made bad paintings, if they didn’t, then they were not trying to be innovative and continually develop their style.
It is very difficult to try to forget what we already know, or to ignore opinions that have already been formed, but if you can, it makes looking at artworks much more rewarding.
Listen to your Head
What do you think the artist is trying to achieve? We all have preferences and different tastes. What may constitute excellence in one field of art could be the mark of bad taste in another. Take the contrast between photorealism and abstract expressionism for example. When you look at an artwork, it is very important to think, for yourself, about what you feel the artist is trying to achieve. If a portrait does not ‘look’ exactly the way that that person would appear physically according to a photograph, it is not because the artist was unable to create such a rendition, but because they chose to depict that person in a new way, and emphasise a certain aspect of their character. This is well explained by James Baldwin, and should always be kept in mind if you want to see more in an artwork.
“The artistic image is not intended to represent the thing itself, but, rather, the reality of the force the thing contains.”