Hour 14. Let’s go to the gallery and think art thoughts!

As we have established, the gallery is a space of reflection. So, let’s go up in there and do some reflecting. First, the practical stuff:

A bit more from Sarah Urist Green on contemporary art and all the ways you can get in on some art around your city.

You know what? How about one more from Ms. Green, this one about Richmond.

Okay. You have some comfy shoes. You know you are in a city full of art. You understand the different epochs of art. You have some artsy ideas in your mind. In April, you will be able to stroll into a brand new ICA and peep an exhibition the likes of which you have never seen. You are ready to look. So let’s do this.


Quick, provide an insightful commentary as to my meaning!


Um. Okay. maybe we should think through some strategies on how to do this. I offer three ways of doing things. One from me, one from Ossian Ward, and one from Anabel Housen.


The Chioke method.

We are about to look at, or observe, or contemplate a work of art. Before doing this, I think we should check the following distinction.

Listening vs paying attention. This one is from my motorcycle riding. Listening is different from paying attention. When you pay attention, you are focusing on something that you have already picked out of the usual buzzing confusion of sensory data. Like, pay attention to the way the dealer deals the cards. Pay attention to the limp in his step. But when you listen, you are open to everything that is going on in your sensory field, so that the significant elements can announce themselves to you, so to speak.


Out on the road, a rider that is only paying attention to the dude on his phone up ahead might miss the car behind that is following too closely. The problem, of course, is that our regular lives is one in which we are trained to discard some sense data in favor of other sense data. Just ask a table full of people on their phones if they noticed the guy with the boot on his head walk by. They’ll be like, “what, where?” and you can be like, “I made it up because you guys are boring.”


So, a work of art is a time for you to practice a kind of full sensory openness. If you look down at your phone during a mystery movie, you could miss the decisive clue revealing who the killer is. If you only nod your head to the beat and miss the lyrics, you may miss out on the meaning of the song. (Like, Outkast’s Hey Ya is a pessimistic song about the decline of love in modern society. You knew that right?)


So, first step, don’t pay attention to the work. Rather, listen to it. Hear what it says to you, if anything. Then, slowly, you can start to figure what it means to you. I like to see all works as if they are essays, literally things to be read like texts. So, after a time of just being open to the work, I try to work out if I can come up with a narrative that might explain what it is what what it does for me. In other words, I’m doing that thing that we learned about in Hour 5. Rey is a Mary Sue.  Outkast’s Hey Ya is a pessimistic song about the decline of love in modern society. No Country for Old Men is a meditation on the loss of the old fundamental morality that governed the world, but which turns out to be a revelation that the old morality in question never really existed in the first place.


Now, I can only use my knowledge to construct this image. So I need to bring everything that I have with me. Everything that I know about history, or about this art movement, or about my own emotional state. Then I go on to construct my mental essay. With luck, it will end up sounding all clever when I say it, like these cats.


Ossian Ward: The Tabula Rasa.


Ossian Ward, in his book, Ways of Looking, figures that the first thing you have to do when you contemplate a work of art is clear your slate. That is, just know that the fact that you didn’t like the art you just saw has nothing to do with this work. This work is it’s own jam, and you must look and judge on its own merits. Every new work is an opportunity to find something to love, or entertain, or disturb. He stresses that you have to STOP. And. Sit. With. The. Work. You won’t notice anything at all, if you are not still enough to take it in. But once you are in that move, break turn the TABULA into an acronym, yo.


T is for Time.

Stand still. Spend like 2 minutes. Clear your head. Chill. Take 5 breaths. Get over the excuses that you might want to give as to why this art does not deserve your time and, well, give it your time.

A is for Association.

What knowledge or experience do you have that can relate to this work? Bring out as much of it as you can.

B is for background.

How much context can you identify for the work. Does the title tell you anything? Do you know much about the artist? Maybe the docent or the audio tour can give you some information that can help you make sense of things.

U us for Understand.

Take stock of your realizations regarding the work. In what way to do now understand this work that you didn’t before you walked up in this gallery and viewed it?

L is for Look again.

Just like how a mystery movie looks very different on a second viewing, you should look at the art again with the understanding that you have constructed and see what you can see.

A is for assessment.

Do you think this work is good? Does it suck? Is its goodness or badness relevant for its meaning?


Ward stresses that this process need not be dominated by fancy art vocabulary. You need only use the powers that you have, and over time you will grow new powers, because art helps you become better, just all around.


Anabel Housen.

This method of interpretation is actually part of a whole curriculum called Visual Thinking Strategies. This is a great exercise you can do with someone. It’s quite simple, you just take three questions and ride them out. They are:


  1. What is going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What more can we find?


And repeat. As you cycle through these questions with your friends, you will get deeper into the work, until finally the work will reveal itself to you and a chorus of angels will raise you above the mezzanine bathed in pure white light, probably.


BONUS idea.

Try to defend the art against imaginary criticism as a means of getting an understanding of the art itself.

Untitled, Perfect Lovers by Felix Gonzalez-Torres


“This is stupid, anybody could put two clocks together and call it art.”

You get the idea.


These strategies are, of course, just a few possible ways to get close to art. There are many more and I would love if you shared them.



Me having an awkward talk with Deb Sokolow.