The recent proliferation of books with subtitles like Ossian Ward’s How to Experience Contemporary Art betrays the prevailing anxiety about our disconnection from today’s visual culture. In an era characterised by the mass media’s colonisation of every aspect of our daily lives, and in which “art can be anywhere and anything”, our relationship to images and symbols has, we worry, become fraught.
Charles Saatchi is among those who might be held responsible for the complication of this relationship. His genius for recognising the means by which pictures and words could be manipulated to commercial advantage was the catalyst for his first fortune, in advertising, and his second, in art. His latest foray into publishing, Known Unknowns, exemplifies this instrumental approach to images. The book is divided into 99 short chapters, each reflecting upon a topic “inspired” by a single photographic image. The photographs themselves, which include press images, portraits and staged works of art, receive only cursory attention, serving merely as jumping-off points for Saatchi’s ruminations on the size of Einstein’s brain or conspiracy theories about the Titanic. In this context, the value of images corresponds to their status as visual prompts that excite a train of thought.
When Saatchi restricts himself to trifles, these potted histories are diverting, if banal (“sound has an extraordinary range of effects on our lives”). But he feels compelled to wade out beyond his depth, and indifference gives way to irritation when Saatchi descends into harangue—passages that exemplify the book’s central failing. There is no dialogue with the images to which he is reacting and no genuine attempt to engage with the information they contain. Considered useful only to the extent that they provide a convenient soapbox, the photographs are divested of their power to provoke, challenge or effect change.
By stark contrast, Ossian Ward, who works for Lisson Gallery in London, calls for a new approach to the experience of art that has openness as its guiding principle. His title, Ways of Looking, nods to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, 1972, and shares that essay’s ambition to “provide a straightforward set of tools to deal with almost any form of art being produced, no matter how alienating or complex it might appear”.
Its first piece of advice is that readers should wipe their mind clean (“Approach each [work] as if it were your first experience with that format”). Invoking the tabula rasa (blank slate), Ward establishes T.A.B.U.L.A. as a handy mnemonic for the six-step process that the reader is advised to adopt when weighing up a work. The first initial, for instance, reminds us to give ourselves “Time” with a work before attempting to understand it.
The fear that this might reduce the appreciation of art to the completion of a checklist is offset by Ward’s application of the principle to a number of notoriously inscrutable pieces produced since the turn of the century. It is comforting to note that even a well-versed, visually literate art-world insider can be initially unsure of his opinion of works by artists including Thomas Hirschhorn and Cory Arcangel. Instead of making snap judgements on worth, or grasping blindly for a single explanatory “meaning”, Ward allows the art to work upon him. This humility is a relief from the spluttering denunciations or obfuscatory volubility of critics confronted by something they do not understand, and will give heart to anyone who has ever felt intimidated by a work of contemporary art.
We discover that the value of a work of art is, in many cases, consistent with the extent to which it resists simple interpretation. The best art should be “ambiguous, contrary and elusive”: stimulating new ideas rather than reinforcing old prejudices. Crucially, the reader is never asked to concur with Ward’s opinions. Instead, he explains how he came to them, presenting art as “an open, rather than a didactic, experience”. Ward is no apologist for bad art, the abundance of which he acknowledges. He realises that the best way to promote good art over bad is to give people the means to make the distinction themselves.
Ways of Looking makes possible new interpretations of art by providing lay readers with the confidence to make reasoned, personal judgements and to feel secure in them. This is to the benefit of anyone with an interest in the continued relevance of contemporary art to a general audience, and should be applauded.
o Ossian Ward, Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art, Laurence King, 176pp, £9.95 (pb)
o Charles Saatchi, Known Unknowns, Booth-Clibborn Editions, 480pp, £25 (hb)
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Newer ways of seeing the world (and art)'