It’s important to note, when looking at abstract art, that this kind of work is often depicting something that words are ill-equipped to express. In being human, by definition, there will be things we understand but cannot describe, things we know but cannot teach, and things we do that we cannot explain with words alone.
This is why words and things-we-can-immediately-make-sense-of are not appropriate. They are only one layer of a profoundly complex experience; this experience is often abstract. It is in each of these instances, between the lines, that art acts as a vestibule for otherwise inexpressible meaning. When looking, then, we must accept that words and coherent forms are just two of myriad ways to express meaning in a way that is valuable – and they won’t always be fit for purpose.
The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens (2017) by Yayoi Kusama is something to be understood, known, and experienced; it is not something to be described, taught, or explained. It is something to be felt.
Dots consume the artist and her work – a truly recurrent motif.
They’re a symbol of a life distilled into a singular, obsessive, and repeated form – something is being expressed that perhaps words or sense cannot clarify, something is being reflected beyond our physical appearance alone. In our own worlds, they could be our habits. The invisible actions we involuntarily carry out without checking ourselves, but yet the very things that make us who we are. Whether destructive or not, here, the outcome of the habit is irrelevant. It could be excessive exercise, substance abuse, artistic expression (the last made Yayoi Kusama the richest living female artist, so they’re clearly not all bad). But, the repeated question dotted, perennially, within these behaviours is: what drives our habits?
It is this that often cannot be expressed in words, because it is unconscious.
Each dot serves as a reminder of how beholden we can become to the hands of unconscious habit; were you to stand in the artwork, placing yourself before the mirror, you might feel a little overwhelmed – surrounded by swarming polka dots in a sea of yellow. Such confusion demands you see what lies at the centre of this bewildering experience – you. As we remain unconscious of our habits, so we continue to choose to be at the mercy of them.
Here the artist appears to continually need to purge herself of whatever is causing them, plastering them everywhere and turning what could be suffering, when kept unknown, into something creative, something striking. Her polka dot pumpkins have quite a soothing message, however. While it’s true the repeated unconscious suffering that we undergo is somewhat ever-present – acknowledging it, for now, is enough. It is enough to sit with it, so long as we are observing. For you, that could mean any number of things, such is the beauty of abstract art, it can become what you make of it; so why not use it as a mirror for more than just our physical reflection?
Kusama’s art is an abstract reflection of the patterns that exist within us too. Try to count the dots – and fail (or get bored) – and then map such a pattern onto a behaviour or habit you have. What action or through have you done or had this repeatedly? Something that occurs over and over – too many times to count.
In this meditative space, it is not quite as simple as something like regularly brushing your teeth (a healthy habit). It goes beyond the physical and visible: these are the hidden habits like preoccupying yourself with what you want to say, instead of listening to someone completely, or lying in bed for a little too long each morning because the burden of getting up appears heavier than the light-but-toxic touch of distraction on social media. Perhaps it’s even a pattern only evident over a longer, life-sized period, one where you sabotage relationships because of past childhood trauma – you can’t face the prospect of abandonment/ betrayal/ something entirely unique to you. These things are inexorably tied to what we see in the mirror, though we rarely make an effort to visualise and acknowledge them. Instead, by subtly displaying them on the walls, floor, and ceiling, this abstract work calls for you to feel them.
But, this art is also kind. In its repetitiveness, it is not chastising the viewer into excavating pain from their past, but is encouraging them to notice themselves, beyond their basic humanoid form. It would be more beneficial to see it as merely noticing the patterns that exist within us all – specifically those hidden habits, which we otherwise ignore by virtue of them being invisible – for these are the habits that exist in the cycle of feeling-thought-action repeated time and time again.
Here is an opportunity to notice what’s going on. We can intercept our feelings before they make us think, we can stop the thought before it makes us act, and we can assess our actions before they cement the feeling more deeply.
Of course, this has all been expressed, somewhat paradoxically, though words, so will likely fall short of what such abstract expression is truly exploring. Finding out what it means is, therefore, down to you and what you feel when you next look in the mirror.
