Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art by Ossian Ward

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Reviewed by Chris Vitiello, Communications Strategist, NCSU Libraries


First, forget everything. That’s what British art critic Ossian Ward suggests to the casual artgoer intimidated by contemporary art. Ward’s profusely illustrated art field guide Ways of Looking cops the idea of the tabula rasa as a basis for having fruitful art experiences with work that otherwise might make you feel stupid or uncomfortable. He offers his TABULA process—an acronym for Time, Association, Background, Understated, Look Again, and Assessment—as an aid to access challenging contemporary work. And he gives general categories that artworks can be put into—art as entertainment, confrontation, joke, etc.—which help a viewer recognize different flavors of the takeaway. But the real value of the book is in seeing that a professional critic goes through the same paces that a casual artgoer does—What am I looking at here? What characteristics does this artwork have? How is the artist intending it to relate to me, and how do I relate to it? Ward offers lots of examples of these encounters, and unpacks his experience in straightforward language with great background knowledge and a wry sense of humor.