Three Things to Help You Think and Talk About Any Piece of Art

You don’t need to like a work of art to think about it or appreciate it. Try this way of looking at the next artwork you experience.

“I don’t know much about art but I know what I like.” It’s a cliche. But how often do we simply look at something and judge it by how much we like it? Thumbs up or thumbs down. Maybe rate it on a scale from one to ten.

I will explain three qualities that every piece of art has. You simply notice how the artist decides how to express these three qualities.

I will label these three qualities:

  • The Window
  • The Narrative
  • The physicality

The Window is the aspect of the piece that is looking into another space. The idea of a painting on the wall in western culture is like a window. A landscape is a perfect example. A portrait, still life or figurative scene is also looking through a window into another space. An artist may try to subvert this quality but it is surprisingly difficult. Even the most abstract piece can feel like a window.

The Narrative is everything that the painting is about. It is the story. It is the language that is attached to what is there. Perhaps a picture is an illustration of a story. That is easy and fun to try to decipher the story. Again sometimes the artist tries to subvert the idea of telling a story but this aspect becomes difficult as well. Our minds look to the story of the artist or the point in history that the artist lived.

The Physicality is everything to do with how something is made and the materials from which it’s made. Take time to consider the quality of all the material aspects. Perhaps a piece is made from unique materials or maybe quite mundane. Perhaps a work of art required a high degree of skill or maybe none at all.

Anything can be judged this way. At first, it seems like sculpture does not have a window aspect. But think of a sculpture as a specimen from the other side of the windowpane. A film, photograph or digital work may seem to have no physicality but the qualities of how the image is rendered become even more heightened.

So now you start to understand these three areas you can think about how the three aspects work together. Now you are judging it on qualities other than your initial impression. Did your opinion change? This way of thinking is a simple tool to help probe a new work and try to move beyond our prejudices. Do you think this idea can be adapted to other things?