Seeing vs Looking at Art

I recently read The Quality Instinct, by Maxwell Anderson. He’s the director of the Dallas Museum of Art, and has also been director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, so he knows his way around the art world. He started his career in the Greek and Roman Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he challenged the previous evaluation that a terra cotta female figure was fake, and showed that it was, in fact, a masterwork of Etruscan figurative sculpture. The book is full of tales like this that lift the curtain on how curators and art connoisseurs separate the fake from the real things, and identify masterpieces from the field of merely good art.

Statue of a Young Woman, Italic, c. 300 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Statue of a Young Woman, Italic, c. 300 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art

One practical suggestion is to focus a museum or gallery visit on a small number of works. Don’t just stroll through a gallery and glance at works of art. Stop and look. Don’t read the label first thing. Really look and ask yourself questions:

  • What am I seeing?
  • Who made it?
  • How was it first shown?
  • What is it made of?
  • Who was it made for?

Try to work things out for yourself before reading the label. Then look beyond the label for answers.  Search the museum’s web site for more information. Look for a Wiki page on the artist or time period, and follow up the footnotes and links.

The point is to do more than to just look at art. You should learn to really see art and the world around you.

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