Collectors, as well as artists, often carry insecurity about their taste in and understanding of fine art. They question themselves and ask “I like it, but is it good?” or “What makes this a great work of art”? One should have no shame in this self doubt. In today’s society, it’s been an “anything goes” culture at best; at worst, a society that degrades humanity and beauty all in the name of a dollar and what is “hot." To make matters worse, art history and aesthetics are not a regular part of the K-12 curriculum. It’s simply not something we value enough to include in the basic levels of education. In lieu of children studying pictures, sculpture, and photography and learning the stories and history behind them, they are handed some white glue and macaroni for “art” class.
In a recent aesthetics class I taught at the college level, we examined various works of art: classical sculpture through works of the Renaissance through contemporary abstracts. We were searching for what we found to be beautiful--or not--and asked ourselves objective questions about what was used and how (design, composition, light, line color, etc.) to help determine what made work beautiful, or at least pleasing. We arrived at a set of commonalities in all work we found beautiful, regardless of their style or medium. We layered on top of that the emotive qualities that were supported through the objective means; with the very best works of art, we discovered that the objective means (color, shapes, etc.) very clearly conveyed the message of the artist, and in turn we determined these to be “great” or at least significant works of art. Students walked away from that class with the ability to describe, with intelligent words and clear logic, why they found something beautiful and confident of their opinions as later supported by art historians and critics.
There are a few things you can do to help train your eye. First, visit good museums. Philadelphia is rich with gorgeous art and architecture: the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, the Museum of the PA Academy of the Fine Arts, just to name a few. I caution you not to do this in a gallery but a museum. Why? Because many galleries now hold inventory of what is selling, but may not be really great art. (More on this in an upcoming blog post.)
Take a notebook with you and don’t look at the description label next to the work (this is very important so not to influence your interpretation). Sit down with a piece of art you like. Sit with it for least 10 minutes and really look at it. Look for the obvious things first and write them down: colors, shapes, lines, and light. How do they interact? Where do they intersect and separate? What patterns and colors repeat and how? Describe in your own words what those things are telling you. Describe your emotional reaction to the work, and why you like it. Look and feel everything that the work of art is communicating to you. Repeat this with several works you are attracted to in the museum. After awhile, you will begin to really hone your eye and understand what you find beautiful and why.
The most important thing is not to rush this exercise, really sit and look for a long time. With really great art, regardless of genre, you will find more and more inside of the painting, sculpture, or photograph than you thought possible.
This is how you begin training your eye. By looking, thinking, being objective, questioning, and discovering more about what is going on.
If you are interested in learning more on how to understand and appreciate art, please join my mailing list to find out when my next aesthetics class will be held this fall.