Messy Histories: Ways Of Seeing

I think a lot about how sight operates in art. Why do we like just looking at artworks?

Let’s start from the beginning: art making has always been about more than aesthetics. I think art grew up hand-in-hand with religion and ritual for centuries for a reason – because we want to find ways of expressing the, many intangible things in the universe. I remember going to a British Museum exhibition about the Ice Age a few years back, and they had all these unbelievably intricate and beautiful objects from 30,000 years ago. Like a carving of these running lions, but they think it actually might be the same lion and an early practice at depicting how a lion runs. In this hypothesis, art was born out of a desire to understand the world, be able to express something wondrous about it.

Of course you might not agree. But I do have this niggling feeling that there might be a kernel of truth in this that still lives, 30,000 years after those lions. Except as the physical world has become less of a mystery, we’ve still wanted art to be a source of wonder. This might be directly responsible for some problematic conclusions – not least, the absurd amount of mystification and pretentiousness which now surrounds the process of looking at art. Gatekeeping is about the idea that only a few, special people have access to the true understanding of what art is wanting to express. Whether it’s a knowledge of reading symbols or “knowing” that something is good in the context of a canonical narrative, the process of looking has been painted as an elite, awe-inspiring activity.

This week’s theme isn’t really about any of these things, but a little bit about all of them. It’s about art which asks us to question the process of looking, noticeably turning it into an active process. They’re not artworks which actively seek to mystify looking. Often, in fact, quite the opposite – they level the playing fields. They ask questions which specialist knowledge can’t help to answer, but instead are felt universally. The sense of mystery is very much there, but emphasising the actual action of looking and the nature of our relationship with the artwork changes it. They ask that we think beyond the surface of what we see, for our senses to make a deeper connection to the work and the sensations it stirs. These might not always be comfortable. They might demand that we ask deep questions about anything from gendered assumptions of behaviour, to the nature of God and the universe themselves.

If that all sounds very deep, I don’t plan on making it so. A lot of these artworks are either beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, or fun – or both! That’s how they get us thinking after all, the hook that lures us into spending time on these other questions. I’ve already started my contemplations – I’ve never really bought the idea that art is only complete with an audience, but putting together this week has shown me where this can in fact sometimes be true. Nevertheless, beauty with a purpose is still beauty, and I hope you find some inspiration from the vision, as well as the questions, of this week’s images.

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