Art is a wonderful and creative form of expression. Most people enjoy looking at art, even when they don’t always understand the meaning. Sometimes people even look at art confused, wondering how is can be called ‘art’ or thinking their 5-year-old child could do the same thing. There are easy ways to figure out what a piece means; in fact; you can ask four simple questions and get what you are looking for.
Art historian Erwin Panofsky developed an old technique to understand art which has since been adapted to a simple three step process; look, see and think. The first two steps are observational while the third step involves drawing on what we know. Using previously obtained knowledge, we can creatively interpret what we have seen. You need to slow the process down, deliberately break the image down and refrain from jumping to any conclusions.
Step 1: Look
The estimated time the person stops to look at a piece of work in a gallery in under two seconds. So even though we say we are looking, we are not. To understand you need to look; look at the medium that is used and the material, whether it is a photograph, painting or sculpture.
Consider what it looks like regarding being shiny, dirty, rushed or carefully created. There is often much to look at if you take the time. Often once you look at the art, you can see that it is made up of smaller objects, such as the paintings consisting of thousands of tiny dots.
Step 2: See
Concerning art, there is a difference between looking and seeing. To look at something is more about describing what is in front of you whereas seeing is about the meaning behind what you are looking at. Seeing art allows us to find the meaning in symbols and we can interpret the artist’s message. The hidden symbols are referred to as ‘iconography’, and this is what any image or piece is broken down into.
Take the famous Picasso painting ‘Guernica’ (1937). When you look at this, you see a screaming horse in the centre with a dismembered arm below it. A woman is wailing and holding a dead child to the left. The whole piece is dominated by shading that looks like an explosion. Each of these elements combines to produce the overall meaning of the art, which was a powerful anti-war message.
Sometimes iconography is not so obvious. Marti’s ‘It’s all about Peter’ is a perfect example because it is more abstract so more removed from literal depiction. The melted objects in the picture are regular household items, things surrounding you in everyday life. To see this abstract painting and understand the meaning, you need the final step.
Step 3: Think
To understand it to think. Taking in what you observed and drawing together what you ‘looked’ at and what you have ‘seen’. Now you think about the possible meanings in this step which is essentially a process of interpretation. There is no right answer, but thinking creatively can lead to a plausible understanding of the work.
Modern Art Vancouver Gallery tells the gallery walkers “Context is the key because it helps to make sense of what you have seen.” “The little labels that are posted near the artwork usually explain the broader context.” You can learn the artist’s name; they were born, the title of the piece as well as when it was done.
Think of things you may have learned or heard about an artist because this can help shine a light on the context of their works. In the event you have never heard of them, you can decide if their name tells you anything about them like where they are from. Where they are from impacts their art because of the vastly different life experiences they will have had.
The year the art was made can help when you consider what may have been happening around that time. The work an artist makes usually responds to the world around them so when and where they were when they created the piece can tell a great deal. Once you have the date, you can think back in history to what major events were going on in that time. If you know where the artist is from you can think of the history of that country and important events.
You may surprise yourself with what you have picked up from television, conversations, readings and the internet over time. We pick up information every day as we go through life. You don’t have to necessarily be interested in art to learn information about different artists and pieces. Simply overhearing a comment that ‘Picasso was a womanizer’ would help you to interpret his art. Much of this general knowledge will help your understanding as you work through this thinking step.
Marti’s ‘It’s all about Peter’ gives the meaning away in the title. The artist is very simply telling you that Peter is the centre of the piece. You do not have to know who Peter is but you have now learned that this painting is an abstract image of him. The melting everyday plastic objects make a picture of Peter. From this, you can start asking if these items are what he uses every day and if the colours and items themselves tell you about Peter.
At this point it will seem like following these steps means that your life will be spent in a gallery because of the time it will take to see each piece of art. The best thing about galleries and art is that there is something for everyone, so you don’t have to look at everything. Only take the time to understand what you truly enjoy looking at.
You are not expected to take it all in. Some people like eye candy, others like abstracts and some like older style paintings. Some people are also drawn only to certain artists. Personal preferences play a big role in gallery visits. As you walk around, if anything speaks to you or catches your eye, then you can take the additional time to look, see and think.