Looking at Contemporary Art

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Ways of Looking

Ways of Looking by Ossian Ward is an excellent introduction into contemporary art. He has developed a way of looking art that he calls TABULA where T is time, A is association, B is background, U is understanding, L is look again and the final A is assessment. Of course it’s an excellent book that has introduced me to many new and wonderful ways of seeing and thinking, but I think it’s a little too intellectual for younger people or those who don’t look at art often. People often need the reassurance of aesthetics or a high level of skill when they look at art. But contemporary art bypasses these and centres on the mind, the way we think and the meaning of our existence. It demands that we invert or analyse our preconceptions, removes our mental safety nets, rips up the stereotypical straight jackets, intrigues, begiles and baffles us, as if to say nothing you know or understand about your existence is built on solid foundations, everything is fragile. And that’s why I love it, am scared of it, despise it, mock it, question it and am perplexed by it. I realise that nothing else in our Western multimedia society assaults our senses quite like contemporary art does. Our smart phones and tablets are built for flicking through media content as though everything in the world itself was merely pulp fiction. You have ten seconds of my time starting now. But to truly appreciate art takes the T for Time in Ossian’s TABULA and without giving it that we risk becoming greedy devourers of sensational mediocrity.
Ossian’s book had me slowing down, thinking in new ways and for that it’s worth a damn sight more than the tenner it cost.

All that said, I analysed how I look at contemporary art and maybe by blogging these thoughts it may resonate with teachers of art at younger ages.

Context. At the earliest oppportunity I like to know the context of what I’m about to see. Usually this is found in the artist info or text. If it isn’t it makes the work much more difficult to appreciate.

Purpose. I try to understand what the artist wanted to do or say, what their obsession is, what they feel about the work they’ve made.

Looking at the work as a meditator would. With a clear focussed mind.

Rejecting the cynic. I try to ignore the logical self that seeks order, normality and authenticity. “What is it?” is just another way of saying its too difficult for me to understand right now.

Giving it time. Spending some time with it (as Ossian states) considering its meaning, its aesthetics, purpose, reflecting, thinking, looking from different angles, trying to understand what the artist was thinking. An immediate thought of “I thought it was rubbish,” usually means I didn’t engage enough with it or it was beyond my understanding.

Connect, reject or blasé.

Walk away.

Synthesise. Allow the information to process over a cuppa.

Go back and repeat the thinking process again. Often it’s only when I’ve seen something several times that i can fully appreciate it. Often, works I didn’t much like at first I appreciate more the next time around and vice versa. As Henry Moore said: “If you ‘get’ my work in a couple of minutes you’re not looking properly, I made it and I’m still trying to understand it.”


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