There’s a lot of nonsense spoken about contemporary art, so a little help in understanding it is always welcome. In his new book Ways of Looking, How to experience Contemporary Art Ossian Ward provides some pointers to finding meaning in contemporary work. (He also gives an unnecessary spoiler for the Orson Welles/Edward G Robinson classic film The Stranger. If you haven’t seen it avoid page 16).
Ward offers a six-step programme based on the idea of a clean slate and a fresh mind. Influenced by John Berger’s influential TV series Ways of Seeing Ward writes for those who find contemporary art intimidating. He tries to show that contemporary art can be rewarding and thought-provoking – and that that thought needn’t always be Have I walked into the mind of a madman?
Ward does note the lunacy of some art language, with its delight in obfuscation, paradigms and dialectics. Thankfully he dismisses it and instead suggests approaching art with a blank mind – the tabula rasa. In a short section at the start of the book he uses the letters in the word TABULA as hooks on which to hang the six steps that he sees as vital to the process of looking at art.
The rest of the book is composed of ways to approach different types of contemporary art. Seven sections cover topics such as art as entertainment, art as joke and art as meditation. Each of these sections has two case studies where Ward looks at particular works and gives his reasons for finding them interesting, examining sixteen works by artists from Rembrandt to Martin Cree.
Ward is a contemporary art insider. He is currently Head of Content at the Lisson Gallery and was the editor of Art Review. For him a Spartacus Chetwynd performance at Frieze comments on the expensive art on the walls around. He finds in Creed’s lights going on and off ‘a visual analogy for the spark of creativity , the lightbulb that goes on in your head’. This demonstrates the personal nature of art interpretation. These meanings are the ones that Ward brings to them and are not the meanings. His book makes clear that everyone can find their own meanings in each piece of work.
Ward has the admirable aim of demystifying contemporary art. Ways of Looking should give you more idea how to experience a work of art. Of course that doesn’t mean that the work will suddenly be worth experiencing.
Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art
By Ossian Ward