What are you looking at?

One of the ways that artists and designers, filmmakers, musicians etc. learn about their disciplines is by looking closely at other creative artists practices. Some relevant questions to ask when looking at a work might be:

  • What is it?
  • What is it made of?
  • How is it made or put together/How are the materials used?
  • What does it look like, feel like, sound like?
  • How is – colour, form, space, melody, technique, material, timbre – used?
  • What does it seem to be about?
  • What is the subject matter?
  • What sort of imagery is used?
  • Does it contain references or allusions to other art, events, circumstances, literature, cultural objects, films, adverts, music, ideas etc.?
  • When was it made? How does the artefact, be it a painting, piece of music, designed object, advert, typographic form etc. etc. relate to other current or past practices?
  • Who made it? This question may be more difficult than it looks for, not all works were or are physically made by the artist to whom they are attributed. Who made Damien Hurst’s diamond studded skull? (Have a guess!) Who made a film? The director? The screenwriter? The cameraman? The set designer? The caterers?
  • To who may it be addressed/for whom was it made? What is its intended audience? What seems to be its intended effect? Did it attract an audience its creator(s) didn’t expect?

What did it do for you?

Mostly we get to experience the creative arts in some sort of public space – gig, concert hall, dealer gallery, museum, public building, park etc., or the virtual space of TV, downloads, the internet. Even in our own houses and hands are designed objects of consumption. What we see and hear, touch and wear and how we perceive it is naturally, to a certain extent, manipulated by the environment in which it is experienced and the tastes, values and selectivity of all sorts of other people – which may or may not include the artist(s). It seems relevant therefore also to consider such questions as:

  • Where is it located? (or even if it has an actual, rather than virtual location)
  • If it’s in a gallery or museum it’ll have been ‘curated’. How is it physically presented and lit? (plinths, space around it, decor of space or appearance of environment, lighting, use of artificial or natural lighting. etc)
  • How is it placed in relation to other works and what can be implied in the relationship? This question works as well in a gallery as it does in a shop
  • What sort of information are you given about the work and where is the information located? Programmes, audio-guides, hand-outs, labels, etc.
  • What sort/s of significance or value does the information suggest for the work?
  • Who may be responsible for the way it is physically presented (what are their values and concerns?)
  • Who was involved in controlling, presenting and generating the information offered?
  • Who may be responsible for making the work available to the public in this location?
  • Who owns the work? Is it a mass market product or a limited edition?
  • Is it for sale? If so, at what price?
  • How may these factors affect the way you see the work and the way you think about it?

Our experience of creative arts and our responses to particular works are also affected by the unseen baggage of interests, concerns, assumptions, preconceptions and values which we unconsciously bring to bear on works in the act of looking. Bringing these into more conscious focus can help you decide on your priorities and values as a practitioner. So, in considering your response to works and their presentation – whether you find them interesting/tedious, significant/insignificant, good/bad and so on – it would be important to ask yourself:

“What factors in my previous experience of culture and society may lead me to respond in this way?”

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