TL;DR – looking at art is an experience; experiencing anything involves you. This is followed by questions that help incorporate you and your worldview into the art.
Looking at art can be a daunting task, it requires some thought, at least, about what art is; but in looking the very purpose of the art, and the intention of the artist, must be defined. As an Art Healer, the purpose is to self-actualise in some way through acquiring a balance of visual (that is to say, experiential) and contextual knowledge.
Going through this process, is not an action of solely looking. When done effectively, it is a carefully curated experience that can shed some light on humanness and humaning.
By exploring the world in this way, what you can gain (that can help you human better) is a deeper understanding of the granularity of the human condition: looking as an Art Healer is an appreciation, understanding, and application of what is. It asks more of us than do I like this or not, but pushes towards what can this moment teach me?
Too often this kind of looking is intercepted, even prevented, by art being presented in an inaccessible way.
Such presentation prompts many questions: what is important, or great, about this image? Is it who did it? Why is this in this art gallery? is it worth as much as that urinal? How did this ridiculous object become enshrined upon a plinth here, when it is nothing but a bog?
This is a totally rational, intelligent, and important questions to ask. Being ‘turned off’ art is not as much to do with the (often deemed ‘uncultured’) viewer as we are led to feel; instead, it is how we are led to interact with the art that shapes its significance for us.
We understand that art occupies a space in society that feels cut off from ‘real life’ and is reserved for a certain, elite, few. Counterintuitively, many museums were actually built on the premise that their collections should be accessible for everyone.
Why, then, does it oftentimes feel like we can’t all get a good look (that is if we are even inclined to look in the first place)? Museums sometimes separate art from ‘real life’ by decontextualising what they display.
An artwork or object is placed in a room surrounded by other equally obscured pieces, frequently arranged by ‘era’ which does nothing meaningful for our understanding of what the art is. What is there is written by experts who know too much to condense their knowledge onto a small square.
The irony is biting because often in an attempt to display art for what it actually does (depict and celebrate the realities of life), these textured experiences of human artistry, and the valuable knowledge they hold, are sealed behind an iron curtain of sorts.
Museums, by virtue of existing, and in their purported values, do have the intention to make what seems out of reach, available. But this irony is precisely why looking at art must be painted in a different light.
After all, a museum visit comes too late in life to address inaccessibility; such inaccessibility is a symptom of the inequality that exists in our educational and schooling system.
By learning to look at art as an Art Healer, we step in to acknowledge that, yes, looking art is an academic discipline, but this can be deconstructed, and then enriched, by including the viewer more. We see art is not just for you – it is about you. It is in your power to decide the meaning and value of art; for our purpose, art is nothing without you.
Looking at art can also be intensely boring. And if you find it so, that’s no surprise. There is no need to labour under the delusion that art, artworks, or artists are inherently interesting. They aren’t.
If the art does not resonate with your experience, then it is fine to discard it into a ‘this does nothing for me’ mental archive, or even the gentler ‘this does nothing for me now, but might be powerful in the future’ folder.
Still, there are plenty of so-called ‘masterpieces’ that will turn you off, and plenty of ‘geniuses’ who will seem absurd. We recognise that this is part of the looking at art experience; the things people do can be repulsive, and often those who are deemed important can seem outrageous.
The pinnacle of culture is not finding meaning where there is none; it is not attributing greatness to anything or anyone, when greatness is a subjective matter. To find meaning where there is none and say one kind of greatness is more valid than another is the masterful practice of the bullshitter.
To find enjoyment and meaning in looking at art, however, is to find what matters to you, and that, by default, won’t include everything. It could be something that captures your personal experience and clarifies a previously unarticulated feeling in a singular work, or something that explains humanity outside of your lived experience, but presents it in a way you can now understand a bit better simply because you can see it before you. This is part of healing through art – which is but one of its many purposes.
There is no ‘correct’ way to look at art; it is a deeply personal experience. But this very same point is used in a way that can make people feel apart from art, like there’s some secret skill that you have never been able to acquire which leaves you, consequently, excluded from the conversation and experience.
