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Book Review: Ways Of Looking

On the first page of Ways Of Looking, Ossian Ward acknowledges that, ‘much of our culture, infused as it is with the same multi-sensory slap-in-the-face shorthand as our hurried existences, can be difficult to look at or get a grip on’ and that ‘even making eye-contact with today’s art can be tough.’
The book is a rich resource for any maker or viewer of art. What I like about it is that it doesn’t talk down to its readership and doesn’t offer ‘answers’ or approved ways to look at art but rather an approach to looking. This equates to a kind of tool kit that can be used to help manage any encounter with contemporary art.
Ward — who was chief art critic at Time Out London — proposes a systematic strategy to help the viewer reconnect with work that rests on its ability, first and foremost, to look. Ward proposes that the viewer ditches any prejudices about what they’re about to see and then use the following acronym as a guide to looking at art: TABULA. Ward’s different stages can be summarised as follows (and to which I’ve added some thoughts of my own):
Time: Relax and spend time with the work without being dismissive. Don’t expect it to reveal itself straight away. It might be that a work is designed to be overwhelming or shocking and so being overwhelmed or shocked is a perfectly reasonable response. By taking time (Ward recommends breathing slowly in and out five times) the initial impression of a work can give way to other feelings or observations.
Association: On a personal level does the work ‘hook’ you in some way? Is there any association you can make with it? This is not based on any ‘correct’ idea about the work. For students this is a good time to make notes about a work, however fragmented and sketchy.
Background: This is about context and is less personal. Contemporary art, (like that of the Medieval and Renaissance periods) is unlikely to ‘speak for itself’. Pre-modern art often used symbolic language that would have been understood by its audience but which might be lost or obscure to us. Spend time reading the title or any accompanying text to give the work a chance. Ward does say ‘who has time for art history lesson?’ but some knowledge of the wider subject can help. If you’re studying art at degree level, this should not be a problem, indeed is ought to be expected. I wrote a blogpost a while ago that touches on this: http://weareoca.com/fine-art/art-is-difficult-its-not-entertainment/
Understand: Putting the previous points together a viewer should, as Ward puts it, be ‘getting the message’, but art works are not crossword puzzles: they cannot be ‘solved’. Elements are likely to elude even the most knowledgeable viewer. As makers we know that art works are often made to test something, or to ask a question rather than to answer one. A good deal of contemporary art operates like this: as speculation and not as something that can be exhaustively decoded. It’s possible to appreciate a work — even to be profoundly inspired by it — without fully understanding it.
Look Again: The viewer should now take time to reconsider the work, perhaps finding things missed first time around. In the light of reading the title or other supporting material, the viewer may realise that certain elements of the work are more important or interesting than first thought. Sometimes work simply needs a second look to be better understood.
Assessment: This isn’t about whether a work of art is good or bad (that’s subjective) but rather about working out how the previous points have helped you get nearer to the work. This final point is, I think, a little vague but it could be that coming to some sort of assessment could send you back round again to re-engage with the work and so on.
Ways of Looking spotlight
Ward’s approach is useful because it breaks down what can be potential disorienting encounters with contemporary art and doesn’t rely on lots of prior knowledge about works of art. Ward moves on to explore different types of art work (‘art as entertainment, confrontation, event, message, joke, spectacle, and mediation’), using specific contemporary examples and applying the ‘TABULA’ system to understand them.
The book isn’t perfect (eagle-eyed readers may wonder where ‘art as expression’ is, for example), but on the whole it’s a great way to begin navigating contemporary art as either viewer or practitioner.

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Posted by author: Bryan
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8 thoughts on “Book Review: Ways Of Looking

  • Dear Bryan
    Once again, thank you for your very helpful post.
    On your recommendation, following your post “In praise of the Permanent Collection”, I read this book, and have used the approach on subsequent gallery visits. I need time and practice at it, but that’s learning for you!
    From my position as a student with much to learn, I can endorse your recommendation to others.
    Best wishes.

  • I have found this a really useful book with no pomposity. His ‘tabula’ mantra is an easily remembered formula when confronted with a barrage of visual and textual data in an exhibition. His choice of examples is wide ranging, contemporary and thought provoking.

  • It’s good to see Ward’s book getting more attention. I used some of these ideas on a mixed discipline study visit looking at contemporary art, Nathan Coley, in the Brighton Festival. For practitioners his approach might help us gain a distance from our completed work or work in progress and begin to interrogate it from a viewer’s perspective. Something we all struggle with.

  • I’ve suggested that this goes on the Reading List. It’s not perfect, but it is a very good introduction, especially for students that maybe visiting more challenging contemporary art for the first time.
    There’s a lot of vitriol spoken about ‘artspeak’ – much of it justified – but some of it is just reverse intellectual snobbery. Art isn’t always easy and it’s easy to forget that works we think of as decorative or beautiful (and therefore somehow NOT intellectual) were often derided in their time. Impressionism was VILIFIED by critics, but now it’s on greetings cards.
    I like that Ward prioritises being present with the work and letting it do its thing. Although I’m not sure he ever states it outright, it is imperative that people see art first hand. It can be frustrating to see art works and artists dismissed by students when you know they’ve only been seen on a computer.

  • I too have found this a really helpful book and enjoyed reading it. Perhaps controversially, I found this far more practical and memorable than John Berger’s Ways of Seeing…

  • I really hope I shall not stand out, a sore right hand, for I am reading ” Use both sides of the Brain”Tony Buzan, and “writing on both sides of the Brain” by H.A Klauser. for my course.Having difficulties processing my essay in assimilating and accommodating my writing and thoughts; Having, some facts and ideas from past readings on Freudian free association, and Piaget’s theories on awareness of the external world, I became stuck on creating something humanizing this writing. A piece of writing alive and, and relevant, all in one .The missing link was the technique! I have turned to your article, Bryan, hesitating at first of the wisdom, in my choice and read all you had to say from that book. There it is! I haven’t read the book, but it worked for me, from your outlines. What shall we call it? Cross pollination OCA style in fusing, not confusing the Arts? Thank you for your helpful article. Nicholas Poulcherios: OCA:St:N0: 309678: Life writing course.

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