It can be really intimidating to approach an artwork for the first time, especially those that are exceptionally avant-garde or wildly unfamiliar. You may feel the urge to have the perfect articulate and intellectual observation about a given piece, but how do you start thinking and talking about something you don’t quite understand? For me, it’s less about the information that you have memorized and more about taking a systematic approach to that object. It’s been years since I first stepped into my introductory class, but I still use these approaches today.
Edited by Morgan Moore
Point 1: Take your time.
In my first college art history course, we had to sit in front of a painting for an hour. We were instructed to walk around the object and sketch it, to better internalize the composition. Once, I spent forty whole minutes sitting outside a building for an assignment (and yes, people thought I was weird).
It was a really long process of thinking and processing the work: we would start with an introduction in lecture, mull things over with our professor in small discussion groups, go to the museum, peer edit our papers, take another week to edit on our own and then hand in a finished assignment. From start to finish, that process took about a month, if not longer.
In this clickbait age, there is so much content (of both high and low quality) churned out constantly. An image is lucky if it gets more than ten seconds of our attention before we keep on scrolling through our feeds Our brains have so little time to actually process an image, let alone begin to assess or understand it. Museums easily become places to stroll, backdrops for conversations, through rather than places of active contemplation and rumination. In a world like this, it can be difficult to imagine spending even five minutes contemplating a work of art, especially if you feel the pressure to produce something quickly yourself. Meanwhile, in podcasts and YouTube videos, hosts say the most eloquent and interesting things! But their points have likely gone through many revisions by the time you hear what they have to say. Do not panic if you don’t have something brilliant to say immediately–the people who do probably have been thinking about this for a lot longer than it seems.
Point 2: There are no dumb/trivial observations.
In my first ever college art history class, we went into the school museum and looked at a marble statue. The professor asked us “What can you tell me about this object?” Everyone looked nervously around:each of us simultaneously wanted to come up with the most brilliant observation and yet were also paralyzed with fear of saying something silly. The answer the professor was actually looking for was that it was a statue of a man, made in marble. You know, the simplest answer. Medical schools sometimes take their first year students to museums to hone this exact skill. Although certain aspects may seem obvious, paying attention might help them put the pieces together to get to that correct diagnosis. Taking a visual inventory is the first place you should start with. You never know which detail could launch a thousand page dissertation.
Point 3: Engage with artwork you don’t necessarily like or immediately understand.
This is a point that I have to work on myself, because in reviewing my portfolio here on the site, I realized that I haven’t really been pushing the envelope in terms of undertaking new topics that would require a lot of extra research on my part. For example, I know very little about East Asian Art, especially from the antiquities. (Sometimes I feel like a Bad Asian because of it, since it never sparked that immediate interest that 1960’s American architecture did in me.) But that does not mean that I should never try to engage or interact with East Asian Art. The point of learning art history skills is not to like every single piece of artwork you come across because that is impossible. Art has no obligation to you as the viewer to be liked. The objective is to learn how to analyze and contextualize an object.
What separates professionals from anyone else looking at an object is their ability to divorce the idea of ‘something I like’ from ‘something of quality and deserving respect’. Most students enter Introduction to 20th Century art hating Jackson Pollack, and I don’t know how many leave actually liking those paintings. If you have a deeper understanding of his techniques, methods, and the context in which is paintings debuted–you should consider that a success.
Point 4: Consider multiple perspectives
Once you’ve made it through introductory art history courses, most of the reading you do is reading different academic articles. On a personal level, the most sophisticated arguments that I came up with in class were usually because someone came in with a different perspective and challenged me. In the the words of Sheldon Cooper, a hypothesis is just a theory until it’s been tested. He was talking about the sciences, but I postulate that it holds for arguments about art as well.
I offer one caveat, however: remember to always try to delineate what is actually fact and that most of what you see is someone’s interpretation. I would consider Information like medium, artist, and dates to be “hard” facts (and sometimes even these are debatable, especially in the antiquities). Wall labels and articles going beyond those facts are actually someone’s opinions, even if they are presented in a matter of fact tone. Feel free agree, disagree, or discard as necessary.
Point 5: But don’t forget to trust your own perspective!
My first art deco piece started because of an side comment that everyone always makes: Art Deco is a testament to the progress of American Industry combined with motifs derivative of Ancient Egypt. To which I thought “derivative”? Or straight up stolen and appropriated? Why was no one talking about how this could be problematic? I would discover that there are many books about how and where each of these motifs came from, but nothing about problematic power dynamics or visual mash-ups. Art history has a bad reputation of being stuffy and immutable, but it is an evolving field. The stories we’ve told our students for decades are always under constant scrutiny and revision. Change is made by the academics who pay attention, synthesize new ideas, and say something.
Learning how to understand art takes practice and finesse but it is a skill that can absolutely be honed and refined. Whether you’re writing something (like we do) or just trying to have deeper, fuller, and richer conversations, you can keep these things in mind to jump start your analytical creativity.