Approaching Art

Initially a tweet, and now a post with comments at 1/125.

My initial reaction was a series of joke responses. Partly because that’s all that will fit in a tweet. Partly because properly answering that question requires serious thought. But mainly because I can’t actually answer the question.

For me, the whole point of art appreciation in general, and museum going in particular, is the willingness to be surprised and provoked. No specific questions, just reactions and the expectation that questions will occur to me. I try to be aware of how I react, how the people around me are reacting, how things catch my eye, and what other details are present in a piece beyond the obvious. I take my time and circle back to things.

This isn’t to say that I always go into exhibitions unprepared. It’s very nice to have a sense of context and background knowledge (beyond the provided wall text) about what I’m seeing. At the same time, I try to avoid letting my preconceptions cloud my reaction.

With specific regard to photography, because I’m much more familiar with the craft and history of the medium, I have many more details to be aware of.

Where things get interesting is when we move out of the museum realm. In a museum, a trusted curator has already made a statement that a work is worth looking at. I don’t have to agree, but that I’ve chosen to visit the museum means I’ve committed to looking. And much of what I see does not translate well to books or the web.

Photography is one of the few arts which is actually translatable to books or the web. However, as anyone who’s read McLuhan will agree upon, the medium in which I encounter the work produces very different responses. It’s impossible for me to treat photography I encounter outside of the museum experience the same as something which I find in a museum.

The chief difference is that I can’t be as open minded. And I do have a question in mind when it comes to books and the web—namely, “is this worth my time?”

Photo books. A book is a product. It’s something which is supposed to be worth buying and keeping. But only after I’ve had a chance to flip through it. Books also force a very specific viewing sequence since they are complete works in and of themselves.

I have a hard time separating photos from the larger work when they’re in a book. This is a nice thing for works like The Americans which are best experienced as set sequences of photos. As a result, I respond to photobooks as books more than photos. Although I also typically entertain the “do I want this?” question since I’m also handling a product.

On the web. This is where things get interesting. I’m exposed to a ton of photography each day—most of which sucks—and I’m required to make snap gut-level judgements about what’s worth looking at and what’s skippable. This biases me toward immediate impact photography* rather than work which requires time. I subscribe to photoblogs which do some curation so that I don’t have to do the immediate bullshit detection. On those blogs, I spend more time looking.

*What we jokingly call the “flickr wow factor” includes a lot of immediate-impact superficially-appealing elements combined with a nice thumbnail. I try to avoid falling for that but in an immediate-impact world, it’s unavoidable.

At the same time, the web is all about choosing my own adventure. If I choose to spend time looking at a photo, who knows where it will lead me and what non-photographic context I’ll generate for it. The variety of context means that I have no consistent approach to photography on the web. Oftentimes I’ll come back to a photo which I completely missed previously and, with the different context of the day in mind, react completely differently.

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14 responses to “Approaching Art

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