The Viewing Process
Viewing art is about engaging all of our senses in a mindful and experiential way.
On viewing art
Whether we manifest our creativity by making art or not, we can all engage in contemplative viewing of art. Contemplative viewing means using as many of our senses as possible with whatever art form is being offered. It is an opportunity to practice engaging chaos, bewilderment and irritation in a mindful and experiential way and discover how they can change into vision, sanity and appreciation. Contemplative viewing stretches our boundaries, expands our comfort zone and changes how we perceive and appreciate our world. However, before that can happen, we begin with chaos. For example, the mere thought of going to a museum and viewing an unfamiliar work, especially if it is particularly challenging and off-putting, can bring about a sense of chaos. In addition, we are suddenly asked, “What do you think about it?” That may bring about a major moment of bewilderment.
In such scenarios, in order to minimize any sense of chaos, we tend to prepare for it by arming ourselves with information about the art, the artist and its history, as well as any reviews we can find. We want to see what we are supposed to see and say what we are supposed to say when questions arise. This process is, of course, the opposite of contemplative viewing. In truth, it is questionable if there was much of any viewing going on at all. We might realize that we are projecting thoughts and feelings onto the art. When we arm ourselves with information in this way, we filter out any direct experience of the art in favor of our own prejudgments and the thoughts and opinions of others.
Contemplative viewing does not begin with looking at a label or title of a work or whether you know anything about the work or the artist. You must put that aside as best you can. We know we can do this at least briefly because we do this during meditation. Thoughts arise, and we don’t have to chase them. We can return to our breath and senses, and the thoughts will dissolve into space all by themselves. Therefore, we can take what we have learned in meditation, and for a few moments rest our senses on the artwork, which becomes the object of our meditation rather than our breath.
This provides a space for us to have our own experience, as unfiltered, unmanipulated and direct as possible in the environment in which we find ourselves. Not only does this process give rise to an experience based on our sense perceptions, but the inevitable thoughts that arise are connected to that experience, rather than existing as thoughts about thoughts. We call those thoughts that come out of the immediacy of direct experience first thoughts, and when they are shared, they often vividly describe the artwork. With this slow viewing, chaos and bewilderment serve us by providing the space, the openness and the awareness for our own experience to arise and be recognized and appreciated.
At this point, reading the label and introducing what is known about the artist, the art, the history of the time it was created and so on enriches and enlarges our view rather than placing filters on it. If we are share our viewing process with others (highly recommended) the very act of articulating it, as well as the act of listening to others, creates new experiences. Just as in the practice of meditation where with each out breath we can let go of our thought stream and come back to a fresh moment with fresh eyes and discover new perceptions and realizations, we can also return to view even familiar works of art over and over again with fresh eyes and make new discoveries to appreciate and share.
Note: A version of this piece first appeared as "Chaos, Bewilderment and Being Pissed-off While Viewing Art" on the Shambhala Times website.