Contemplating Art


          Many people are uncertain about how to behold paintings and sculptures. What are we to think and feel? What are the artist’s intentions? While we are always free to think and feel as we choose, the following is offered for those who may welcome a few indications about contemplating art.

           What is usually considered the work of art--the physical painting, sculpture or other tangible object--is only a record or documentation of the real work of art. The enduring work of art is the inner experience of the color and form that lives in the artist during and after the creative process. The indications that follow are intended to help the viewer share in the inner experience and transformative influence of works of art.

          When attending an exhibition with dozens of works, it is not necessary to give equal time and attention to each one. Instead, we can pass through the exhibit looking for a few works that catch our interest in order to engage with them more intensively.

  1. We forgo information such as the name of the artist and the title of the work, or give it minimal attention.
  2. We begin by carefully noting as many of the physical attributes of the work as possible. With a painting, we note the particular colors, shapes and textures. What color is where and how much? Is it an orange yellow or a green yellow, a green blue or a purple blue? With a sculpture: what are its overall proportions: 1:1, 2:1? Where is it wide and narrow? Where is it convex, concave, flat or angular?
  3. Having taken in the various physical attributes, we turn our attention to the feeling experience of the individual colors and forms—for example, the warmth/coolness of a color, or the expansive/contracted gesture of a form. In order to experience such qualities, we need to quiet our thinking and attend to our feeling, but not our personal feelings of sympathy/antipathy. Our interest is in the inner quality of that which is outside us, in this case, the colors and forms of the artwork.
  4. After attempting to focus on the qualities of the individual elements of the work, we expand our attention to the quality of the painting or sculpture as a whole. We learn to shift from looking on from outside the artwork to feeling ourselves within the world of its colors and forms. We may feel this fleetingly but with practice we learn to sustain our experience of dwelling within the work as a whole for as long as possible without being distracted by other sense impressions or thoughts—a minute is good.
  5. With our eyes closed or open, we conclude our activity with each artwork by taking a few moments to let the feeling impression of the artwork resonate within us.

          We go through the same process with 2-3 other works of art. We note and compare their outer and inner qualities as this only enhances our feeling experience of each one. We can do this with as many artworks as we like, but by limiting our self to 3-4 artworks, we will retain a more vivid impression of each one than if we look at many.

          Later that day, or the next day, we take a few minutes to call up the impression of each artwork to dwell within the feeling quality of each one for as long as we can. It is not necessary for our purpose to think about the meaning of the artworks. At most we may note any thoughts that arise in us, but we do not hold on to such thoughts because they tend to get in the way of future efforts to focus on the feeling quality of the artwork.

          Our visual and felt impressions will naturally fade after a few days. For this reason, we can seek out the same artworks again in order to repeat steps 1-5. Otherwise, we look for other works to approach in a similar way. In any event, the deepening of our inner experience of art, as well as the deepening of our inner life in general, depends on repeating this process again and again.