Archive for December, 2013

How to appreciate art

Friday, December 20th, 2013

Appreciating art is a process that is both intellectual and visceral. The more an artwork operates on the following levels, the better it is.

1. Do you like it?

This should be your immediate response upon seeing it for the first time. You can like it for many reasons – something in the shape, colours, movement, composition, materials, context etc. it doesn’t really matter at this stage. What’s important is that you are encouraged to investigate the work further. If the piece looks no different from anything else you might encounter in everyday life then the work has not succeeded with you – you don’t like it.

All art is subjective though and what might intrigue you could leave another person totally indifferent.

You can, of course, always change your mind about liking an artwork for whatever reason. It’s also possible not to ‘like’ an artwork but be fascinated enough by it to progress to other levels.

2. Does it invoke new ideas for you?

The novelty of a new idea is a sign of good art. A fur-lined cup and spoon is a brilliant joke, one that explores the function of utilitarian goods in an interesting way. Conceptual art is all about ideas and can usually be assessed in the same way that an audience considers a joke: if it teases the mind in a satisfying way, then it’s funny (good art). Many conceptual artworks are simply the equivalent of bad jokes – they juxtapose disparate ideas but the new connections created between the ideas don’t work in an interesting or surprising way.

Being the first to do something different usually guarantees a place in art history and is at least interesting from that perspective.

3. Is it something you could make, or think up yourself?

This is a crucial question not just for art but also for all forms of entertainment. We only admire that which we can’t do ourselves. Thus, if you’re a representational artist, not many people could begin to emulate what you can do even though they would like to do it themselves so any work has an immediate value in terms of their admiration. However, this in itself does not mean it will be good art, just as being able to spit further than anyone else does not automatically command the respect of all sportspeople.

Some artists answer the criticism that anybody could create one of their artworks with “but they didn’t, did they? I did.”

Such an argument exploits their privileged position as an established artist and can be disregarded as a valid criterion for making the artwork, art.

4. Did it take long to make?

Despite all the modern developments in technology, this still carries a lot of weight. Someone who has spent many years creating one piece of art is going to command respect from a lot of people simply for having the patience to complete the work. Subconsciously, time adds a minimum value to the piece; three years of work multiplied by £x per hour equals, etc. This aspect is paradoxical – the length of time spent on an artwork bears no relation to the quality of the art but the more work that is involved produces more fascination from the viewer about the artist herself – what made her spend so such time on it?

It should also be remembered that technology can now replicate a lot of work very quickly, so what appears to be many hours of labour can be achieved with the press of a button. This is like admiring an original masterpiece and then being informed that actually, it’s a fake. All that has changed is the perception of manufacture.

5. Has an individual made it?

Collaboration dilutes the value of an artwork. This is an incorrect view in my opinion but many people still cherish the auteur theory – a tortured artist working in their garret impervious to criticism. The public imagines that such artists have explored exotic mental worlds that they themselves are forbidden to visit and so the created images provide glimpses into an unfamiliar realm. In modern music, many producers influence a sound as much as the musicians supposedly do in writing the songs and many bands themselves are a song writing team. ‘All along the Watchtower’ written by Bob Dylan and performed by Jimmy Hendrix is a masterpiece of music and my enjoyment of it is not diminished by the knowledge that several artists were involved in its creation.

The Art World has a problem with this concept (artists assistants are never credited with any contribution to the making of a finished piece). However, it should not affect your appreciation of any artwork and you can safely ignore this element.

6. Does it inspire you?

Good art inspires more art. As an artist myself, if I attend an exhibition of wonderful paintings then I can’t wait to leave the gallery and start painting again. Poor art does not encourage any enthusiasm for creativity. For non-artists, the inspiration may express itself in the form of a desire to find out more about the artist or to buy the artwork (this is a cultural conditioning, non-artists can be inspired to create art too).

7. Does it work on many levels?

The more levels that the piece works on, the more likely it is going to resonate with more people and therefore find greater acceptance as a worthwhile piece of art. This is because you can spend longer contemplating the piece and discovering new things about it (and thus yourself). There is also a correlation between the longevity of artworks and the greater levels of appreciation to be had from them.

8. Does the work represent a new development in the continuing language of art?

The history of art is a development of an art language. Fluent speakers of this language can appreciate nuances and interesting sentence constructions created by knowledgeable artists. Sometimes new words are invented or even an entire patois is developed. You don’t have to speak this language to appreciate art but for those that do it’s an important part of their art appreciation.

9. Is the work time sensitive or will it outlive its era?

If the artwork references ephemeral things then it is similar to a topical joke; as soon as the context is forgotten then the power of the joke is lost. It can still be a good work of art however if other levels such as 1, 4 and 5 come into play.

10. Does the work tell you something about yourself (the human condition) that you were unable to access without the piece?

If an artwork moves you in an ineffable way, then this is the surest sign that you’re viewing good art. However, this should not be confused with tapping into your emotions as a skilled craftsperson can do this fairly easily using sentimentality for example. Great art contains all the elements listed above and when combined together elicits a feeling of rapture in the viewer. Great art makes you see the world differently, at least for a time.