Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How to look at contemporary art

A good friend and fellow museum professional and I started museum/gallery hopping two weeks ago. Both of us have been away from the Philippines for a while (I for over three years!) and we thought that this would be a great way for us to get re-introduced to the Philippine art scene.

Our recent adventures have taken us to several contemporary art spaces around the metro. I have probably  been to hundreds of museums and seen thousands of art works. But I still get confounded by contemporary art!  I would often ask myself "what am I looking at?" or "what does this mean?". Don't get me wrong, I appreciate contemporary art and most often than not, I am intrigued by them (and the artists who create them). But sometimes I just don't get it!

So it was such a delight when a fellow museum educator posted a link to a site on how to look at contemporary art at an online museum education forum. The website proposes a four-step process developed by educators at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to assist their visitors in looking (and hopefully understanding) contemporary art.

Allow me to share with you a brief summary as well as my personal take on the process:

Step one: Active looking

Don't immediately dismiss an art work just because it intimidates you. Trust me, some works of art actually grown on you! Take some time to carefully look at it then start taking note of individual elements that you see: color, shapes, material, size, subject matter, and etc. Then consider the work of art as a whole.

Step two: Choices

Put yourself in the artist's shoes. Think about the artist's deliberate choices in shapes, colors, material, even size, intention in creating the work. What could his intentions be in making this choices. To help you get an insight on the overall meaning of the work, the website proposes asking yourself: "what could the artist have done differently?" Another question I would ask myself is: "what if the artist moved this element elsewhere or changed the color of the piece, would I have the same impression about it?".

Step Three: Connections

Now try to make a personal connection to the work by drawing from you personal background, knowledge, experience, and emotions. What does this work remind you of? Do you know anything about the artist? What did you feel when you first looked at the work? Did the art work influence your mood?

Step Four: Possibilities

Now look back to what you came up with in the last three steps. Then tart thinking about possible interpretations for the work while bearing in mind that  an art work can have more than one meaning. Read a label (if there is one) and see if you agree with the artist/curator/art-historian's view of the work. The website reminds us that "It’s okay to disagree with them!".

There you have it, the four-step process on how to look at contemporary art. To read the complete post and what else the site has to offer, go to

I am definitely going to try to put this to use at the Sliverlens Gallery exhibit opening I'm attending tonight! Did the process work for you too? Share your experience here!


Rebecca Fitzsimmons said...

I often find that even if I don't initially appreciate a work I can almost always create interest for myself by gathering a little contextual information. That usually leads to deeper study on my part and I often wind up liking the work in the end. That's the key, I think--sometimes work just needs time to percolate and transcend our gut reactions to the aesthetic qualities. Thanks for the link and a great post.

Ethelee said...

Hi Rebecca! I agree, some works of art deserve time and further contemplation :)

Thanks for reading!

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