Towards a Better Understanding of Art

Ever felt lost when looking at a work of contemporary art? Will Gompertz, BBC arts editor and former Tate gallery director, addresses this common phenomenon in his article in The Huffington Post.

He offers some solace and explanation for the confusion: “…I don’t think the real issue is about judging whether or not a brand-new piece of contemporary art is good or bad–time will undertake that job on our behalf. It is more a question of understanding where and why it fits into the modern art story.”

We agree with Gompertz that evaluating the quality of the art is not the issue and that learning about art history is important. However, we would offer a different approach. In Slow Art Day events around the world, art novices and experts alike seem to overcome confusion simply by looking for 10 minutes. Interestingly, no matter how provocative, unusual, minimalist, or indescribable the work is, Slow Art Day participants report having a good, not confusing, experience.

We hypothesize that 10 minutes of looking creates an experience where the viewer sees and feels things not immediately apparent. We believe these participants go through a process of personal discovery that, based on their feedback, seems to create a sense of joy and excitement.

We have more work to do to fully understand what works about Slow Art Day but it does seem to us that participants get excited  because they discover they actually have something to say about the art – and because they have created a connection that is emotional, intellectual, visual or spatial.

Yes, art history is important and many of the organizers of Slow Art Day are art historians or students pursuing that degree. But, the thousands of participants every year are not experts. Indeed, they are likely to be the kind of person that does not like contemporary art – unless and until they spend 10 minutes looking at a single piece.

– Naomi Kuo, Slow Art Day Intern; edited by Phil Terry

6 Comments on “Towards a Better Understanding of Art

  1. Well said, Naomi! As an art history student, of course I place value in my chosen field, curators, scholarship, and the like. However, we art historians sometimes lose that personal connection with a work when constantly worrying about context or how a piece fits into a certain period. I completely agree that it is possible for anyone to enjoy art – even the dreaded contemporary art! – if they slow down to look at a piece without worrying about whether they’ll “get it” or not, leaving their mind free and open to draw connections and engage in a personal experience with a work.

  2. I think too many times, people walk into a museum and expect to decipher the artwork that is being shown. “I don’t get what this artist is trying to say in this piece” is a common thought that all of us have probably experienced when looking at a puzzling work of art. I think that this is a dead-end way of thinking about art, because there are multiple interpolations that can be applied to a single work, especially regarding contemporary art. What I think a lot of people miss about this type of art is that it is heavily invested on the viewer’s emotion/ reaction to the work, rather than the circumstance of the viewer ‘getting’ the artist’s exact motives or message relayed in the piece. I hope that through slow looking, Slow Art Day goers who may feel intimidated in this sort of way can realize that they can look at a piece of art from a different standpoint, and that there are endless ways one can experience something a piece of art.

  3. So many great comments!

    As an art historian and curator, looking at the “big picture” of a body of work or exhibition, even I am guilty of failing to notice the small, and sometimes most important, details of a work of art sometimes. It is so important to practice the basic skills that Slow Art Day events address. This is not only helpful for the average art appreciator to better understand work that may not be that appealing at first glance, but just as valuable to those of us that spend out lives studying and viewing art.

  4. I agree with Alie’s comment about sometimes being too preoccupied with context and ‘fitting’ something in somewhere, almost as in a way to frantically understand it somehow. I agree that just stopping and enjoying a piece, or at least taking time to let it unfold before your eyes can be an amazing experience.

    Perhaps combining both the ‘big picture’ and the small details should be a more welcome experience of art.

  5. Pingback: Beethoven and Picasso – and the Contemporary Art of Looking? | Slow Art Day

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