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Why Not to Read Visual Art Descriptions

two people view artworks in a gallery

Alexandra York By Friday, 01 July 2022 01:02 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

First principle in appreciating art: Do not read (or listen to) anything when viewing visual art. Just look! Whenever encountering paintings or sculpture let the art alone speak to you. Or not.

Even during a museum or gallery visit, when viewing art firsthand rather than via secondary images (websites, catalogues, etc.), do not read the placard with the artist’s name and the title of the artwork ... until, perhaps, later.

Why? Art is a two-way-interaction. Every (good) artist is aesthetically re-presenting reality and human conditions/concerns according to personal values-ideas-emotions-observances-experiences. Every viewer of art is also bringing their personal values-ideas-emotions-observances-experiences to the involvement/interaction with the artist’s views expressed via a physical presentation that is the art.

The same mutual creative-receptive interaction holds true for other art forms as well, but written descriptions, explanations, and artist’s statements usually accompany visual art exhibits, so caution is required.

Great art expresses universals applicable to life and living. An artist’s personal life-artistic experience and/or motivation-process in creating art may be interesting to learn about later, after the initial art-experience has passed, but in viewing art in actuality or secondary fashions like noted above, the art-experience is the art-experience only when it happens, not viewed along with written material explaining the art or the artist’s intent.

A recent experience of this writer may suffice as an example: I was scrolling through a website containing over two-dozen paintings and sculptures that had recently won a well-reputed, juried competition with the thought that my NYC-based nonprofit arts foundation — American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) — might give an additional cash award to a chosen artist as many other art organizations do.

ART’s criteria for championing any art are excellence in aesthetic beauty and life-enriching content — meaning beauty of form and positive-uplifting values (content) expressed in the art. (Every award-giving organization has its own criteria for judging art, but these are ours.)

I came across a finely executed painting of a young (probably teenaged) girl looking pensively down at some object in her hand; the object was not visible. Her long blond hair was exquisitely detailed, her facial expression intelligent and thoughtful, her body graceful, her clothing neat and attractive — in short, here was an image of a lovely young woman in pleasant reverie, looking at some treasured object, and technically rendered by the hand of a sensitive artist.

Well, I thought, “this meets ART’s high standards of merging both form and content, bringing not only pleasure to the eye but meaning to the moment of viewing and cause for contemplation.”

I then noticed the title: “STILL.” My reaction narrowed: What exactly is she looking at that would express the word “STILL”?

I searched pleasurably through my own memory bank to imagine what image might cause such pleasure for her. A photo of a deceased Grandmother still alive in her heart? A forever cherished poem? What from her past — "Still” — is causing that expression of sweet rapport on her face?

My mental activity is what I was bringing to the experience of her experience — the value-interaction between art and viewer.

Next, I read the accompanying explanation of the impetus — the meaning — behind the painting written by the artist, the young woman’s mother. She painted this image of her daughter because the girl was about to go off to college, and she (the mother) would miss her terribly while she was gone, also knowing that this first departure from home was the beginning of a more permanent one to come when, college over, her daughter would go off to a life of her own separate from the intimate family cocoon.

She titled the painting “STILL” because now, she explained, for these last few days, her daughter was “still” at home. She — the mother-artist — then revealed that the object the girl was staring at in her hand was ... her cell phone.

So, what image was she looking at I now wondered? A “Selfie”? A game? A college curriculum? An archaeological site? Did it matter? No! Because what she — the subject of the painting — was experiencing had nothing to do with the painting.

The mother-artist’s experience was what mattered. Her maternal love was obviously valid, but it was her own feelings that concerned her, so the painting had no meaning on its own except that of a young woman looking at something in her hand, in this case the mundane item of a cell phone.

The painting was beautiful and could have offered some universal meaning — reverence, memories, hopes — but now I knew the art only gained larger meaning because I as viewer brought my own value system to it. Once I learned the artist’s meaning it was all over for me.

Not only no award for the artist but an annoying experience for me as a person. How self-absorbed an artist. How subjective her vision. What a waste of my imagination and pleasure at imagining.

Moral of story: When viewing art, be with the art. Why the artist chose a subject, what meaning it has to them, how they executed the work all can be fascinating things to learn. But not during the art experience itself. And even afterward ... maybe worthwhile, maybe not.

Cautionary advice: Look. Enjoy aesthetics and merge with meaning (as you see and interact with it). Or not.

Our deepest values via powerful emotions and physiological dynamics are vigorously engaged when viewing art. Projection is also part of merging with art and precisely why viewing our values in the physically manifest forms of art can be a spiritual experience as well as an aesthetic one.

Art is not a game. Art speaks to our soul — the value center of our very identity — for better or worse.

Looking, feeling, thinking, imagining, reacting, and being with is what art is about. Read? Fine. But be selective as to what and when. And be prepared to deal with learning more than you wish to know.

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 "Adamas." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.

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First principle in appreciating art: Do not read (or listen to) anything when viewing visual art. Just look! Whenever encountering paintings or sculpture let the art alone speak to you. Or not.Even during a museum or gallery visit, when viewing art firsthand rather than via...
art, visual descriptions
Friday, 01 July 2022 01:02 PM
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