Looking At Contemporary Art: A Beginner’s Guide

Artist, art student, cultural critic, gallerist and art museum security guard—actually, I take the last one back as conditions may vary––this article is not for you. Not today. This piece is intended for a larger audience: those around us that dislike, are ambivalent towards, indifferent to, or simply have no clue about art or how to approach it. You know who they are. And I say “they” because I assume you already have some background, however vague or expansive, with art. Well, cease and desist reading this immediately. I repeat, this article is not for you since you don't need it and will probably not understand it anyway; your biases towards art may already be nestled too deep. Instead, share this with friends who admittedly never “got” art or, erroneously thinking they lacked the necessary sensibility, were never interested by it. The following ten-step guide will help them learn not only how to approach contemporary art but also explore the inner artist dormant in all of us. Or not.

Rules Of The Art Game

STEP ONE: As a level one art-watcher, you need to chose your company wisely before attending an exhibition or any other art-related event. Avoid the company of artists, art students, cultural critics, gallerists and art museum security guards—actually, I take this last one back as conditions may vary. Their already established biases towards the subject may interfere with your own unique reactions and feelings about the work.

Pro Tip: It might sound daunting at first, but attending an art exhibition alone can be quite a rewarding experience. You’ll see in step five why this is important.

STEP TWO: Establish an intriguing pose while looking at the art. This will help you avoid the awkwardness of being surrounded by strange objects and—more importantly— help camouflage your presence as a newcomer.

Pro Tip: The “this looks interesting” pose is an international favorite (see Figure 1 below). All you need to do is cross one arm across your chest while the other one reaches to touch your chin. If you add some extra “attitude” at the hip, the fact that you’re a noobie will never even cross anyone else’s mind. 

Figure 1: the internationally respected "this looks interesting" pose. Photo: Chris Phillips

STEP THREE: Play pretend even if you don't "get it" at first. 

Pro Tip: Look at the art objects from odd angles: near, far, from the side, etc. (see Figure 2 below). This will fully cloak your presence and you will be able to establish the necessary comfort zone in which you can now fully experience the works of art.

Figure 2: the art is in the details. Photo: Chris Phillips

STEP FOUR: One of the most important and difficult steps for a beginner to learn: do not approach an art exhibition looking for art. Looking for it implies that you already have an expectation of what art must look like. Don’t fall into that trap! Contemporary art by now has developed ways to play with your expectations of what art is and what it should look like. It is important to avoid the question of “what is art?” entirely at all times (you will learn in step ten that the question that matters is not “what is art?” but “when is it art?”)

Pro Tip: Remember that time when you were little and your first pet died? Well now is not the time to think about it. 

STEP FIVE: To help you with step number four, try to relinquish yourself from all of the preconceptions you’ve had thus far about art. Momentarily disregard everything you have been told about the subject so that you may have a clear and raw engagement with whatever work you may encounter.

Pro Tip: Try to acquire this clear and raw engagement by imagining yourself naked (see Figure 3 below). This will help you remember that, despite the advancements in technology, you are still a human being underneath all of the gadgets and fashions that society has placed upon you. You are a naked, living homosapien who is presently clothing lifeless objects with your thoughts.  

Figure 3: clothing a lifeless object with thoughts and meaning. Photo: Chris PhilliipsFigure 3: clothing a lifeless object with thoughts and meaning. Photo: Chris Philliips

STEP SIX: Fine, you don’t have to imagine yourself completely naked—you can keep your undies on if you want to leave something to the imagination. After all, that is the premise of this step: do not expect to find concrete answers. Art is not a riddle. Most of the time, art is a question and not an answer; something will always remain up to the imagination.

STEP SEVEN: Discover who you are in relationship to the artwork. Ask yourself: Where does this work of art place me? What role do I play in this encounter? If I were to be the work of art in question, how would I feel about resting here while being looked at? What do I have to offer?

Pro Tip: Become one with the artwork (see Figure 4 below). 

Figure 4: self-explanatory. Photo: Chris PhillipsFigure 4: self-explanatory. Photo: Chris Phillips

STEP EIGHT: Beyond the work of art, discover who you are in relationship to everything. Ask yourself: Why am I here, nakedly staring and thinking about these objects? What does this say about me, the person, and what does it say about me, the homosapien? Why has it become so important for us to clothe objects with thought and meaning? If this is an evolutionary trait, what is its purpose?

Pro Tip: Take your questions with you once you leave the gallery.

Why am I here, nakedly staring and thinking about these objects? Photo: Chris PhillipsWhy am I here, nakedly staring and thinking about these objects? Photo: Chris Phillips

STEP NINE: Relax and remember step number six. You are not supposed to have an answer to these questions on the spot. The artwork may simply be there to spark conversations in your head. They may be beautiful conversations, ugly realizations or just entertaining chatter.

Pro Tip: Remember that works of art are not special; you are. The work of art does not say anything; you do. Your reactions, feelings and emotions have been sparked by a lifeless object that another human being created. Remember that what you are feeling was perhaps intended by someone else.

how-to-look-at-art-1Our model Misael was exhausted but pleased after engaging intensively with art. Photo: C. Phillips 

STEP TEN: Congratulations! After following the last nine steps you will realize that art is not about “what” but about “when.” An object may be lifeless, boring to look at and perhaps practically useless, but when it aids in the transfer of ideas and makes you question who you are and the sphere in which you (and we all) live, then you know you’ve experienced contemporary art. 

About The Stage

Berlin is rich in commercial galleries with art that, via aesthetic charm, wants to convince you to buy it. Complementarily, the city also maintains a large network of independent project spaces that are not market-oriented. As such, these spaces carry a unique freedom that allows them to stretch the definitions of art, blend the different disciplines, cross boundaries and attempt stunts that a commercial gallery might not benefit from. This is why, for this article’s sample of contemporary art, we’ve selected the current exhibition “Projected Space” at Rosalux, a project space in the Wedding district with an exhibition concept by Tiny Domingos. Art does not get more contemporary than this! 

Article by Jovanny Varela-Ferreyra

​Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Artparasites in March 2013. If you like looking at things from different perspectives, you might also dig these stories:

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