My family lived in Stuttgart, Germany in the early 1990s and during one “in-law” visit, my father in law asked to go to an art museum. I was skeptical; I wasn’t raised to be a fan of art, and had no interest in becoming one. Out of love and respect for my father in law, and in the interest of family harmony, we went. The museum was amazing, my eyes were opened, and I never eschewed art again.
While traveling in Eastern Europe in April of 2000, our family visited the National Art Museum in Warsaw. I had always had a love of history, and our experience in Germany demonstrated the close tie between history and art, so I wouldn’t miss it. To see the Polish art was to feel the joy, and the suffering, of Poland over the centuries.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC lacks the pathos of its European equivalents; America just hasn’t suffered in the same way or for as long. We had young children with us and the icy glare of the museum guards warned us not to touch anything. Nonetheless, it was an enriching experience.
In the years since, I have completed the change from art apathy to art affection. We enjoy the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC and the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, a Christian theater group. I am getting a Master’s in Theology in Christianity and the Arts, and have spoken publicly about the need for arts in the Church. The arts have shaped the world for Christ in the past, and Christians must use them to shape the world for Christ in the future.
Part of appreciating art is knowing how to experience it. Artists spend weeks, months or years creating art, and yet most tourists spend only seconds looking at that piece. Even in my pensive moods I only invest minutes. How different from Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, who spent four hours looking at Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son while at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.
Art is not merely for contemplation; it is for action. Art promotes not only thinking but also feeling and doing. Throughout history art has been used to heal, to inspire, to frighten, to arouse, and to shame. Art helps sell products and even sell people, like media stars and politicians.
Experiencing art is a learned skill, one from which everyone would benefit. The following checklist comes from the Art Gallery at New South Wales, Australia. I have used it many times before and can help novices get more enjoyment and insight out of art than ever before.
A personal response
- What first attracted you to this artwork?
- What is it that holds your interest?
- How does the artwork make you feel?
- Does it remind you of anything? eg another artwork, a place, person, story, idea or memory
- What is it about the artwork that sparks these memories and associations?
- Talk about the artwork with a friend or family member. Are your responses the same or different?
- What is the title of the artwork?
- What is the name of the artist? Where and when did they live? Are they still alive?
- When was it made? If no date is given, the artist’s birth date can give you a rough idea.
- What is it made of?
What you can see
Composition – What is your eye drawn to first? What are the different elements in the artwork? How have they been put together?
Lines – Look at the directions of lines, the edges of shapes. Are the lines horizontal or vertical or at other angles, straight or curved, continuous or broken, thick or thin, long or short, heavy or light, smooth or jagged, aggressive or delicate, fuzzy or crisp?
Shapes – Are the shapes rounded, rectangular, triangular, regular or irregular, symmetric or asymmetric, fat, thin or tapered, convex (bulging) or concave (hollowed out)?
Tones – Look at the light and dark, shadows and highlights. Are the tones pale, murky, dazzling, dim, harsh, subtle? Is the contrast high or low?
Colours – Are the colours natural or exaggerated, intense or soft, dull or bright, warm or cool, complementary (opposite on the colour wheel) or harmonious (near each other on the colour wheel)?
Patterns – Are the patterns bold or subtle, simple or intricate, geometric or regular, rich or sparse?
Textures – What is the surface texture like? Is it even or uneven, smooth or coarse, shiny or matte? If it’s a painting, can you see the brushstrokes?
Process and technique
- What type of artwork is it? e.g. a painting, drawing, sculpture, photograph, video, sound work, installation.
- How do you think it was made?
- If it is a painting, drawing or sculpture, can you see evidence of how the artist’s hand moved?
- Do you think it moved slowly and carefully or quickly and energetically?
- How long do you think it took to make?
- Do you think other people may have helped the artist make it?
- How is it displayed? If it is in a frame, what is the frame like?
- Where and when was the artwork created? What do you know about the place and that period in history? What was life like? What was happening socially, politically, culturally? Do you think the artwork is influenced by this?
- What do you know about the artist, their life, influences and art practice?
- Was the work originally created as a piece of art or do you think it had some other purpose? eg religious, ceremonial, practical
- Do you think it was originally intended for display in a gallery or for another space? eg palace, temple, church
- How does it compare to other works? eg by the same artist, or by someone from the same place and period in history, or those displayed in the same room. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different?
- What part of the Gallery is it in? Why do you think it is in that particular location?
Subject and meaning
- Can you classify the artwork and its subject according to a type? eg landscape, portrait, still life
- Does it depict something recognisable like a person or an object? Is it realistic or more abstract? Natural or unnatural?
- Could it be a symbol for something else?
- Does it tell a story?
- Is the subject familiar to you? What other examples can you recall? eg in other artworks, literature, music, films
- Can you see people in the artwork? If so, what are they doing? What might they be thinking? Look at their expressions, gestures, clothes.
- What do you think the artwork is about?
What you can’t see
- What difference would it make if something about the artwork changed? eg if was a different colour or size or made of other materials or in a different frame
- What difference would it make if the artwork was in a different setting? eg a temple, outdoors
- Can you extend the artwork in your imagination? If it shows a scene, what might have happened before or after that moment? What is happening outside the frame?
At the Gallery
When looking at artworks at a Gallery, you can expand your knowledge and enjoyment of art.
- Read the information provided – look for labels and text panels on the walls, room brochures, information boards that you can carry around the room.
- Take advantage of tours, exhibition talks, lectures and symposia, courses and publications.
- Visit again! Even seemingly simple artworks will reveal new things on a second, third or fourth viewing.
Remember, the last and most important questions are:
- What was this art work created to do?
- What does this art work do?
The checklist above is a good beginning for those who wish to enhance their experience of the arts. Experts won’t need it, but amateurs can use it. Those who do will discover that they appreciate, understand, and use the arts more than ever before.