Introduction to Look at this: an art appreciation course

Looking at art is not an easy, straightforward process, even though it often feels natural.

The power of art can be immediate, striking, even arresting. We are now living in what is the most media-saturated era of world history, as we are bombarded with visual images constantly, but we have very little training in how to critically interpret these images. The fundamental tools are not taught to children in school. Looking—deep, careful looking—is not as simple as it seems. It is the aim of this book to teach the skills needed to decode art, to provide you with tools you can apply to all of the visual data around you.

In this course, you will explore a wonderfully diverse array of works. They will likely strike you as beautiful or ugly, stunning or strange, funny or compelling, or any combination of these reactions at once. Art does not have to be beautiful or uplifting. Likewise, though, it does not have to be dark and serious. There are no limits on the moods and ideas art can or should convey. There are, though, tools and tricks through which artists convey these moods and ideas. These visual techniques, above all, will be the subject of this book.

But why should you care about art?

There are a great many potential answers to this question. It can enrich your life, open your eyes to new experiences, “expand your horizons,” and so on. But the main answer offered here is that art is a powerful means to see through the eyes of others — people distant in time or place from you, or living within your own country, your own city, on your block, or in your house. Through other peoples’ eyes, we see the world as we had never seen it before. We might be shown a glimpse of staggering beauty or of breathtaking horror, of joy or passion or pain. By learning how to understand the visual elements used to create these images, you will be better equipped to understand the messages they contain, and more receptive to the perspectives of those who made them.

Just as importantly, whenever we look seriously and carefully at another person or culture, we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. You may not yet care about the life of a Buddhist monk living two hundred years ago in Japan, or about a Roman solider worshiping a long-forgotten god, but like everyone else, you are ultimately, interested in yourself and your world. Just as leaving is the only way to truly see the home you leave, so too, looking outward is a powerful path to looking inward.

Careful looking

While the specifics of the names and dates of the works in this book will fade with time – unless, of course, you carry on and continue to study the history of art! – the skills needed to interpret works of art — and other elements of visual culture — will stay with you throughout your lifetime. Close visual analysis, along with an understanding of some of the more compelling of the major themes common throughout the art of the world, can be used to unlock the possible meanings of just about any work of art you might encounter on your campus, in museums, in holy or historical sites, but also in your friend’s living room. These skills will also help you find points of entry and access into any work of art, celebrated and world-famous or as-yet unknown. The purpose of art appreciation is simply that —  to help you learn to appreciate art. You do not need a great amount of historical information to appreciate works of art (though it never hurts, of course). Instead, you need the skills involved in careful looking.

It is my hope that, once you have the skills you need to understand any of the works of art you come across, wherever you might find them, that you will also have the desire to look carefully and deeply at them. The visual arts produce in many viewers two great anxieties: The uncertainty about how long we should spend looking at any individual work and the sense that there is supposed to be a “deeper meaning” that eludes us. We listen to a song, or watch a play or movie until it ends. But, of course, a painting or sculpture goes on. How do we know when we should move on? And how do we know if we have found that deeper meaning, or even if there is one, at all?

How to use this course

First, explore the tools of visual analysis. Then, read about a series of exciting themes commonly found in art (for each theme, there is  a “spotlight Image” and then a short essay that offers comparisons and connections). The goal of these essays is not to familiarize you with particular periods or movements in the history of art — the Italian Renaissance, Meiji Japan, the Impressionists, and so on. Instead, by using examples chosen from throughout the globe, and from prehistory to the present day, the book should help you learn how to apply the basic tools of visual analysis to any object.

I recently put the question to my own freshman art students: “Why should you care about art?” They offered some of the ideas I have used here. At the end of the discussion, one student summed it all up well: “Why shouldn’t you care about art?” Indeed, why not? Each and every work of art is worth your time and merits your close attention. I would stand before each and every work of art — in this course or not — and shout to all those passing by, “Look at this!”

Cite this page as: Dr. Asa Simon Mittman, "Introduction to Look at this: an art appreciation course," in Smarthistory, August 24, 2019, accessed May 20, 2024,