Artwork 101: Understanding paintings examines the two fundamental issues related to understanding visual works of art such as paintings. The first part will examine the reasons why many people claim to not understand art, and the second will provide some guidelines as to what to look for in order to overcome the first.

It is common knowledge that most people have some degree of difficulty understanding art. Especially modern art. One often hears the common comment, “I just don’t get it”. Most museum and art gallery visitors would normally glance very shortly at paintings. Sometimes the time span is less than 10 seconds. Then they move on to reading the accompanying label. It appears that people are attempting to connect with the art on display, but find it difficult to do so.

The reasons for this can be divided into two groups. The first group of reasons is related to the viewer. The second group has to do with the artwork itself. And of course, the lack of understanding could also be due to a combination of both groups.

GROUP 1 – The viewer

People are educated to think in words

This was not always the case. During previous generations such as during the middle ages, the masses were quite illiterate. In order to make people understand the message, artists had to convey ideas with pictures or visual art rather than text. We have come along way from the dark period of the Middle Ages and people are now literate. However, currently, the education curriculum in our public school system, offers very little art education.

Lack of background information

Paintings created outside of your social context can be indeed difficult to understand. Who is the artist? When was the art created? Where? What was the reason the art was created? This kind of information would be extremely helpful to the art viewer in establishing a rapport with the art itself, learning to appreciate it and finally understand it. Sometimes, just the label next to the painting is not sufficient to provide the necessary background.

Viewer’s “different perception” of art

A person who perceives art as being only “figurative art” might find it difficult to understand or appreciate abstract art, except perhaps for its’ decorative “message”.

GROUP 2 – The artwork

Art fails to express an emotion

Some artwork is simply flat. Whether by design or lack of technique the result is the same. A person looking at the art will not connect, and therefore will also not understand. This would lead to indifference and lack of appreciation.

The art is decoration only

Some art is purely decorative, in which case there is really not much to understand. The art has to be simply just appreciated for its inherent decorative beauty.

The art does not have a narrative, a story to tell

Not all art has a message. The artist may not have created the work having a narrative in mind, a deep meaning, a story to tell or a lesson to teach. It could have been purely created for the artist himself, without even intended for public consumption.

Modern art

Art of the 20th century is called “Modern art”. Under that label, everything may qualify in certain circles as art. But surely not all would be something that people would connect with or understand. This much about the reasons leading to a lack of understanding of art. The second part of this article deals provide some guidelines to overcome the difficulties listed above.

Artwork 101: Understanding paintings

The first step after looking, seeing and thinking about the painting in front of you is to ask the following four fundamental questions. Answering them is not a guarantee for full understanding, but a very good start:

Is the art beautiful?

Is the art unique?

Is it executed with evident technical skill?

Does the art have a meaning to you?

Once you are able to answer these questions, you will be closer to understanding the art itself.

Suggested reading

Arts 101 artgreeT Blog
Narrative art artgreeT Blog
For artwork with a narrative see: Jacob’s Ladder artgreeT Blog
Renaissance art artgreeT Blog