Header Image: Art looking @ Art by ZuDaLu

Introduction: Disputandum 

“Appreciation cannot be taught. We can only suggest possible approaches, but the enjoyment of art is something that every individual must pursue on [their] own.” 

— from Art: Perception & Appreciation by Ortiz, Erestain, Guillermo, Montano, Pilar

With regard to personal taste, Western culture has suffered an unexpected negative consequence of the foundational belief, often summed up in Latin as de gustibus non est disputandum: “In matters of taste, there can be no disputes.” 

While the conceit is useful — especially to high school and college students — for deflecting criticism of one’s own opinions by others, I believe that it implicitly relieves the burden of disputing matters of taste lodged at oneself by oneself

When aesthetic taste is “refined,” it runs the risk of being reduced rather than expanded

Learning to appreciate art is less about determining works that are “good versus bad” and more about finding worth and resonance in more places. If a given style doesn’t speak to me, it’s my fault. 

Whether you are learning to appreciate Beethoven, Coltrane, or Taylor Swift, learned appreciation is about developing sensitivity and opening yourself up to emotional and intellectual experiences that you would have never otherwise been able to access. This appreciation starts as a personal exercise and expands to include others who have gained similar access. If a middle-aged male truck driver and a 12-year-old suburban girl deeply appreciate the same book, they have grounds for connection. 

What you’re actually doing when you’re “getting better at art appreciation” is expanding your scope of attainable peak art experiences, increasing your sensitivity to aesthetic stimuli, and deepening your capacity to connect with other humans. 

Filmmaker Werner Herzog has attributed his ability to converse with just about any living human to his wide reading and broad interests, so this is quite a bit bigger than a college elective on a Friday afternoon. 

What follows are three basic and, dare I say, fun self-guided exercises to expand your “constraints of taste.” But first, let’s outline some principles to set expectations about what art appreciation means in this context. This is not about biographies, historical context, critical frameworks, and deep analysis. It’s first and foremost about you.  

  1. Think about your own reactions and emotions: Pay attention to how the art makes you feel and what it evokes in you. This is where art appreciation starts: in the gut.
  2. Set aside preconceived notions about art: Don’t approach art believing you need a certain level of knowledge or expertise to understand or appreciate it. Just be open. 
  3. Take your time: Don’t feel rushed to understand or analyze a piece of art. Give yourself time and space to be drawn in. 

On the way by Ilya Trofimenko

Exercise 1: Slow Looking

According to this write-up by The Tate Modern, “Studies have found that visitors to art galleries spend an average of eight seconds looking at each work on display.” 

Proponents of slow looking contend that patient, immersive attention can provide opportunities for meaning-making and critical thinking that may not be possible through our usual mode of high-speed consumption. 

To engage in slow looking, you can look at anything, but you must give yourself substantially more time than usual — anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes is generally recommended. 

Make yourself comfortable, preferably away from too much foot traffic. Bustling exhibitions don’t make for ideal circumstances. Once you’re comfortable, feel free to move around a bit to take on the work from all angles. 

Relax. Release your expectations. Turn off the critical soundbites. Spend some time on different aspects of your noticing: texture, color, shape, symbol, story, perspective, &c. Trust your own intuition and authority. Remain open to and aware of your surroundings. As John Cage’s 4’33” revealed: context is as much a part of the art as the art. 

Pay attention to your body; it’s the seismograph of your experience.  

Afterward, try to order your thoughts and feelings and record them in writing. Then talk about your experience! After all, what is culture if it’s not shared? 

The last step is to look again. Continue the practice with new work and revisited pieces. Notice how your thoughts and observations evolve over time and in different situations (weather, sleepiness, befrazzlement, partially full bladder, &c.).

For a complementary practice related to listening, look into Deep Listening, developed by legendary experimental musician Pauline Oliveros. 

The Great Escape by Wowser Ng

Exercise 2: Wear Down Your Defenses

My paradigm for art appreciation was most shifted by the following exercise. It’s very similar to Slow Looking but with a dash of antipathy. 

Step One: Find a piece of art that you dislike. You may deeply dislike it or just sort of. Make yourself comfortable. You’re going to spend a lot of time with it. 

Step Two: Open up your notebook and start writing about the piece in question. Start with everything you hate about it, but keep your focus on this piece. Don’t wander off into a screed about all the hatable art it resembles. 

Step Three: Don’t stop writing until you appreciate the piece. Then spend a little time writing what you like about it. 

The most revealing thing I learned when I first did this exercise was just how Rorschach-like any piece of art can be. I didn’t learn as much about the work I studied as I learned about my own taste. That awareness allowed me to not only appreciate the piece before me but also to appreciate whole swaths of art I would’ve sooner passed on by. 

The other thing that I learned is that this exercise doesn’t take as long as you might expect. 

Record of My Loves by Athena Novo

Exercise 3: Brute-Force Art Appreciation

There’s a similar exercise to the above that you may have already unknowingly performed at least once in your life. It’s basically brute-force art appreciation, and it can be incredibly effective at broadening one’s range of peak art experiences. 

Instead of finding work that you consciously dislike, find art that interests you but that you can’t wrap your mind around. The rest can be summed up by this David Bowie quote:

“I was convinced I was an Eric Dolphy fan. So I would listen to the damn things (records) until I became an Eric Dolphy fan.”

— David Bowie

In other words, immerse yourself in a given artist’s work or a given style until it has seeped into your bones. You only need a handful of moments of connection and resonance before you start to “get it.”

Outroduction: Dispute Thyself

The imperative to more deeply appreciate art is, I believe, of a kind with “Know thyself” or the Buddhist call to study one’s mind. You can survive a life without it, but it will be pale and sallow comparatively. 

Challenge the seemingly default human tendency to appreciate art (and food and people and cultures) in a dwindling way. Don’t refine your taste in the sense that you start liking fewer things. Fight to expand your appreciation and thus your experience of life. 

In the course of my usual research, I went poking around Google’s Talk to Books looking for answers regarding why we have aesthetic preferences in the first place. I came across a quote from an 1822 periodical that I can’t properly cite because I can’t find the quote’s author; I’d like to conclude with it nonetheless because it perfectly articulates the punctum of this enterprise.

“Like the possessor of a splendid collection, who is indifferent to or turns away from common pictures, we have a selecter gallery in our own minds. In this sense, the knowledge of art is its own exceeding great reward. But is there not danger that you may become too fastidious, and have nothing left to admire?”

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