What’s the key to understanding art? Could there be some easy steps to unpacking the meaning of an artwork?
The short answer is: yes.
I recently wrote an article for The Conversation called Three questions not to ask of art – and four to ask instead, which tackled some age-old questions that get asked of art: Why is that art? What is it meant to be? Couldn’t a four-year-old do that?
I suggested four better questions to ask, taken from Australian art academic Terry Smith.
Here’s a simple three-step method I use, adapted from an old technique by the art historian Erwin Panofsky:
The first two – look and see – are just about using your eyes, and observational skills. The third requires a bit of thought, drawing on what we already know and creatively interpreting what we’ve observed within an artwork’s broader contexts.
When we see anything, whether it’s a work of art, a movie or a billboard, our brains perform a massively complex split-second process of reading and making meaning. We absorb a whole range of clues that make up our understanding of any image, many of which we’re not even conscious of.
Any process of understanding art, then, is about slowing down that process, breaking down the image deliberately and holding off from jumping to any snap conclusions until later.
Step 1: Look
Isn’t it obvious we “look” at art? Not really. When we visit a gallery, we tend to spend only a few seconds in front of any one work. In fact, some estimates have it at under two seconds.
So look at what’s there, literally right in front of you. Start with the most basic: what medium or material is it – a photograph, an object, a painting? How does it look? Rough and quick? Slick and neat? Shiny? Dirty? Carefully made? Thrown together?
The artist will have made some very deliberate decisions about the materials, style and approach, and these will feed directly into the overall feel and meaning of the work.
Look at this work by Spanish-born Australian artist Dani Marti called It’s all about Peter, made in 2009.
It hangs on the wall like a painting, but is made up of hundreds of melted plastic objects bowls, orange juicers, plastic domestic appliances, all different colours. Marti wants us to think of it in the tradition of a painting, even if it’s made up of 3D plastic objects.
Step 2: See
What’s the difference between looking and seeing in the context of art? Looking is about literally describing what is in front of you, while seeing is about applying meaning to it. When we see we understand what is seen as symbols, and we interpret what’s there in front of us.
Erwin Panofsky calls the symbols in an artwork “iconography”, and any image can be easily broken down into the iconography that makes it up.
Consider the iconography in Pablo Picasso’s epic painting, Guernica (1937). In the centre, there’s that screaming horse, with a dismembered arm just below it. On the left, a woman is wailing and holding a dead infant, and dominating the image is the light shade that looks like an explosion. Those individual elements combine to produce the overall meaning of the painting, which in this case is regarded as one of the most powerful anti-war art works created.
The iconography in Marti’s It’s all about Peter is not so obvious – it’s more abstracted, which means it’s removed from a simple literal depiction of something. But the actual melted plastic objects are everyday items – things you might have in your home, the objects a person would surround themselves with that make up their life. Make a mental note of iconography like this, and take it to the final step.
Step 3: Think
The final step involves thinking about what you’ve observed, drawing together what you’ve gleaned from the first two steps and thinking about possible meanings. Importantly, this is a process of interpretation. It’s not a science. It’s not about finding the “right answers”, but about thinking creatively about the most plausible understandings of a work.
The key here is context. The broader context of an artwork will help make sense of what you’ve already observed. Much of the information about context is usually given in those dull little labels that tell you the artist’s name, the title of the work and the year. And there are often other valuable morsels of information included too, such as the place and year an artist was born.
Who is the artist? Is it someone whose work you know something about? If so, what do you know about them? Even if this is “Picasso was a womaniser”, or “Jackson Pollock was a drunk”, if you’ve heard of the artist, you have some existing knowledge you can bring to bear.
If you’ve never heard of the artist, what does his or her name suggest about where they might be from? Text panels in galleries usually have the artist’s dates and where he or she was born. These are important clues. Naturally, an artist born in the Soviet Union in the 1930s is going to have very different life experiences from one born in Spain in the 1960s.
When was the work made? What do you know about what was happening at the time, even if it’s this year? Text panels sometimes say where the artist works, so where was the work made? Artists produce work that responds to the world they’re immersed in every day, so the “when” and “where” will give clues as to what was happening.
Importantly, bring to bear everything you know – you’d be surprised how much you know of the context of an artwork just from your general knowledge, a lot of which comes from conversations, television, the internet, all those things that are “informal learning”.
In the case of Marti’s It’s all about Peter, the title is a major key. Marti is literally telling us that this work is all about someone called Peter. We might not know who Peter is, but we do know from the title that this is a kind of an abstracted portrait of him – think of how the artist has hung this on the wall like a painting, wanting us to think of the tradition of portraiture.
The iconography – those everyday plastic objects in this work – are a portrait of “Peter”, perhaps things owned by him, that say something about the colours of the things he chooses to surround himself with. If this work was a person, what could you say about them? Colourful and complex, perhaps? We’re guessing. But we’ve unlocked that It’s all about Peter is a personal portrait about the artist’s connection with Peter.
Hold on …
You might be thinking, “hold on, if I did these three steps every time I see a work of art, it’s going to take years to see everything in the gallery”.
So here’s an important tip – you don’t have to look at (or like) everything. You don’t like those Old Master paintings of rich dead white people? Fine, don’t waste your time on them. Alternatively, if you love that stuff and hate modern art, go wild.
Trying to see everything in a major gallery in an hour is like going to a multiplex cinema and trying to see all 12 movies in an hour by dashing from theatre to theatre. Nothing would make sense.
Myself, I love art that pokes me to think differently about something I thought I already knew. Other people prefer eye candy. It’s all valid.
Just give yourself a moment to slow down, to look, see and think, and you’ll find something that really speaks to you.