Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

looking at art through belief

Muni's picture

There are different ways to look at art. Some prefer to look at the method the artist used, noting thick paint strokes or bold colors. Others try to connect emotionally with the painting, or try and understand its context or what the artist “was trying to say.” Still others prefer to let the works wash over them without putting much thought into finding patterns. 

On my trip to the Barnes Foundation, I decided that I would try to look at the art in the foundation in a manner similar to the way we looked at the two pieces in class. I wouldn’t read the information packet, but try to come up with my own observations about the colors and shapes. Then, I would “read” what I had noticed, by connecting the dots and making inferences about what was going on. In this way, I would try and approximate Barnes’s way of appreciating art.

When I looked at the painting through my approximation of Barnes’s point of view, I noticed things I wouldn’t have otherwise seen--the way the overall shapes of the painting draw the viewer’s eyes to the two women in the lower right hand corner. I immersed myself in Barnes’s method, playing what Peter Elbow would call a believing game. But after about 10 minutes of jotting down carefully observed notes of where the shadows fell and what the paint strokes looked like in the painting I’d chosen, (what time of day was it?) I found myself wondering why I’d chosen this particular painting to write about. After a few moments, I realized that its resemblance to the coastal cliffs of California had drawn me in. Despite setting out to look at the art from an objective, observational viewpoint, what had originally attracted me to it was nostalgia for home.  

My lens for looking at art is tinted, so to speak, with all of my experiences. In my own art, I’ve been working on being more intentional with the colors I choose, picking complements to make my subjects fit better with the background. Without realizing, I’d picked a painting that did an exemplary job of doing just that, using bright blues and oranges and greens and purples harmoniously. Instead of being annoyed about my inability to separate from my experiences, I found value in just going with my selection. It was by looking through my own lens at the painting that connected me most with it, but looking through Barnes’s lens had also brought new value to it.

Instead of playing a believing game with any one particular lens, I played a believing game with the lenses themselves. To really see art, I think it must be looked at through a variety of lenses. It is a believing game, as defined by Peter Elbow in his paper “The Believing Game--Methodological Believing,” accepting each idea as it comes, and letting those ideas transfer into new lenses. No one way of looking at art is more correct than another. Each provides a different perspective from which new information can be found. By believing (not necessarily without critically thinking about, or doubting certain aspects of the art--that is a lens, too) in the different viewpoints and lenses, it becomes easier to look through each of those lenses fluidly, with one flowing into another. 

After playing with looking through the different lenses, the viewer will have experienced the art in multiple ways, and can decide how to interpret (or whether to interpret) from there. Moving from the believing game into comparing all the various viewpoints with each other constitutes moving into a doubting phase. Not all of the perspectives will agree, so ultimately, it is reasonable to “throw away” or doubt some of the inferences made while looking through a particular lens.  It is also reasonable to just leave it at that--let the multitude of observations sit. 

Despite the assertion that art should be seen from many points of view in one person, it is also there for enjoyment. Playing a believing game with art is not always necessary in order to have a good experience with a piece, but is a tool for finding more meaning in art. 

Elbow, Peter. The Believing Game--Methodological Believing. University of Massachusetts - Amherst, n.d. Web. <>.