How to View Art Differently: An Absurdist Approach

by / 0 Comments / 207 View / June 23, 2014

The famed composer John Cage notoriously claimed that “everything we do is music.” Everything can be perceived as a little melody, rhythmically strumming along, providing for us an ever-present soundtrack. All you need to do is look at it the right way. Similarly, the logic applies to art. If art is the expression of some thought, feeling, or process through a creative medium, then what isn’t art, really? It would seem every physically embodied object is a projection or expression of some kind of idea, some visual melody realized only if you look at something from the right angle.

With that in mind, let’s break down the anatomy of a typical museum or art gallery space. There are lots of nicely framed paintings and drawings all at exactly eye-level, with about the same distance between each other. The nice little unobtrusive description card to the left or right. The rich wood floor and crisp white wall. It’s all meant to keep the viewers’ attention solely on the art, but to subtly remind them that they’re in a place that is high cultured and delicate in its aesthetic appeal. Underneath the creative appearances of such an artistic viewing space though, there lurks a standardized monster rigidly enforcing a set of implicit rules of how to view art correctly that limits the entire artistic realm in a profound way. Its presence is subtle, but consistently rears its head, in the form of an offended museum staffer or patron, if you speak too loud, or if you get too close to the art, or if you appear at all to be threatening the Conveyer Belt of Appreciation’s flow from one piece to another in those precise, slow-walking intervals. These physical limitations proportionally limit the viewer’s imagination when looking into the art to connect with it, which ultimately dooms such experiences to be two-dimensional and myopic. The art speaks to you on only one frequency, and you must tune into it or miss it entirely.

To fix this all we need to do is apply the process of making art to the process of viewing it. If there are an unlimited number of ways to make art, I claim there are an unlimited number of ways to view art. The logic is simple: most art rests on a visual plane, a flat surface like a canvas. Changing your viewing angle to that plane effectively changes the landscape of the plane—some details are highlighted, while others that are farther away from the eyes fade. It distorts and morphs, making it a new piece from which one can generate new meaning beyond the original intention of the artist, just like holographic images that reveal their consequential frames if you look at them in different ways. Further, the options are multiplied if one takes the act of viewing art as a multi-staged process: view it from 5 feet away at X angle for A seconds, then quickly from 5 inches away at Y angle for B seconds, then slowly pan out. Or even view Piece 1 from X angle, then close your eyes, shuffle to the next piece, and open them to juxtapose artworks like never before. The possibilities here are limitless, creating immeasurable worlds of unique art in the process through a dialogue between the viewer and the art that is more reciprocal than protocol. To compare it to literature, it is like reading a book for a second time and seeing that you missed countless subplots that resided in space between the words. The resultant question, given the logic, should be how viewing and making art became such segregated activities in the first place, with the artist totally free to express herself in whatever way using whatever media and technique, but the viewer so absolutely restrained by guidelines that hold back the art.

Viewing art should have as many rules as making art: zero.

I understand this sounds absurd in practice, and it is. But this is because it lacks historical precedence despite the logic being sound. The choice to follow this method of viewing art is completely up to the viewer, and that is part of the magic of it. But it speaks to an untapped dimension of art that deserves some experimentation by both the viewer and the curator, unless you are there simply as an outward declaration that you are the kind of high-minded individual to frequent art galleries and museums.

I encourage those who have the ability to place art strategically within a space to put a piece on the ground or the ceiling or at least a little off eye-level. Even if it doesn’t work with the viewers and complaints are made, or if as a viewer you try the new method and get a headache, it’s not as if some cardinal rule in art was broken. In fact, its very failure would be consistent with the artistic devotion to trial and error.  At the very least, the experience will surely be a humorous one, and that alone means it’s worth a shot.
Give it a try and see if it works for you.