Science Fiction University:The Purpose of Art: Part Nine: How to View Art

Charlie W. Starr
Charlie W. Starr's picture

For eight weeks we’ve looked at the purpose of art including most recently a basic look at how to determine whether an artistic text is any good. For the last part of this series I want to spend some time talking about the “how to’s” of experiencing art. How do we read a book to get the most out of it? How do we watch a movie or listen to a song—what are the best ways to enjoy, examine, and learn from many different art forms?

Museum Art

While we need to review the “how to’s” of more popular arts like movies/television, songs and books, I want to start with art forms most of us spend less time with. A good starting place is painting and sculpture, the kind of art we typically find in museums. My first tip is this: just look at it. Spend a lot of time looking at the painting or sculpture. Pay attention to details. Pay attention to your reaction to it: are you finding it beautiful? Let it soak in. Then start asking questions about it: What do you see? What techniques to you see (this question implies learning something about how painting or sculpture work)? Is it about anything? Does it tell a story? If you’re enjoying it, why? What about its beauty grabs you? If it’s ugly, is it a celebration of ugliness you should reject, or an honest portrayal meant to show you something about the fallen world? If it makes no sense to you there could be two reasons: you don’t know enough or it’s the kind of garbage that often passes as “modern art” today. Don’t miss what I’m saying here: I know of no other art forms today than painting and sculpture which produce art that pretends to be brilliant and is actually bad. While I usually tell my Humanities students to learn from the experts, I tell them to be wary of the experts in the world of contemporary painting and sculpture.

Still, with those arts we don’t spend a lot of time experiencing, there is an element of education worth adding to the “how to” list. When you’re at a museum, read the names and descriptions on the little cards besides the art works—those paragraphs which name the artist, date, medium of art, and which sometimes give you an explanation of the piece. Otherwise do a little reading on painting and sculpture. It’s good to know artistic periods in Western culture (Classical, Medieval, Renaissance and such), and it’s good to learn some elements of technique in order to see them in the art you’re looking at: line, shape, structure, color, hue, light—these are just a few elements which knowing about will help your viewing. Finally, and I say this for all art, it’s okay to make some decisions about whether or not you “like” a piece of art, think it’s beautiful, think it has truth value, think it’s well or poorly done, and think has moral value or not.


We don’t often pay attention to the beauty of buildings. But though they are functional, they can also be works of art. Much of what I said about painting and sculpture can be applied here. And, once again, I think it’s important to do some learning. Simply knowing to look for basic architectural structures like post and lintel, arch, vault, dome, cantilever and the elements of a facade can add a lot to our ability to enjoy architectural design. Other elements to look for include the way spaces are organized and used, color schemes, lighting, and the historical purpose of the building.

Stage Performances

Stage performances include opera, dance, and theater (including musicals). I don’t mention concert performances here because I’ll cover music later, and though opera, dance and musicals include music, they include stage performance as well. Dance is the art form which I still need to learn more about, and when I don’t know something I find it wise to follow Solomon’s advice in Proverbs 17:28 and keep my mouth shut. When you’re watching a performance, begin by taking it in—receive it, experience it, pay attention to all the sights and sounds and your reactions to them. Enjoy yourself. Next avoid a mistake: don’t judge a play or a musical the way you judge a movie—they’re not the same thing. Then pay attention to some key elements in stage performance: costuming, set design, lighting, the quality of the acting and/or music, the connection between the performers and the audience, the way space is used by the designers and the performers, and of course the story, musical, or opera itself.

Next week we’ll turn to some “how to’s” about the more popular arts in our culture.