Ben Street: How to Enjoy Art

Ben Street

‘Every painting has the potential to have a different meaning depending upon who’s looking at it. And that is the joy of looking at art.’ — Ben Street​
Art historian Ben Street takes us on a tour of The National Gallery, London, looking at masterworks in the collection by Carlo Crivelli, Hans Memling and Édouard Manet. Rather than using specialist insight to read and decipher the works, Street focuses on a physical encounter with the paintings — arguing that anyone can find value and enjoyment in art without needing to know an abundance of extra historical information.
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We’re in the National Gallery looking at paintings and thinking about the ways that we can engage with works of art as people without needing to know lots of extra historical information. This is something that anyone can do. You just need to be a person and you use the aspects of being a person to understand the art that you see.

Paintings speak in many ways. Paintings speak in scale, they speak in colour, they speak in technique, they speak in placement. I want to think, to begin with, of how paintings speak in scale so we immediately can engage with the work of art when we think about how big it is in relation to us.

I’ve chosen this painting because when you come into this room, it’s one of the paintings that really stands out because of its scale. We don’t always talk about scale when we talk about works of art, we tend to leap into what a work of art is about, who work of art is by, the period it was painted in. And what I’m saying really is that all of that information is useful, but it might take us away from the present tense experience of actually standing in front of the object that shares the space of us the viewer.

Now, given that this painting is much larger than me, it immediately tells me something about the tone of voice of the picture. Now that’s a weird thing to say about a work of art in some ways, especially a work of art that literally doesn’t make any noise. But every work of art has a tone of voice and establishing what that is, is a really helpful way of coming to engage with works of art you don’t know.

If a work of art is quite big, it means that it’s a bit like a speech. It can be understood by a large number of people at once. Now, because of that, the decisions that the artist makes within the picture are going to be about thinking about something that’s got a sense of clarity about it. You can see who the characters are. You can tell what the story is. And one of the things the artist does is he uses, which is very traditional for when this painting was made, he used a lot of gold which is overwhelmingly beautiful and jewel-like. And that is part of the way it’s speaking.

Now, many of the paintings in this museum were made long before museums existed. Sometimes we can fool ourselves into believing that museum is a natural home for an old work of art, just like we can fool ourselves into believing that a zoo is a good place to keep a polar bear. The thing is, is these paintings were made to be shown in a specific building, which was nothing like this building. How is it nothing like it? The lighting is completely different. The atmosphere of the place is completely different. What people do in this building is completely different.

So, when we think about works of art like this, it’s really important to remember that all of them are fragments of a bigger creative idea. The big creative idea is about making a work of art for one part of one building forever, forever. So, when we take them out of context, we have to think about them in a different way.

What we have is a modern museum environment. And so, to engage with these works of art, rather than imagining that we’re in a church and it’s 500 years ago, we are allowed – we have to, in fact – bring our modern sensibility and our modern experiences into play. So, if I say in front of this painting, ‘It’s the size of a patio door,’ – that actually isn’t a crazy thing to say, because I’m experiencing it in the present tense. And sometimes that might feel like a transgressive thing to do. If we look at a work of art like these famous paintings in the National Gallery, we can feel that’s a bit wrong to compare them to commercial objects or to pop culture. But in fact, not only can we do that, we should do that because that’s the way that these works stay alive. So, many people will come to this painting and they’ll have no religious involvement with the Christian iconography of the picture, but the effects can still be there. They can still be wowed by the gold, by the scale and by the detail or by the grandeur of it. And that’s not a misreading. That is the work of art staying alive.

What we often see in works of art is moments where the eyes of the character in the painting look out. Now, what that does is it builds a bridge between the world of the picture and your world. Somebody looks at you. It’s a way of getting your attention, isn’t it? A way of saying, ‘Hey, hey, hey, look, look, look!’. You see things like little feet poking out, across the picture: that’s another moment the painting knows it’s made to be looked at. A work of art isn’t finished until it gets looked at. If it’s not being looked at, it’s just a thing. So, when this room is closed overnight, when the lights are off and no one’s here – there’s still valuable pictures, but they don’t come to life until they get looked at.

The experience of looking at a painting that’s small is very different to the experience of a painting like the one we just saw by Carlo Crivelli, because a small painting immediately tells us how to physically engage with that. It tells us, quite simply, that we have to move closer. Before we even know anything about what the painting is of, the way we behave already sets the terms of our engagement. So, if I’m in front of a large painting and I’m stepping back to take it in, that’s part of my interpretation of it. There are lots of aspects of the way we experience art that can’t be written down: emotional experiences, spiritual experiences, physical experiences of space that there’s no terminology for in art history. But those parts of the experience are really important. When we see a work of art in a book or on a screen, we see a photograph of it taken face on from a particular point of view. And we might assume that’s what the painting is. But it isn’t what the painting is. It’s what the photograph of the painting is. The painting is something we experience as a physical object that we can move forward and back from. Sometimes that means that light shines on the surface, but that’s good because it reminds us that painting is not an image, it’s an object.

So, what can a small painting do that a large painting can’t do? A small painting can take advantage of the fact that only one or two people can see it at once. So, its tone of voice is, it’s the whispered, intimate voice of closeness. When we get close to it, what sometimes happens almost involuntarily is that we start speaking a bit more quietly.