But, with learning about what it means to be human, there is no conversation that can happen without acknowledging yourself as the looker (what your brain does, what your eyes do, what your mind does). Without you, we cannot ask the questions that might help give art meaning that could be beneficial to you.
With this in mind, our overarching question of art can become a little more ‘precise’: what is the best way to look at art to help you human better?
– Step one: using your brain to notice what is –
Cast your mind back to infancy; did you know how to look? How to interpret that the light bulb in your room, for example, was rounded, made of glass? Could you identify that the glass omitted a muted yellow glow and so must not be completely translucent like most lightbulbs?
From your brain to your eye and back again, images must pass through the optic nerve, right after photoreceptors have translated them into electric signals to be carried brain. This means our eyes don’t really see, our brains do.
Considering our brains process everything about our existence alongside what we see, our role as the viewer in ‘simply looking’ at art is far more important, and far more individually experiential, than we might be led to believe in making the process meaningful.
Looking at anything is experiencing. Looking at art should be seen as a purposeful experience; it should take a moment – we can too readily say what we are looking at it, before we look at it properly.
We are gazing upon unique combination of materials, colours, or whatever it is, may have never been placed in exactly this way before. Notice that first, and just look and marvel at what some other human has made.
Before scrolling as far as the caption, take a moment to really look at Mark Quinn’s, Self. Notice the colour, texture, shape, expression, and such – see them all not for their labels, but for what they really are.
On this note, going to a gallery in your home country or abroad and just enjoying the experience of being in the space and what the objects look like is enough.
Soaking in the experience, the shapes, the nice lighting, or magnificent building can be a wonderful and fulfilling experience that should not be tarnished by a pressure to appear knowledgeable or even educate yourself.
In many ways experience is the most valuable form of education; all you need to do is turn up. Going to a museum should be seen a relaxing and pleasant experience; it is valid to treat it the same as a leisurely stroll: quietly contemplative and/or somewhat meditative.
– Step two: using your eyes to define –
Once time has been spent with what’s before us, we should mindfully allow in some definitions and labels, perhaps we’re able to recognise things such as the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa, or maybe we’re able to not recognise things as being any more meaningful than Kandinsky’s using shapes and that these shapes are circles. It is important to see what we look at, in order to learn why what we look at is how it is.
The labelling process can be synthesised, but not limited to, questions such as these:
What materials have been used?
How has this work been constructed?
Is what is depicted clear or ambiguous?
What choices have been made?
How is what you can sense being manipulated?
Is the work more traditional or abstract?
– Step three: using your mind to deconstruct meaning –
Your mind, with the help of your eyes and brain, will begin to transform what you see into meaning. This meaning is yours, and can only be yours alone, because the meaning your mind makes will be tied – unavoidably – to your current understanding and experience of the world.
What happens next is a conversation with oneself or, if you’re lucky enough to have company, someone else.
The question now shifts from ‘what do you see?’ to ‘what does what you see mean?’
Here are a few questions that are by no means exhaustive, but powerful, in deciphering what a work of art could mean to you:
What might this work seek to express?
Are we meant to simply enjoy this work or feel it?
Does the work tell a story or is it just a moment of being human captured?
Is it both a moment and a story?
Why might the artist have made these choices?
Why might the curator have displayed it in this way?
Is there an effort to help the viewer understand or obscure the message?
If this art had a different title, what could it be called?
Once these have been asked, you might venture to ask some more personal ones:
What does this artwork make me feel (if anything)?
Where else can I identify feeling this way in my life?
If this art represented a moment in my life, which would it be? Why?
Does this art explore something I can understand, but know I haven’t experienced?
How could this art influence a choice I make in my life?
– Final thoughts –
Upon reflection, this could have been called how to have a conversation about a piece of art. If looking is experiencing, and art is human, then effective communication is often how we develop meaningful relationships with one another.
For an Art Healer, looking at art means they should have enjoyed their time with it, and maybe learnt something about themselves or someone else through the art. That’s it. While this may seem simple, it is actually a courageous and creative pursuit.
Any of the lessons on this blog serve as examples of how these questions have been used to eke out an interpretation related to a granular moment of the human condition.