How to Look at Art: A Short Visual Guide by Cartoonist Lynda Barry

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Despite the small, nar­ra­tive doo­dle post­ed to her Tum­blr a cou­ple of weeks back, inspi­ra­tional teacher and car­toon­ist Lyn­da Bar­ry clear­ly has no short­age of strate­gies for view­ing art in a mean­ing­ful way.

She takes a Socrat­ic approach with stu­dents and read­ers eager to forge a deep­er per­son­al con­nec­tion to images.

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She traces this ten­den­cy back forty years, to when she stud­ied with Mar­i­lyn Fras­ca at Ever­green State Col­lege. Could Fras­ca have antic­i­pat­ed what she wrought when she asked the young Bar­ry, “What is an image?”

For Bar­ry, who claims to have spent over forty years try­ing to answer the above ques­tion, there will almost always be an emo­tion­al com­po­nent. In a 2010 inter­view with The Paris Review, she addressed the ways in which art, visu­al and oth­er­wise, can fill cer­tain cru­cial holes:

In the course of human life we have a mil­lion phan­tom-limb pains—losing a par­ent when you’re lit­tle, being in a war, even some­thing as dumb as hav­ing a mean teacher—and see­ing it some­how reflect­ed, whether it’s in our own work or lis­ten­ing to a song, is a way to deal with it.

The Greeks knew about it. They called it cathar­sis, right? And with­out it we’re fucked. I think this is the thing that keeps our men­tal health or emo­tion­al health in bal­ance, and we’re born with an impulse toward it.

No won­der the snag­gle-toothed dog woman on Barry’s Tum­blr looks so anx­ious. She craves that elu­sive some­thing that nev­er much trou­bled Helen Hockinson’s muse­um-going com­ic matrons.

(Had rev­e­la­tion been on the menu, those ladies would have duti­ful­ly paged through the most high­ly rec­om­mend­ed guide­book of the day, con­fi­dent they’d find it with­in those pages.)

These days, the inter­net abounds with point­ers on how to get the most from art.

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Houston’s Muse­um of Fine Arts lob­bies for a four-point method, well suit­ed to class­room dis­cus­sion.

The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning art and archi­tec­ture crit­ic Philip Ken­ni­cott pre­scribes time and silence.

Anoth­er crit­ic, New York magazine’s fire­brand, Jer­ry Saltz, rec­om­mends an aggres­sive­ly tac­tile approach for those who would look at art like an artist. Get up close. Cop a feel. Try to see how any giv­en piece is made. (He him­self is giv­en to con­tem­plat­ing art with his hips thrust for­ward and head tilt­ed back as far as it will go, in dupli­ca­tion of Jasper Johns’ stance.)

Look­ing for some­thing more graph­ic? Abstract Expres­sion­ist Ad Rein­hardt helped the post-War pub­lic get a han­dle on mod­ern art in his icon­ic How to Look series.

For­mer muse­um edu­ca­tor, Cindy Ingram, the Art Cura­tor for Kids, echoes the spir­it of Barry’s sen­ti­ment when she states that a child’s inter­pre­ta­tion of a work’s mean­ing is no less valid than Wikipedia’s, the museum’s, or even the artist’s. Adults, don’t squelch a child viewer’s joy of art by telling him or her what to think!

Of course, some of us don’t mind a hint or two to help us feel we’re on the right track. Those in that camp might enjoy the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art’s 82nd and 5th series, in which expert cura­tors wax rhap­sod­ic about their love of par­tic­u­lar works in the col­lec­tion.

You under­stand that this is just the tip of the prover­bial ‘berg…

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Read­ers, if you have any tips for achiev­ing rev­e­la­tion through art, please share them by leav­ing a com­ment below.

And don’t for­get to lift your short­er com­pan­ion up so he can see bet­ter.

Bar­ry’s short series of images orig­i­nal­ly appeared on her Tum­blr.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lyn­da Barry’s Illus­trat­ed Syl­labus & Home­work Assign­ments from Her New UW-Madi­son Course, “Mak­ing Comics”

Car­toon­ist Lyn­da Bar­ry Shows You How to Draw Bat­man in Her UW-Madi­son Course, “Mak­ing Comics”

Join Car­toon­ist Lyn­da Bar­ry for a Uni­ver­si­ty-Lev­el Course on Doo­dling and Neu­ro­science

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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Comments (3)
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  • Seán says:

    That’s beau­ti­ful. In an age of image sat­u­ra­tion it’s vital­ly impor­tant that peo­ple learn to make sense of the visu­al world.

  • Jeanne Voltura says:

    If you look at the art and it con­tin­u­al­ly brings you back to look at it again you know you have hit on some­thing. If you don’t know about how it’s made then you ask your­self why is this art­work so attrac­tive to me? Answer­ing that should do it… And it may even be the rea­son why most peo­ple like that same piece…

  • Jung states it’s the abil­i­ty of the artist to return from the uncon­scious with images to relate with­out going total­ly insane…ok..for me it’s about a sim­i­lar notion…but replace uncon­scious with a gift from beyond…which is same same…I guess!

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