Beyond First Impressions

“That’s art? It looks like a five year old made it!” This was a fellow Kilter-goer’s opinion on a series of abstract drawings. Had he looked closer, he would have seen the nearby text labeling the drawings as some of sculptor Mark di Suvero’s preliminary sketches. But because he glanced at the drawings and made a snap judgment, he both missed learning about an artist’s working process and scoffed at a fellow human who had put time and thought into his work. Admittedly, Kilter is not the ideal setting for art viewing. However, this dismissive attitude towards art is one I have seen over and over again: people reject a work as art because they dislike it, mock works without attempting to understand them, and repeatedly compare works to kindergarten creations. This hastiness to judge art deprives the viewer of an experience that could enrich and deepen his or her life. The roots of this mindset are worth examining in order to suggest an alternate way to approach art.

Many people’s dismissal of modern and contemporary art stems from an attitude of consumerism. Many times, we treat art as something to be used, either aesthetically or ideologically. We expect art to be pretty, suitable for hanging over the living room sofa. Most of us quickly bypass abstract art or pieces with unpleasant or confusing subject matter. We also view art as a way to support our worldview. For instance, most people like Norman Rockwell’s work because it entertains us and depicts a society that operates under traditional values. Art that disturbs us, or refuses to clearly illustrate biblical values fails our criteria for worthwhile art. We want art to bolster our values or decorate our walls instead of challenging our assumptions or expanding our ways of thinking.  

Not only do we approach art as something to use, we expect to understand it immediately. As in other areas of life, we want instant gratification. This mindset towards art is easy to fall into because we are bombarded daily by images which compete for a piece of our limited attention. So many of the images surrounding us–billboards, magazine covers, movie posters–are intended to be consumed, that we expect every image to be immediately accessible. However, while a viewer can physically see a piece of art in a moment, deep appreciation requires thoughtful looking. Viewing art is an encounter between you as the viewer and a physical object crafted by another human being. Encounters take time and attentiveness.

Mere consumption fails to do justice to the art and to its creator. Much art is not intended to be eye candy or moral illustration. Art gives us a window into another person’s experience, prompting us to reevaluate our own experience and assumptions as a result. Art frequently does this through ambiguity and complexity, which we often find disconcerting. We tend to prefer ideas presented in straightforward propositions rather than more emotive or associative means of conveying themes. As viewers, we must learn to grapple with uncertainty, with multiple interpretations and suggested ideas, rather than with syllogisms and manifestos.  

Like any other discipline, art comes with a set of concepts and terms as well as an historical background. An understanding of the formal aspects of art (color, line, composition), and art history are often necessary to fully appreciate a given piece. This background knowledge can aid viewers in making sense of an otherwise baffling piece. Familiarity with formal concepts and understanding where a work is situated in its art historical context allows viewers to analyze a piece’s formal qualities and go beyond knee-jerk reactions to understand why the piece evoked that reaction and what ideas the artist may be engaging. Even if you don’t have the time or inclination to learn about the language and concepts of art, you can still look attentively and thoughtfully. At the least you can see if there is helpful information about the piece nearby.

Having a more open mindset toward art can deepen your perspective. As Wendy Steiner writes in The Scandal of Pleasure, “Experiencing the variety of meanings available in a work of art helps make us tolerant and mentally lithe. Art is a realm of thought experiments that quicken, sharpen, and sweeten our being in the world.” Approaching art critically–that is, thoughtfully engaging with the work–will result in opening your mind to a different way of thinking: a way more open to ambiguity and complexity, a way more willing to consider perspectives outside your own experience.