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Looking Beyond the Image: 3 ways to appreciate the complexity of art

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ right? It usually means that everyone sees beauty in different things. Where one person sees beauty in a flower, others see an allergy causing, pollen producer! There is a certain amount of truth to this when it comes to art too. Everyone has art that they admire and enjoy and art that they find distasteful. Things can absolutely be deemed beautiful or ugly based on appearance, but when it comes to artwork. this ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ mentality narrows the viewers understanding of the piece. We can assume beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, but we forget that the eye's perspective can be changed by doing a few simple things when you’re around art.

Here are three ways to take off the blinders which keep you from seeing the beauty of art that extend beyond the image!

1. Spend time with the art.

This might seem a bit obvious to some, but many times (I am guilty of this as well) people only spare a passing glance at artwork. Especially when it is in a crowded gallery, it’s tough to look at the artwork without feeling rushed! Something my mother will challenge me to do is pick my favorite piece out of an entire art show. If you’ve never tried it, it is RIDICULOUSLY hard! There are always a few that you like a lot but you have to weigh their characteristics against one another. Often I’ll have to browse around the gallery multiple times before making a choice. I’m glad my Mom did this, because it forces me to spend a lot of time in front of each piece. It makes me spend time with the art! Instead of taking the art in briefly, spending time with each piece allows you to develop a bond with the art! You may be thinking, bonding with art sound a little weird! But it really isn’t. I recently went to a show and was immediately drawn to a central piece in the exhibit. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it and the more I looked at it, the more I loved it. It touched me personally, although I’m not sure how. Imagine if I hadn’t spent so much time looking at it. I honestly believe it would just be another painting to me! I encourage you all to take a period of time to evaluate each piece, especially artwork that challenges you or doesn’t appeal to you.

2. Read about the artist’s life.

This one is so important to understanding the kind of work an artist creates and WHY they do it. Often people dumb down a finished painting or drawing into two categories: ‘beautiful’ or ‘not beautiful.’ And this isn’t bad per say. We all have preferences! But, it IS very short sighted. Art is not merely the image on a canvas. It is a reflection of the artist themselves which means there is something deeper to ‘see’ in each piece. Often artists will depict things that effect their life journey. They will depict things inspire them, or things that challenge them. We are pushed to depict things that affect our lives every day. Which is why looking into an artist’s background can help you appreciate their work even more! For instance, maybe an artist who paints colorful abstract pieces does so because they suffer from a life altering illness and the colors give them a feeling of hope. Wouldn’t that change your view of their work? It certainly would for me! Instead of it being abstract colors and shapes, it turns the piece into a beacon of inspiration. When you know about the artist’s life, their artwork takes on a different meaning for the viewer!

3. Ask internal questions.

Art is not simply something to look at and enjoy. It isn’t only meant to sit on a wall and ‘complete’ a home. Art is emotional, political, and moral. Each piece is the artist displaying a part of their self to the world. It's the artist taking an internal thought and making it a reality. Even a simple landscape can tell you great amounts about the artist, but it can also tell you how it is made to affect the viewer in a certain way. How? Through color, figure pose, line direction, etc. Each piece is meant to be personal to the artist and is meant to evoke something in the viewer. So, when you look at artwork, ask yourself some questions. How does this painting make me feel? What is the narrative? How is the artist trying to speak through his/her work? Why do or don’t I like this piece? Make it personal! Every person is going to see a painting differently, but without asking these questions it’s hard to get past the general assumption that art is simply something to look at.

When you start doing these three things, you'll discover that there is often a certain kind of beauty which extends beyond the physical image displayed in a gallery. And it's not a simplistic beauty. It is a beauty which takes its form from many different aspects of the artist's life AND the viewers reactions. It is complex, emotional, and human.

Take your time, get to know the artists, and reflect with questions.



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