The Art of Art Viewing

by Aaron Schwartz

The relationship between art and its viewer is a personal experience. As a result, most people have different reactions when viewing a piece of art. However, art scholars such as Celeste Brusati and Harry Berger created methods for viewing and analyzing art. Both methods attempt to allow viewers to more closely connect with what the artist originally intended. Both scholars would probably agree that there is significance to the art that many are missing. These scholars differ in their theories of how to best examine the lost meaning behind the art.

One theory of how to experience art, introduced by Celeste Brusati in her essay Perspectives in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time puts emphasis on the forced perspectives within Dutch artwork. She argues that these perspectives allow viewers to see a painting in a more realistic sense, as the viewer is guided into viewing a painting from multiple angles. For instance, when discussing Samuel Van Hoogstraten’s three-dimensional “perspective boxes”, she notes how Hoogstraten can “utilize a pictorial tactic common in Dutch genre painting that activates the eye and reflects its picturing activity” (Brusati, 914). Brusati comments that the artwork forces to the viewer to look down halls, through windows, in different places from different angles. In addition, Brusati compares the perspectives in Van Hoogstraten’s painting to those formed by lenses in photography. He writes that Hoogstraten’s multi-dimensional painting reveals perspectives similar “to lenses and other optical devices that extend the eye’s reach beyond its embodied limits” (Brusati, 915). Brusati analyzes 19th century Dutch art and concludes that modern viewers overlook subtle details of perspective in old Dutch artwork. She argues that how we look at artwork has changed drastically over time. A viewer from the 19th century would take long periods of time analyzing the structure of the painting in a way that a modern viewer does not have the patience for. Brusati argues that if a viewer were to spend more time analyzing the perspectives in 19th century Dutch artwork, they could gain an understanding of the artwork that modern viewer might overlook. Brusati contends that the viewer can gain the best understanding of the art by letting themselves be drawn into the perspectives created by the artist. In addition, Brusati argues for distancing oneself in a search for symbolism in a painting. Brusati’s technique could be useful when the artist has created a distinct point of view, one that allows the viewer to step inside and experience visually what the artist is attempting to portray.

A different theory, constructed by Harry Berger in his essay Supposing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch attempts to analyze the importance of the artwork (specifically The Night Watch by Rembrandt) through tracing historical context in the picture. Whereas Brusati’s theory puts method before meaning, Berger’s theory encourages the opposite. Berger emphasizes examining succinct details within a piece of art and considering them within a historical context in a search for meaning and significance. Berger writes in the first person, resonating with the thought process of an actual museum visitor. His writing attempts to show his readers his thought process when he looks at art. For instance, when commenting on the significance of two soldiers within Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, Berger writes that they continue, leaving the foreground of the painting “as if it hadn’t happened, which may testify to their remarkable discipline, or insensitivity, or something else” (Berger, 179). In this internal dialogue, Berger asks himself questions that he does not have the answer to. By asking these questions, he creates his own narrative within the story that can be close or far off from what the artist originally intended. Berger’s method allows him to analyze the art in any way that his mind sees fit. Towards the end of Berger’s essay, he acknowledges that many of his interpretation could be far off from the original point of the art, however he argues that by making these connections, he may have a chance of coming close, writing “I dance round in a ring and suppose. But the secret sits in the middle and knows” (Berger. 195). Reading his essay, it seems to me that he’s enjoying his analysis of art and the stories he’s creating, regardless of whether they’re close to the truth.

Both Brusati’s and Berger’s theories require active viewing. In Brusati’s theory, looking is required albeit in different ways. The roaming eye is necessary to experience different aspects of the picture visually, with little forethought.  However, Berger’s theory necessitates active participation, where the viewer looks beyond the painting for symbolism in every way possible. In Berger’s method, every new component of the picture that the viewer finds is another opportunity to find hidden meaning, so long as the viewer is willing to consider its significance or historical context. While both Berger’s and Brusati’s methods can be utilized for certain art, both theories have their shortfalls. Brusati places method over meaning, where the viewer visualizes through angles and perspectives. The result is that there is less emphasis put on the meaning in the art, with more concentration given to the complexities of visual detail. On the other hand, Berger’s method excels in its attempt to decipher the symbolism in artwork through a stream of historical cross referencing, but has little focus on the perspectives and visualizations that the artist chose. Both methods cannot be applied universally. For instance, a viewer can have trouble analyzing the meaning of an abstract or modern style artwork. Similarly, analyzing the perspective of paintings that hold intentionally abstract dimensions would be difficult. Another issue with Berger’s method is that it can result in the viewer finding significance that the artist never intended. Through hyper analysis undertaken through Berger’s historical significance method, each viewer can interpret a painting differently. The result of these examples shows that neither of these methods can be applied universally across fields of art, but rather on a case by case basis or within a certain sub genre of art. If an art viewer were to solely focus on the perspectives in a piece of art, they could be missing out on an important historical significance within the picture. Similarly, if a viewer were only looking at the picture at different viewpoints, they might be missing an underlying meaning. As a result, one way to consider that no historical or perspective clues in a piece of art are lost to a viewer is simply ensure that they consider both aspects. Furthermore, both methods overlook many crucial aspects of artwork, such as the emotions that it can create within the viewer or its thematic resonance. One of the most important aspects of art is how it causes the viewer to feel. Neither of these methods touch on this aspect, and I believe this to be at their loss.

In conclusion, any method of looking at art is highly subjective to both the piece of art as well as the person viewing it. The methods created by Berger and Brusati only approach some of the many aspects one should consider when looking at art. As a result, to best appreciate as many aspects of the art as possible, a viewer of art should consider aspects from the techniques developed by Berger as well as those from Brusati. To grasp concepts that neither scholar discussed, an art viewer should also consider theories from many others. Only this way can the viewer leave the piece of art with the most coherent and holistic of art analyses. [1248]


  1. Brusati, “Perspectives In Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures In Real Time”. Art History, vol 35, no. 5, 2012, pp. 908-933.
  2. Berger, Harry. “Supposing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch”. Virginia Quarterly Review, vol 83, no. 1, 2007, pp. 178-195.
  3. “Samuel Van Hoogstraten | A Peepshow With Views Of The Interior Of A Dutch House | NG3832 | National Gallery, London”. N. p., 2017. Web. 27 May 2017.
  4. “The Night Watch – Rembrandthuis”. N. p., 2017. Web. 27 May 2017.
  5. Cover image: “Rembrandt (And Others) At The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam”.

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