The art of looking at art at the Brighton Museum

Micky Flanagan. Photograph by Dave Smith, CC-BY.
Micky Flanagan. Photograph by Dave Smith, CC-BY.

One of my favourite comedians Mickey Flanagan does a great piece about looking at art in galleries.

In a Radio 4 series called What Chance Change? he talks about how galleries ought to have a little sign alongside the piece of work saying what type of face you should pull and how long it was appropriate to stand there for. I have to admit, I know what he means.

Now I’m in a position to write about art in galleries, I’d appreciate it even more. Last week I stood in a gallery while a couple discussed the work on show. They really knew about art and the artist’s lives. One of them had even met some of the artists. It was great to eavesdrop but a little daunting.

I’ve also been introduced to staff in the museum whose whole working life has been about history or art.  Again, I’ve felt a little apologetic about the huge gaps in my knowledge and wanted to pretend I know more than I do.

But I’m telling myself that I needn’t feel apologetic. I’m a product of an English comprehensive education in Essex which didn’t find much time for art appreciation unfortunately. I did art lessons once a week at school until about 14 then gave it up to do O-levels.

I’m also aware it’s very easy to slip into the trap of saying; “I like what I like,” and dismissing work which is challenging or abstract as a load of rubbish. Particularly if it looks as if I could actually have made it myself. Even I know that’s not the point.

While standing in the gallery, I also watched a lot of people passing through, only looking at the work briefly. Were they getting anything from the paintings and illustrations? I’m sure some of them were aware of feeling awkward like me. Were they wondering what an artist was trying to say to them as they studied a painting?

Is a Lowry good just because it’s a Lowry?

My career as a journalist has taught me many things and one of them is that it’s OK to not know anything and that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. There’s always someone who will know the answer. In fact, journalists are people who often know very little at the start of a story but their job is to find out.

So I consider it part of my role to come across as a village idiot sometimes as well as a nosy parker so by the time I finish this role, I hope to feel a little less sheepish and a lot more confident about art.

One thing I’ve already noticed is I ALWAYS read the notes alongside any work of art first. Now, is that right or wrong? To know the title of a work adds to the understanding of a piece but does it mean I’m not responding to the work itself?

If you recognise the name of the artist, and have preconceptions about them already, you may react differently. There was a Lowry in the Downs to the Sea show. It’s not like the other Lowry’s I know but simply knowing his name means I feel it has earned its place.

One thing I have noticed is that time is important when looking at art. It helps to relax into really looking at something. Rather than race around, half looking at stuff while chatting to friends or keeping an eye on kids, it’s an absolute pleasure to sit and look at something for longer. It may mean you don’t ‘get round’ all of it but I’ve found I enjoy the work more.

I’m keen to learn more about the art of looking at art.  If you have any suggestions, let me know. You can comment on this post or send me a Tweet @cazza3.

Caroline Sutton, Blogger in Residence



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