As Gene Wisniewski explains in the Preface to his book, The Art of Looking at Art, published in October by Rowman & Littlefield,
This book grew out of a seminar…. Entitled the Six-Hour Art Major…. Its ultimate goal is to help participants to understand art more from the artist’s point of view, by giving them the opportunity to experience a concentrated version of the typical art school curriculum. [p xiii]
The Art of Looking at Art is a book for those who, at whatever stage of life, have taken an interest in art—here the visual arts—but after a brief survey may be puzzled as to where to enter such a vast and complicated world. It is also a book for artists or art educators to gift intelligent and curious friends or family members who desire a primer in the visual arts, a single book that can serve as an overview, something comprehensive but condensed with well-chosen details and written with the layperson in mind. I would also argue it’s good for art experts as well. You may already know something about Michelangelo, but it just might be that he, the statue David, or the Sistine Chapel are cliches lodged somewhere in the back of your brain. Even experts may have looked so many times at the same things that they stop seeing them or worse start saying the things about them that everyone else has said: one big echo chamber. One must even learn how to see cliches. A fresh reminder of Michelangelo’s difficulties and superhuman dedication as told by Mr. Wisniewski will bring it upfront and alive.
An overview of this breadth is a tall order, perhaps in the end an impossible one, but Wisniewski has done an admirable job, an act of historico-cultural collage, weaving examples from the present day together with those from all periods of history across the globe (with a focus on Western art). As with any great act of collage, the trick is to pick the right examples and place them in a manner that satisfies the mind. To do this he brought his own extensive knowledge in the arts, as one who has studied it and made it, together with the patience of a researcher and the enthusiasm of an art lover. Above all it is his voice, his conversational tone, his wit, that will keep you reading. Wisniewski has a wonderful down-to-earth manner of describing works of art. The stars in van Gogh’s Starry Night look like “oncoming headlights through a smashed windshield” [p 156]. He calls out Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon as the ugly thing it is—“The women look like they’re assembled from odd bits of cut-out construction paper, in tones of fleshy pink, brownish purple, and a color like raw pork chops” [p 141]—then explains why it’s a historically significant painting nonetheless. In the end he wins you over as the right kind of guide to reveal that the labyrinths of art can if not be conquered by one person then at least traveled not only with impunity but with delight and nourishment. In the process he provides practical insights on how to embark on these travels on one’s own.
Perhaps it’s the sense that a novice could use encouragement or reassurance that, even while the intertwining paths of art provide endless journeying, one need not surrender to a feeling of being utterly lost that he states at the end of the Introduction, “don’t worry—all will be explained in time.” An expert might smile at this statement. But the fact is, Wisniewski is not the kind of teacher who hits the student with a barrage of facts polished off with definitive explanations. What he does instead is to show that if one wants to learn how to really look at art one has to meet it halfway. You don’t just put yourself in front of a painting for what you “hope is an acceptable amount of time” [p 1] and wait for it to speak to you. Even a baseball game, Wisniewski points out, requires a knowledge of the rules to appreciate. Why should something as complex as a painting be approached in the offhand manner that art is whatever you like or everyone’s a critic? Lots of people play basketball too, Wisniewski points out, but there’s only one LeBron James. The more you know about basketball the more you appreciate why that is. If that is true of basketball how much more so in the vast world of art? Far from the pedagogue know-it-all, he’s the friendly mentor that you want and respect because he knows it’s challenging understanding art, and difficult to say the least living the life of an artist. In the chapter This Is Your Brain on Art he writes,
When an artist is that frustrated, getting a little distance and clearing their head is undoubtedly the wisest course of action. Is this what I do? Of course not. [p 131]
In fact it may be in part because of the vastness of the labyrinthine art world that the beginner despairs of even making the initial attempt. Wisniewski shows that an attempt can be made. The Art of Looking at Art is such an attempt. Meet it halfway, even when you don’t get it, even if your first reaction is repulsion, even if it seems an ocean too big and wild to dive into. You don’t have to be Michelangelo to make an attempt. But if you bring your own strengths and individuality to art, if you approach it the way an artist does it, with curiosity and a willingness to experiment, then you just might find it’s the adventure of a lifetime. This is the biggest lesson of The Art of Looking at Art, chockfull of juicy details, practical advice, wit, and a lifetime of experience.