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Art Appreciation: An Art in Itself

Meenal Chaudhari
Art Appreciation is about understanding the meaning of artwork and forming your opinions on it.
How to look at a painting, how to understand what the artist is trying to say is an emerging question. We are speaking of what in common parlance is termed as 'modern art'. An ideal reply to this is, "Just look at it and see what it evokes in you." What the artist wants to say is not important as what you receive from the painting matters.
Prefatory book on 'Understanding Art' details basic movements in art history - Early/ High Renaissance, Baroque, High Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classicism, Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Symbolism, Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism and so on. It tells how certain artists improvised ways of artistic expression and changed the course of art history.
A work of art speaks to the viewer in the moment of its perception. The artwork carries the feelings and thoughts that the artist had as the painting was created.
When we perceive the painting without any preconceptions or desire to interpret it, we directly apprehend the thoughts and feelings, perhaps at a subliminal level. And even if we don't 'get it', we are richer for the experience.
The ancient Indian theory of Rasa speaks of the dynamic relationship between the art-viewer and the artwork. It might be dance or classical music or any other art form, including paintings. Although, Abhinavadarpan and Bharata's Natyashastra deal mainly with drama, they do delineate the aesthetic contentions of the Indian philosophy.
The theory asserts that the essence-juice (poor translation of Rasa!) or 'Capturing the very essence, the spirit of something, to evoke a specific mood or emotion in the viewer's brain' of the art is a product of the act of perception as much as it is of the act of creation. Thus, the artist and the viewer have an equal responsibility in art appreciation.
Coming back to a layman's approach to art appreciation - if you are not able to go beyond the world of words, another way of viewing a painting would be to identify the central theme of the painting and to put it in one word.
One can look at the elements in the painting and see how they reflect and/or enhance the theme irrespective of the artist's intention for that central theme. This is to help one look deeply at the painting, see the bond between elements in the painting and how they are tied together thematically. A commercial on television for IBM depicts this graphically.
A couple of professionals are looking at work of art and reading into it all kinds of things that liken it to their organization and seeing complex things like the supply and demand chain, the networking etc. whereas another onlooker, who joins them, simply comments that it looks like a horse to him.
Every work of art is to some extent a Rorschach's inkblot. It is a projective tool that allows you to project your thoughts and feelings onto it. The intriguing patterns and colors are aids to evoke emotions and attract different responses.
You might say 'then why not put an empty canvas' and there are artists who do just that. Anyhow, the point is that viewing a painting is as much an invitation to self-awareness, as it is an invitation into the mental and emotional processes of the artist.
But, if we really want to understand the latter then we need to look at the painting, keeping in mind the context in which it was created. What were the trends in art until then, what was the socio-cultural milieu prevalent at the time, what phase of life was the artist going through, what were the concerns s/he was preoccupied with, and so on and so forth.