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. 

how-to-look-at-art-5Figure 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.

how-to-look-at-art-7Figure 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. 

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