To get the most out of your gallery visit, avoid guided tours either by a person or audio tape. Simply wander a gallery or museum until you spy a painting or piece of sculpture that calls out to you to stop and look in wondrous awe, a work you immediately fall in love with emotionally. This is your first interaction. You have responded positively to an artist’s value system that mirrors your own.
In any fine work these parts will be integrated seamlessly, making the breathtaking impact of the whole so much greater than the sum of its parts that you might feel reluctant to undertake a thoughtful analysis of it. But the effort will be more than rewarding when after diligent scrutiny the work assumes more meaning and offers even more pleasure.
An exceedingly satisfying and enriched experience can be gained by closer observations divided into three parts.
Subject matter matters
in representational work because it is selected by a thoughtful artist as the best vehicle for expression of the deeper content or theme of his or her art. The subject should be a concrete manifestation of ideas. Some realist artists influenced by modernism treat subject only as form in order to address aesthetics exclusively, in which case the work can be as dehumanized as any abstract work.
Other, would-be romantic realists substitute subject matter for inner content, offering insipid images like paintings of girls in white dresses and couples mooning over the moon or sculptures of little kids with baskets, which evoke mere sentimentality rather than value-stimulated emotions. The consummate artist selects subject matter because of its power to project a larger theme.
Since content is crucial in good representational art, choice and treatment of physical presentation should suggest the inner theme of a piece. Form determines the underlying composition, size, and all other fundamental decisions.
Once the primary choices have been made by the artist, other aesthetic considerations follow. In painting, note the combinations and brightness or subtly of colors, attenuated or articulated shapes, patterns of light and shadow, use of flowing or truncated line, application of the paint itself revealed by brush strokes or palette knife. Stand back for overall effect, and then move close in to observe details. What is the artist focusing on to draw your attention again and again?
When viewing sculpture, note the basic abstract design and determine whether it is closed or open, a factor that will freeze the piece into solidity or create movement within and around it. Let your eye follow the linear passages at will. If the piece is good, the sculptor will subtly direct your vision to stopping points where the content is especially expressive.
Observe the surface: Is it smooth or rough? Are the details refined or impressionistic? Being three-dimensional, sculpture is tangible, so do you have an urge to touch a particular work? Museum guards won’t permit this, but the inner desire to handle sculpture is a good sign because sculpture should be caressed; it is part of the experience.
This is the burning center and the source of radiating mental energy inherent in any significant work of art. Explore and ponder the possible meanings underlying the literal subject matter and aesthetics of form. This does not mean make up your own fiction and impart meaning to a work where there is no objective evidence, but if it is there, meaningful content will transcend or hover within both the obvious subject matter and the more subtle cues of fundamental form and detailed aesthetics.
This is what gives a sense of universality and timelessness to important art and why we can go on for a lifetime appreciating a single creation when we spend quality time with it.
What is the artist whose work you love trying to communicate to you through metaphor or imbued into both subject matter and aesthetics? Is the work coaxing or commanding you to think? Michelangelo’s “David” is not about the biblical story; it is about courage.
As with any work of meaningful art, let yourself open to the reverberating resonance of beauty, and let it embrace you in all its glory and guises. Let the harmony of proportion and the rhythm of line enter you at will. Beauty in painting and sculpture is visual music that can envelope us. We can absorb it as if by emotional osmosis and bask in its redemptive powers to renew our souls.
A sensitively conceived, well integrated work of art may be experienced intuitively as a sum. But focusing on the parts that make up the whole can provide rewards unimagined for the intellect; then, we can let the image fall back into a totality of cohesiveness before our eyes, back into that first-love shock of recognition and savor it all the more.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation. She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "The Innocent." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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