What’s in the painting is this quiet scene, a figure is in prayer. In other words, it’s a picture of somebody in contemplation. It’s a picture of quietness. So, that’s immediately a point of communication between what we’re doing and what the painting is doing. But there’s more because when we get close, we notice the detail of the painting. We notice that the artist must have used a tiny, tiny brush, must have painted it flat on a tabletop. The way you would write a letter. And that also is interesting, isn’t it? The way it’s made is also quiet and slow. All of that is building up an idea of the tone of voice or the atmosphere of the painting.

There are three characters involved. There’s you, there’s the guy in the painting, and there’s the artist. And everyone is doing something similar. Everyone is close, quiet, still and calm. So, that is a kind of beautiful moment of conversation between you, a real person, between him, a kind of fictional person, and between the artist: a real dead person from a long, long time ago.

When we walk around a museum, there are so many things to see that it can be completely overwhelming and an exhausting experience. One way of navigating the experience is to find the painting in the room that is the strangest object in the room. Now, I think the weirdest work of art in this room is the one that’s behind me. It’s unlike the other paintings in the room. But you can turn it to your advantage.

If there’s something you are captivated by, but you don’t know why, use another artwork to help understand it. So, this strange painting is surrounded by much smaller paintings, some of which seem to be in the way that they’ve been set up interacting with it. There is a wonderful painting of a waitress with pints of beer who seems to be looking over at this painting. It’s all set up by the curators to create relationships between works of art. A really helpful thing to do is say, ‘Well, look, it’s a very strange painting, and everything else in the room seem to be roughly the same size, seem to be quite similar subject matter. So, this is an outlier painting in the room. But another thing that I think is so exciting about this particular painting is it reminds us that artworks are physical objects. When an artwork is damaged, as this one is – this is in pieces and has been re-stuck onto another canvas – it reminds us that every painting is like this. Every painting in this room is very delicate. This particular painting has a long story, about how it was cut up and how it was reassembled. And that’s a really interesting thing to look into. But I want to focus on the present tense experience of it. What’s it like to look at a picture which is in pieces?

The fact that it’s in pieces seems somehow to rhyme with what it’s of. There seems to somehow be a relationship between the size and the condition of the painting, and the subject matter. Well, what is the subject matter? We seem to be looking at a firing squad. Most of the surface of the picture we can see is people with their backs to us firing guns at someone we can’t see. It’s a scene of an execution on a very large scale. So, it’s a very dark subject matter. Now, if you’ve ever done any theatre, you know that the one thing you don’t do when you’re on stage is turn your backs to the audience. If you turn you back to the audience they can’t hear you, they can’t engage with the story. What if you deliberately did that, though? All the things I’ve been talking about building a bridge. What if you break the bridge? The effect is disorientating. It’s very strange to encounter a big group of people in a painting who are all totally anonymous. It creates a certain atmosphere.

It’s an execution. It’s about somebody being taken apart physically. The action of the guns in the painting makes it look like the guns are literally tearing the painting apart. Now you might say, ‘Well, wait, hold on, hold on, that wasn’t the artist’s intention.’ Well, look, the artist’s intention is all well and good but the truth is the artworks live in time. They’re not stuck in amber when the painting is made. We’re interested in what the artist wanted to do, but we also have to deal with the fact that we’re facing a painting in pieces. We have to deal with what we’re given. We have to remember all the pictures we see are out of context, and that is useful because we can bring our own experience to enhance the encounter with the works of art.

We see a large painting; we might make an assumption that its size indicates the importance of what it’s actually of. So, this is a large-scale painting of an execution. We can make certain assumptions that it’s a historically important event. That’s absolutely true. We also have to be a bit careful because there are certainly artists who know that, who know we come to the encounter like that and overturn the expectations we bring to it. We have to just be aware that we have those expectations. Then we have to weigh that against the strangeness of the painting. We have to weigh that against the fact we have these backs to us. If it’s so important, why are we shut out from it? All those things just allow us to open up more questions, and the whole thing with an encounter with any work of art is you shouldn’t leave it thinking you’ve solved it. It’s not a crossword puzzle. You don’t crack it. You leave a painting often thinking, ‘I’ve got more questions now than I had when I started.’ But that’s good. It makes you want to go back and see it again.

The truth is you never exhaust a work of art. You keep going back to it and you keep seeing more and more things in it. Why is that? Not because the painting changes, but because you change. I became a parent. Consequently, I notice paintings with babies much more than I used to, and I feel differently about them. The way that we use our own experiences allows works of art to stay alive because our experiences change. But because it’s your experience, it means that every painting has the potential to have a different meaning depending upon who’s looking at it. And that is the joy of looking at art.

With thanks to

The National Gallery, London

Yale University Press




The Demidoff Altarpiece

Carlo Crivelli, 1476

The National Gallery, London



A Young Man at Prayer

Hans Memling, mid 1470s

The National Gallery, London



The Execution of Maximilian

Edouard Manet, about 1867-8

The National Gallery, London





Music Vine


In Eternity

Andrewkn, 2020

(CC BY-NC 3.0)

The Demidoff Altarpiece, Carlo Crivelli, 1476, The National Gallery, London

A Young Man at Prayer, Hans Memling, mid 1470s, The National Gallery, London

The Execution of Maximilian, Edouard Manet, about 1867-8, The National Gallery, London

Ben Street, official website

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