On the first page of Ways Of Looking, Ossian Ward acknowledges that, ‘much of our culture, infused as it is with the same multi-sensory slap-in-the-face shorthand as our hurried existences, can be difficult to look at or get a grip on’ and that ‘even making eye-contact with today’s art can be tough.’
The book is a rich resource for any maker or viewer of art. What I like about it is that it doesn’t talk down to its readership and doesn’t offer ‘answers’ or approved ways to look at art but rather an approach to looking. This equates to a kind of tool kit that can be used to help manage any encounter with contemporary art.
Ward — who was chief art critic at Time Out London — proposes a systematic strategy to help the viewer reconnect with work that rests on its ability, first and foremost, to look. Ward proposes that the viewer ditches any prejudices about what they’re about to see and then use the following acronym as a guide to looking at art: TABULA. Ward’s different stages can be summarised as follows (and to which I’ve added some thoughts of my own):
Time: Relax and spend time with the work without being dismissive. Don’t expect it to reveal itself straight away. It might be that a work is designed to be overwhelming or shocking and so being overwhelmed or shocked is a perfectly reasonable response. By taking time (Ward recommends breathing slowly in and out five times) the initial impression of a work can give way to other feelings or observations.
Association: On a personal level does the work ‘hook’ you in some way? Is there any association you can make with it? This is not based on any ‘correct’ idea about the work. For students this is a good time to make notes about a work, however fragmented and sketchy.
Background: This is about context and is less personal. Contemporary art, (like that of the Medieval and Renaissance periods) is unlikely to ‘speak for itself’. Pre-modern art often used symbolic language that would have been understood by its audience but which might be lost or obscure to us. Spend time reading the title or any accompanying text to give the work a chance. Ward does say ‘who has time for art history lesson?’ but some knowledge of the wider subject can help. If you’re studying art at degree level, this should not be a problem, indeed is ought to be expected. I wrote a blogpost a while ago that touches on this: http://weareoca.com/fine-art/art-is-difficult-its-not-entertainment/
Understand: Putting the previous points together a viewer should, as Ward puts it, be ‘getting the message’, but art works are not crossword puzzles: they cannot be ‘solved’. Elements are likely to elude even the most knowledgeable viewer. As makers we know that art works are often made to test something, or to ask a question rather than to answer one. A good deal of contemporary art operates like this: as speculation and not as something that can be exhaustively decoded. It’s possible to appreciate a work — even to be profoundly inspired by it — without fully understanding it.
Look Again: The viewer should now take time to reconsider the work, perhaps finding things missed first time around. In the light of reading the title or other supporting material, the viewer may realise that certain elements of the work are more important or interesting than first thought. Sometimes work simply needs a second look to be better understood.
Assessment: This isn’t about whether a work of art is good or bad (that’s subjective) but rather about working out how the previous points have helped you get nearer to the work. This final point is, I think, a little vague but it could be that coming to some sort of assessment could send you back round again to re-engage with the work and so on.
Ward’s approach is useful because it breaks down what can be potential disorienting encounters with contemporary art and doesn’t rely on lots of prior knowledge about works of art. Ward moves on to explore different types of art work (‘art as entertainment, confrontation, event, message, joke, spectacle, and mediation’), using specific contemporary examples and applying the ‘TABULA’ system to understand them.
The book isn’t perfect (eagle-eyed readers may wonder where ‘art as expression’ is, for example), but on the whole it’s a great way to begin navigating contemporary art as either viewer or practitioner.